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Frederick Douglass: Activist and Autobiographer

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the 2013-2015 Library of Congress Teacher in Residence.

Head-and-shoulders portrait of Frederick Douglass
Head-and-shoulders portrait of Frederick Douglass, ca.1870

Last November, we published a post addressing the controversies associated with Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A recent comment pointed out that Huck’s views on slavery are those of the dominant society of the time. Because the post featured a letter from Frederick Douglass as a supplement to the novel, the commenter wondered “why not present the experiences and views of the oppressed rather than the oppressor?” That struck me as an intriguing question, so here are a few places to start exploring those views and experiences with your students.

Consider beginning with the work of Frederick Douglass, activist, orator, journalist, and author whose papers are in the collections of the Library of Congress. The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, is a first-hand account of the life of an enslaved man and his escape to freedom. While Douglass wrote the story of his life to record his experiences, he also worked to bring attention to issues related to slavery and civil rights for free African Americans. To raise awareness about the dehumanizing effects of enslavement, he published the letter, “To My Old Master” in his newspaper The North Star.

Thirty years a slave. From bondage to freedom. 1897.
Thirty years a slave. From bondage to freedom. 1897.

Teaching Ideas

Supplement study of Douglass’s work by listening to oral history interviews from Voices Remembering Slavery: Freed People Tell Their Stories. (Written transcriptions are also available.) This collection offers the stories of twenty-six men and women sharing their recollections in their own voices. The memories of Fountain Hughes about his enslavement and emancipation are particularly rich. Laura Smalley’s narrative offers striking detail about her experiences as an enslaved female. Select questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Oral Histories to help students dive into these rich resources. Additional strategies for using this type of primary source can be found in the post: The Civil Rights History Project: Primary Sources and Oral History. Pair these narratives with Douglass’s story to explore the complicated story of slavery in the United States.

Offer additional reading in the form of this narrative by Louis Hughes, a man who did not gain the fame of Frederick Douglass, but who also preserved his story for posterity.

Ask students to compare the accounts:

  • In what ways do Douglass’s and Hughes’s experiences differ?
  • Why did Douglass and Hughes choose to preserve their memories publicly?

How do you activate student thinking and conversations about the complicated story of slavery in the United States?


  1. This is an excellent idea and took me to a portion of history in the LOC that I had not visited. Thanks for the ideas.

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