Frederick Douglass' Story
As discussed in chapter one, Douglass was born in Talbot County, Maryland to his enslaved mother, Harriet Bailey, and an unknown father who was a white man. Later on in the narrative, in chapter 11, he disclosed the fact that his name was not always Frederick Douglass. His mother originally named him “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.” It was not until he escaped from slavery that he took the last name “Douglass.” He did not know the exact date of his birth, because slaves were not privy to that information. According to his best guess, he was about 27 or 28 years old when he wrote his narrative. He only saw his mother four or five times in his life, and she died when he was approximately seven years old. He said that he was not allowed to go to her burial, and her death felt almost like the death of a stranger to him, because he never got to know her.
One of Frederick's earliest memories was that of witnessing his Aunt Hester get whipped for going out at night to be with the one man she had been forbidden to see. In chapter two Douglass describes how he vividly remembered the songs of his childhood, which were the songs that slaves would sing. He stated that most people were mistaken when thinking that the slaves sang because they were happy; according to Douglass, slaves sang because they were in pain and that was their way of coping.
During chapter four Douglass recalled situations where slaves were killed for small mistakes, which had a profound impact. One of the overseers, Mr. Gore, shot a slave in the head for not coming when he was called. One mistress killed a female slave who failed to care for the mistress' baby fast enough. Another slave was shot for fishing for Oysters on someone else's property by mistake. Killing a slave was not a crime in Talbot County, Maryland. No one questioned it.
As a child he wasn't old enough to work the fields, so his main chores were to bring the cows in at night, keep the fowls out of the master's precious garden, clean the front yard, and run errands for the master's daughter. Douglass recalled not being whipped that much, but he was always hungry and cold. Throughout the year he wore a long shirt that came down to his knees. He ate what was called “mush,” which was boiled corn meal served in a large trough where the children would “devour” it like how pigs ate. Then around the age of seven or eight he was moved to Mr. Hugh Auld's place in Baltimore.
Douglass' experience at his new home with Mr. and Mrs. Hugh Auld was pleasant at first, which is discussed in chapter six. Sophia was kind and smiling. She tried to teach him how to read, but when the master learned of it he forbade her from going any further. This only made Douglass want to read even more. Chapter seven recounted how Douglass eventually learned to read. He spent seven years with the family, and he learned by talking to little white boys. He would trade them bread for knowledge. Then, at age 12, he started to feel rather upset at the prospect of being a slave his entire life. The more he read and learned, the more upset he became. It got to the point that he saw his masters as evil, and he even started to question if learning to read was more of a curse than a blessing. He eventually vowed to learn how to write and then make his plan to escape.
Five years after moving to Baltimore his master died, and he was relieved to be sent with the master's daughter, Lucretia, who ended up sending him back to Baltimore to be with Master Hugh again. A short time later Lucretia passed away, and Douglass was sent to live with Master Thomas Auld, the son of his old master, in St. Michael's. By chapter nine Douglass stated that he was sent to live with Master Auld in March of 1832. This was a rough for him, because he was not given enough to eat, and the slaves had to resort to begging and stealing from their neighbors to avoid starvation. The master was also rather cruel and took pleasure in punishing the slaves. Eventually Master Auld sent Douglass away after he was suspected of letting the master's horse loose so he would have to go retrieve him from another farm where he got fed. He was sent to live with Mr. Covey, who was a man best known for his ability to “break” a slave or get him to comply.
Chapter ten discussed Douglass' time at Mr. Covey's, which sounded like a most brutal time of his life. He arrived there January 1st, 1833 and worked the field for the first time in his life. For the first six months he remembered being whipped nearly every week. One day in August he had finally endured all he could take. He was fanning wheat when he became ill and fell down unable to work. Covey and the overseer whipped him until he was covered head to toe in blood. So Douglass decided to walk the seven mile trip to his old master who had sent him to Mr. Covey and plead that he be moved somewhere else. Master Thomas turned him away and ordered him to go back to Mr. Covey's. When he returned he got into a physical altercation with Mr. Covey that ended up being a major turning point in his life. From that point on Mr. Covey no longer whipped him out of anger, and eventually his service to Mr. Covey came to an end on Christmas Day 1833.
On January 1st, 1834 Frederick Douglass was sent to live with Mr. Freeland. By 1835 Douglass was jailed for planning to escape and helping other slaves to escape with him. This resulted in his being sent back to Master Hugh who in turn sent him to Mr. Gardener who was a ship builder. Douglass' job in the ship yard was to do whatever the white men told him to do, and it only lasted eight months before Douglass got into a fight with a white man and got beaten by a group of white workers.
So Master Hugh kept Douglass and put him to work in the ship yard he worked in, and Douglass learned the trade. Eventually he was able to find his own employment, make his own contracts, and earn his own money. He still gave every cent to Master Hugh, though. In chapter 11 Douglass expressed his unhappiness with handing over his hard-earned money to the master. So from May to August Douglass was allowed to work for himself. He could manage his own time and employment, and he only had to bring the master three dollars a week. This privilege was revoked in August when Douglass returned to pay the master one day late.
At this point Frederick Douglass finally set out to runaway, and on September 3rd, 1838 he made it to New York without a hitch. It was there that he met Mr. Riggles who was sympathetic to the anti-slavery cause and gave Douglass a place to stay. He sent for Anna, his future wife and a free woman, and they married on September 15th, 1838. They were directed to move to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Upon arrival they stayed with Mr. and Mrs. Johnson – a pair of abolitionists. For the next three years after moving there Douglass did whatever work he could find whether it be sawing wood, carrying wood, shoveling coal, or sweeping chimneys. He was proud to work and make his own money. It was here that he was turned onto the newspaper The Liberator, and it inspired him to take up the anti-slavery cause. He attended meetings and conventions. The first time he spoke was on August 11th, 1841 in Nantucket. He was nervous to speak to the white people, but after a few minutes he was able to relax and say what he wanted. He was engaged with the abolitionist movement from that time forward, and that is how he ended his personal narrative.
Frederick Douglass was born into the world of slavery in the early 19th century. In his narrative about his life he recounted the painful experiences he lived through. He barely knew his mother and lost her around the age of seven. He was moved from plantation to plantation like a piece of cattle. He was beaten, starved, and otherwise treated poorly by almost every master he lived under. He witnessed unspeakable acts of torture and death throughout his life as a slave. However, one thing kept him going, and that was his strength and tenacity. He never gave up his dream to read and write, and he never laid down and accepted enslavement as a part of his life forever. He acted with courage when he ran away to New York and eventually New Bedford, and he used his freedom to fight for the millions of slaves that remained in chains.