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Frederick Douglass: Free Folklorist

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This blog post about the abolitionist Frederick Douglass is part of a series called “Hidden Folklorists,” which examines the folklore work of surprising people, including people better known for other pursuits. This is part one of a two-part article, part two, “Frederick Douglass: ‘I Am a Man,’” can be found at the link.

Portrait of an African American man.
Head-and-shoulders portrait of Frederick Douglass (detail). Photo by J.W. Hurn, 1862. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.  //

I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.
— Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, chapter 2. 1845, digitized by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the property of Aaron Anthony who managed lands of Edward Lloyd V, at the time a former Governor of Maryland. His free name was Frederick Douglass. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he says that he does not know the day of his birth, but estimates that he was born in 1818. He chose Valentine’s Day as his birthday. Information at the Maryland State Archives supports his guess. A ledger owned by Anthony lists his slaves  and notes the birth of Frederick Augustus to a slave, Harriet, in February 1818. So this February we celebrate the 200th anniversary of the birth of a remarkable American, who did all he could to enlighten his country and advocate for the rights of all human beings within its borders.

I grew up in Maryland as Douglass did and I know my abolitionist great-grandmother heard him speak at least once, as she wrote about it in a letter to my great-grandfather. So for me he is not only a national hero, but a personal one. I have walked in places where he walked and recognize places he wrote about in his autobiographies.

Douglass grew up being told that his father was a white man and it was whispered that he was the son of his master. He was taken away from his mother as an infant so that she could go back to work  in the fields as quickly as possible. She was also sent away to work on a different property while he was young, so he saw very little of her. This breaking apart of infants from their mothers was not uncommon during slavery. Douglass grew up cared for by his grandmother, Betsy, during his early years. But he remembers that slept on the ground, he had nothing to wear but a coarse linen shift, and was fed on a poor diet with other children:

Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called, like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster-shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most; he that was strongest secured the best place; and few left the trough satisfied.  — Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, chapter 5.

He recalls hiding in a closet as a small child, terrified, while his master horribly whipped his Aunt Hester. He calls this event “the blood stained gate, the entrance to the hell of slavery through which I was about to pass” (chapter 1). He also gives a detailed description of an incident where a slave he knew as Demby was shot and killed by an overseer (chapter 4). These incidents, which must have been profoundly traumatic for him, he recounts so that his reader will understand that in the world of the plantation, no law restrains the treatment of slaves and that terror is part of what kept slaves in bondage.

Douglass wrote of the culture of the slaves and the culture of slave ownership much as an ethnographer would. He gives remarkable detail of the life he had before he escaped to freedom. Whippings were ritual and witnessing them was initiation for the very young. Even a brief holiday at Christmas was an exercise in bondage, as he describes the drinking contests forced on slaves as part of the entertainment for slave owners. “The holidays are part and parcel of the gross fraud, wrong, and inhumanity of slavery,” he wrote (chapter 10). What he told his readers was a shock to them, a reality of slavery that few in the north fully realized.

A hand written list of names and dates with the heading "Negros aged as follows."
A page of a ledger owned by Aaron Anthony lists his slaves, including Frederick Augustus, son of Harriet (Bailey), born in February 1818. This is the earliest record of the birth of Frederick Douglass. The list also includes his maternal grandmother and some of his siblings. Mary A. Dodge Collection, Maryland State Archives.

Douglass was about 7 he was sent by Anthony to work for the Auld family in Baltimore. He was given to Anthony’s daughter and Thomas Auld’s wife, Lucretia Auld, who was given charge of him. She began to teach Douglass the alphabet. The lessons were abruptly stopped by Mr. Auld who said, as Douglass listened, that once a slave was taught to read he could not be kept. ” From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom,” Douglass recalled.  So he set out on his own to learn to read, getting help as he could from white boys. As he secretly read, he was inspired to teach other slaves how to read — an extraordinarily dangerous activity. He remembered being caught reading the newspaper by Lucretia Auld more than once. Her rage at this was a lesson for him in how slave-owning could turn a kind person into an unkind one.

Anthony died in 1826 and Douglass was sent back as part of the Anthony estate to be assessed. He was deemed part of the inheritance that went to Lucretia Auld, and so returned to Baltimore. When Lucretia died he was assessed again as part of an estate and then became the property of Lucretia’s husband, Thomas Auld, who sent him to work as a field hand when Douglass was about 15. He was unhappy working in the fields and met with the wrath of a slave-breaker, as he called him, determined to beat him into obedience.

Douglass planned an escape with other slaves, was stopped, and dragged back to Auld. He was set to work at the docks in Baltimore where he began learning a trade and planning a better escape. He met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free African American living in Baltimore. She provided him with money for his escape. He obtained papers showing that he was free and a sailor’s uniform from a Black sailor. In September 1838, Douglass boarded a train and made his way to freedom in New York city within one day. Anna Murray traveled to New York and they were married. Douglass was 20.

An African American man with a bundle of belongings and a stick, runs barefoot, while looking behind him.
Sheet music cover for “The Fugitive’s Song,” with a depiction of Frederick Douglass escaping slavery wearing sailor’s clothing. Text at the bottom reads “Composed and respectfully dedicated, in token of confident esteem to Frederick Douglass. A graduate from the peculiar institution. For his fearless advocacy, signal ability and wonderful success in behalf of his brothers in bonds. (and to the fugitives from slavery in the) free states & Canadas by their friend Jesse Hutchinson Junr.” Published by Henry Prentiss, 1845. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. //

I think about these early years of Douglass, what little we know about them, and I imagine a young man hungry for knowledge about the world and about himself.  To know that he had a white father who lived in a world cut off from him, to have his mother taken from him, to live among slaves while imagining freedom, to be twice assessed as property in an estate while still a child, and to meet with the most brutal aspects of life in slavery, must all have been important forces shaping the man we know he became. I know that many of the things he experienced were also described by other slaves, as survivors of slavery were interviewed for the Slave Narrative Project for the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s, and some former slaves were recorded by ethnographers at about the same time (see Voices from the Days of Slavery). But Douglass’s account is unique in the detail he provides, in his understanding of the point of view of the slave-holders, and his description of slavery as a dehumanizing system for profit. He realized that his own life experience was a moment in the history of the United States that needed to be told. It makes me wonder at what point these keen observation skills were switched on so that he began thinking about how society around him worked. He cared about how slavery affected others, not just himself, and most surprisingly, cared how it affected slave owners. These skills are those of an ethnographer, and he arrived at the ability for keen observation, as he arrived at reading, largely untaught.

Douglass worked for a time on the docks as he had in Baltimore. He became a licensed preacher in 1839, a decision that would greatly influence his public speaking career.  His first speech to an abolitionist group was in 1840. It was abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison who heard about this eloquent former slave in 1841 and encouraged him to speak at more anti-slavery events. Garrison was so impressed that he urged Douglass to write down his experiences as a slave.

With some trepidation, Douglass began his first autobiography. It seems unlikely that he knew much of his audience as he began writing. Most Americans were surrounded by propaganda and popular media that painted an idyllic picture of plantation life, with kind masters and slaves contented with their life like children who needed guidance from kind parents to live their lives. The emerging popular performances that became the minstrel shows featured black-faced performers who depicted slaves as ignorant and foolish and free African Americans as buffoonish dandies. The belief that people with dark skins were inferior to those with light skins was a necessary part of the social lie that perpetuated slavery. To understand otherwise would make slavery too terrible to contemplate. Even abolitionists, who understood that slavery was evil, often failed to understand the daily terror that was the true condition of slavery.

While he worked at writing down his story, Douglass spoke at abolitionist events, becoming a popular speaker. As he learned about the abolitionist movement and experienced prejudice among northerners, he developed more material to speak directly to his audience about their own false cultural ideas about slaves and African Americans. He also developed humorous ways of addressing his audience. He used his own experience and texts of sermons designed for slaves, and performed an impersonation of the kind of sermons slaves were likely to hear. Wolfgang Mieder, in his work on the proverbs Douglass used, noted that he often demonstrated the twisted ways that slave holders used biblical passages about obedience to God as, instead, obedience to a master (“No Struggle, No Progress”: Frederick Douglass and His Proverbial Rhetoric for Civil Rights, 2001). This was the core of the sermon satire Douglass performed, punctuated with the repeated line “Obey your masters.” It also included the idea of predestination, that strong African people needed to do the work for frail white Europeans who otherwise would not be able to cope, so it must be God’s will. Audiences of the time knew their Bible and recognized the false use of biblical passages and the false arguments for justifying slavery. (See Granville Ganter, “He Made Us Laugh Some: Frederick Douglass’s Humor,” African American Review, Vol. 7, #4,  pp. 535-552, 2003.)

Few free people of color dared speak out about the realities of slavery and none had a voice like Frederick Douglass. His book, published in 1845, was a sensation. It was somewhat controversial in that some readers doubted that a slave could have written so eloquently. This suspicion was undermined any time Douglass stood up to speak. Douglass cultivated a speaking persona that shattered all cultural stereotypes of the ignorant slave and the dandyish freedman.

Success put Douglass’s continued freedom in danger. Even though he changed his last name from Bailey to Douglass, there were enough details in the book to identify him. He was still a runaway slave and could be captured for a bounty at any time.  So he fled to Great Britain and began a 20 month speaking tour of England, Scotland and Ireland. English abolitionists not only welcomed him as a speaker at their events, they collected money to buy Douglass’s freedom.

This is part one of a two-part article, part two, “Frederick Douglass: ‘I Am a Man,’” can be found at the link.


The Frederick Douglass Papers at the Library of Congress


  1. charles bean believes singing is, or started out anyway, as “controlled crying.”

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