Frederick Douglass was an American hero. You might even say, superhero. That’s because he was born into slavery, and by the time he died 77 years later, he had been an author, a newspaper publisher, a freedom fighter, and a top federal government official.
His words inspired 20th Century civil rights leader Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and he is honored with a statue in the U.S. Capitol.
Young Frederick had a rough early life: Born in Maryland in 1818, he grew up on a different plantation from his mother, and he didn’t even know his father. Because he was black and a slave, he was not allowed to go to school. But that didn’t stop him from teaching himself to read and write. He knew this would be the key to freedom.
When he was in his mid-teens, Frederick began sharing his education with other slaves, by teaching them how to read the Bible. During this time, his master whipped him repeatedly, in an attempt to break his spirit. But this failed — as did his first attempt to escape.
Just a few years later, at age 20, he tried again. This time, by disguising himself as a sailor, and hopping a train to New York. His successful escape was made possible with the help of his future wide, Anna Murray — a free black woman.
Frederick and Anna moved to Massachusetts — where they felt safer — took the last name “Douglass,” and eventually had five children. First he got a job as a laborer, then as a speaker for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.
His list of achievements during this period gets only more impressive. He wrote two autobiographies, bought a printing press, started his own newspaper, gave speeches in England, Ireland, and Scotland, gained his freedom, helped with women’s rights and the Underground Railroad — which was a series of secret passageways for escaping slaves — and he got into politics.
It’s important to note that all of this was still prior to the Civil War. Once war broken out between the North and the South in 1961, Douglass really stepped up his efforts to get slavery abolished.
He recruited African-American soldiers to the U.S. Army, and even went to the White House — unannounced — to lobby President Abraham Lincoln so that black soldiers would get the same pay as white soldiers, because they were making only half as much.
After the war ended and the slaves were emancipated, or freed, Douglass did not rest. He continued his work as a professional activist, campaign for African-Americans to be treated as equals. That would include the right to vote.
From there, this self-made man went on to become a power-broker in Washington, D.C. He held political offices, working for five presidents. And he continued to write, including his third autobiography, and give passionate pro-equality speeches.
Douglass broke racial barriers in his personal life, too. Shortly after his first wife passed away, he married a much younger white woman whose father had been an abolitionist. They were together from 1884, until his death from a heart attack in 1895.
According to an official website dedicated to his heritage, Frederick Douglass’s most profound legacy was his ability to use words to fight for the freedom of African-Americans.
He famously said, “To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer, as well as those of the speaker.”
Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have A Dream Speech” was inspired by the words and philosophy of Frederick Douglass.
He is remembered across the country with bridges, streets and statues. Even the U.S. Mint issued a quarter bearing his image, and his Washington, D.C. home is now a National Historic Site.