Frederick Douglass was one of the foremost leaders of the abolitionist movement, which fought to end slavery within the United States in the decades prior to the Civil War. A brilliant speaker, Douglass was asked by the American Anti-Slavery Society to engage in a tour of lectures, and so became recognized as one of America’s first great black speakers. He won world fame when his autobiography was publicized in 1845. Two years later he bagan publishing an antislavery paper called the North Star.
Douglass served as an adviser to President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and fought for the adoption of constitutional amendments that guaranteed voting rights and other civil liberties for blacks. Douglass provided a powerful voice for human rights during this period of American history and is still revered today for his contributions against racial injustice. Frederick Baily was born a slave in February 1818 on Holmes Hill Farm, near the town of Easton on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. The farm was part of an estate owned by Aaron Anthony, who also managed the plantations of Edward Lloyd V, one of the wealthiest men in Maryland.
The main Lloyd Plantation was near the eastern side of Chesapeake Bay, 12 miles from Holmes Hill Farm, in a home Anthony had built near the Lloyd mansion, was where Frederick’s first master lived. Frederick’s mother, Harriet Baily, worked the cornfields surrounding Holmes Hill. He knew little of his father except that the man was white. As a child, he had heard rumors that the master, Aaron Anthony, had sired him. Because Harriet Baily was required to work long hours in the fields, Frederick had been sent to live with his grandmother, Betsey Baily.
Betsy Baily lived in a cabin a short distance from Holmes Hill Farm. Her job was to look after Harriet’s children until they were old enough to work. Frederick’s mother visited him when she could, but he had only a hazy memory of her. He spent his childhood playing in the woods near his grandmother’s cabin. He did not think of himself as a slave during these years. Only gradually did Frederick learn about a person his grandmother would refer to as Old Master and when she spoke of Old Master it was with certain fear. At age 6, Frederick’s grandmother had told him that they were taking a long journey.
They set out westward, with Frederick clinging to his grandmother’s skirt with fear and uncertainty They had approached a large elegant home, the Lloyd Plantation, where several children were playing on the grounds. Betsy Baily had pointed out 3 children which were his brother Perry, and his sisters Sara and Eliza. His grandmother had told him to join his siblings and he did so reluctantly. After a while one of the children yelled out to Frederick that his grandmother was gone. Frederick fell to the ground and wept, he was about to learn the harsh realities of the slave system.
The slave children of Aaron Anthony’s were fed cornmeal mush that was placed in a trough, to which they were called. Frederick later wrote “like so many pigs. ” The children made homemade spoons from oyster shells to eat with and competed with each other for every last bite of food. The only clothing that they were provided with was one linen shirt which hung to their knees. The children were provided no beds or warm blankets. On cold winter nights they would huddle together in the kitchen of the Anthony house to keep each other warm. One night Frederick was awakened by a woman’s screams.
He peered through a crack in the wall of the kitchen only to see Aaron Anthony lashing the bare back of a woman, who was his aunt, Hester Baily. Frederick was terrified, but forced himself to watch the entire ordeal. This would not be the first whipping he would see, occasionally he himself would be the victim. He would learn that Aaron Anthony would brutally beat his slaves if they did not obey orders quickly enough. Frederick’s mother was rarely able to visit her children due to the distance between Holmes Hill Farm and the Lloyd plantation.
Frederick last saw his mother when he was seven years old. He remembered his mother giving a severe scolding to the household cook who disliked Frederick and gave him very little food. A few months after this visit, Harriet Baily died, but Frederick did not learn of this until much later. Because Frederick had a natural charm that many people found engaging, he was chosen to be the companion of Daniel Lloyd, the youngest son of the plantation’s owner. Frederick’s chief friend and protector was Lucretia Auld, Aaron Anthony’s daughter, who was recently married to a ship’s captain named Thomas Auld.
One day in 1826 Lucretia told Frederick that he was being sent to live with her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld, who managed a ship building firm in Baltimore, Maryland. She told him that if he scrubbed himself clean, she would give him a pair of pants to wear to Baltimore. Frederick was elated at this chance to escape the life of a field hand. He cleaned himself up and received his first pair of pants. Within three days he was on his way to Baltimore. Upon Frederick’s arrival at the Auld Home, his only duties were to run errands and care for the Auld’s infant son, Tommy.
Frederick enjoyed the work and grew to love the child. Sophia Auld was a religious woman and frequently read aloud from the Bible. Frederick asked his mistress to teach him to read and she readily consented. He soon learned the alphabet and a few simple words. Sophia Auld was very excited about Fredericks progress and told her husband what she had done. Hugh Auld became furious at this because it was unlawful to teach a slave to read. Hugh Auld believed that if a slave knew how to read and write that it would make him unfit for a slave.
A slave that could read and write would no longer obey his master without question or thought, or even worse could forge papers that said he was free and thus escape to a northern state where slavery was outlawed. Hugh Auld then instructed Sophia to stop the lessons at once! Frederick learned from Hugh Auld’s outburst that if learning how to read and write was his pathway to freedom, then gaining this knowledge was to become his goal. Frederick gained command of the alphabet on his own and made friends with poor white children he met on errands and used them as teachers.
He paid for his reading lessons with pieces of bread. At home Frederick read parts of books and newspapers when he could, but he had to constantly be on guard against his mistress. Sophia Auld screamed whenever she caught Frederick reading. Sophia Auld’s attitude toward Frederick had changed, she no longer regarded him as any other child, but as a piece of property. However, Frederick gradually learned to read and write. With a little money he had earned doing errands, he bought a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of speeches and essays dealing with liberty, democracy, and courage.
Frederick was greatly affected by the speeches on freedom in The Columbian Orator, and so began reading local newspapers and began to learn about abolitionists. Not quite 13 years old but enlightened with new ideas that both tormented and inspired him. Frederick began to detest slavery. His dreams of emancipation were encouraged by the example of other blacks in Baltimore, most of whom were free. But new laws passed by southern state legislators made it increasingly difficult for owners to free their slaves.
During this time, Aaron Anthony died, and his property went to his two sons and his daughter, Lucretia Auld. Frederick remained a part of the Anthony estate and was sent back to the Lloyd plantation to be a part of the division of property. Frederick was chosen by Thomas and Lucretia Auld and was sent back to Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore. Seeing his family being devided up increased his hatred of slavery, however, he was hurt the most that his grandmother, considered too old for any work, was evicted from her cabin and sent into the woods to die.
Within a year of Frederick’s return to Baltimore, Lucretia Auld died. The two Auld brothers then got into a dispute, and Thomas wrote to Hugh and demanded the return of his late wife’s property, which included Frederick. Frederick was sorry to leave Baltimore because he had recently become a teacher to a group of other young blacks. In addition, a black preacher named Charles Lawson had taken Frederick under his wing and adopted him as his spiritual son. In March of 1833, the 15 year old Frederick was sent to live at Thomas Auld’s new farm near the town of Saint Michaels, a few miles from the Lloyd plantation.
Frederick was again put to work as a field hand and was extremely unhappy about his situation. Thomas Auld starved his slaves, and they had to steal food from neighboring farms to survive. Frederick received many beatings and saw worse ones given to others. He then organized a Sunday religious service for the slaves which met in near by Saint Michaels. The services were soon stopped by a mob led by Thomas Auld. Thomas Auld had found Frederick especially difficult to control so he decided to have someone tame his unruly slave.
In January 1834, Frederick was sent to work for Edward Covey, a poor farmer who had gained a reputation around Saint Michaels for being and expert “slave breaker”. Frederick was not too displeased with this arrangement because Covey fed his slaves better than Auld did. The slaves on Covey’s farm worked from dawn until after nightfall, plowing, hoeing, and picking corn. Although the men were given plenty of food, they had very little time allotted to eat before they were sent back to work. Covey hid in bushes and spied on the slaves as they worked, if he caught one of them resting he would beat him with thick branches.