A Brief History on Frederick Douglass and What His Legacy Means to Me
Frederick Douglass was born an American slave in 1818. He was forcibly separated from his mother, a common practice in American society to dehumanize people of color. His father was most likely his mother’s slave owner. The master-slave relationship was not one of love but of “property”.
Douglass educated himself in reading and writing; a crime for slaves to learn to do so. He understood the power of knowledge and used that power to fight, tread, and overcome the innumerable obstacles built by white supremacy. Obstacles entrenched in the cultural, political, and legal structures that formed our American society and government.
In 1838, at the age of 20, Douglass escaped slavery seeking asylum in the North, crossing the Maryland border into a land that promised sanctuary and liberty. The very ideas promised in America’s founding. He was a refugee. But, he was denied citizenship and classified as a criminal, an alien, and an illegal immigrant that could be seized at any moment in his life and forcibly returned to the horrors he just fled.
Douglass rose to become an intense and ferocious figure in fighting slavery generating fierce resistance from slavers and slavery apologists. He was accused of having never been born a slave but instead an actor paraded around by Northern industrialists and “radical” politicians hellbent on destroying a Southerner’s “way of life”. It was a time riddled with conspiracy theories where slavers insisted that if freed, Black Americans would resort to anarchy, violence, and terror. Falsehoods perpetuated to promote fear and hate and uphold slavery in America.
Douglass lobbied President Lincoln in the midst of the Civil War to enlist Black soldiers and pay them equally, to confront the genocide perpetuated by the Confederacy against Black Americans, and for the President to emancipate his fellow Americans held in bondage. Douglass would go on to recruit Black soldiers to fight for the Union. To fight for their freedom.
Emancipation, citizenship, voting rights, civil rights, justice, and more were not the gifts of benevolent politicians, they were the hard work of Black Americans, then as they are now. These are ideas that cannot be compromised on. And while courageous politicians did dive into the partisan mud of politics to enact these policies, they were pressured, pushed, and convinced to do what is right by those on the ground, then as they are now.
Douglass pressed for specific legal and political acts to abolish slavery, guarantee the right to vote, and empower the federal government to enforce civil rights. Constitutional Amendments that would become the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. Establishing the Freedman’s Bureau. Passing the Civil Rights Act of the 1871. And federal enforcement of those rights to shield Black Americans from racist backlash after the Civil War. All of which would meet resistance at the hands of those that wanted to salvage the remains of slavery and white supremacy. A resistance that would beget the rise of Jim Crow and permeate our society for another hundred years denying Black Americans the rights they were promised. A resistance that exists to this day.
While the Constitution, the supreme law of the land, promised equality, that was not the reality. And confederate sympathizers built a fiction that Blacks had already won equality, that their fight was over in 1868. Frederick Douglass continued to fight for freedom and equality up until he died in 1895. Forever influencing generations engaged in their own struggles for freedom.
Why Frederick Douglass Matters to Me
Frederick Douglass was my first intellectual introduction to American philosophy. Many Americans hold a perception that slavers, confederates, and KKK terrorists were made up of abnormal evil men. However, the very people who supported the systems of slavery, Jim Crow, and racism were celebrated generals, legal scholars, and prominent businessmen. Douglass was forced to engage in their twisted arguments that perverted the ideas of liberty, equality, and the pursuit of happiness.
Arguments, while some overtly racist, also attempted to pursue innocent defenses of slavery, segregation, and systemic racism. That their intent was not to be discriminatory and the effects of discrimination were innocent coincidences. Perhaps the best example of this is Frederick Douglass’s reply to A.C.C. Thompson’s criticism of Douglass’s autobiography: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
Thompson claimed Douglass’s slavers were “honorable” men, that “slaves live better and fare better in many respects than free blacks,” and that Maryland’s laws in 1845 did not exact a double standard based on skin color. Here was a man in 1845 claiming abolitionists were insulting the good reputation of “charitable” men. That incidences of slaves living “better” disproved any accusations of racism and evil coming from the slaver. And that the criminal justice system could not be systemically racist in 1845! Thompson, stating he was “positively opposed to slavery”, even had the hubris to lecture Douglass on the best way to abolish slavery.
Frederick Douglass replies to Thompson in a matter far better than I can summarize. Showcasing that “good” men are indeed capable of inflicting such an evil. That the double standard of the U.S. legal system is a “notorious fact.” That, of course, slavery is an evil system. And, in time, Douglass would achieve his goal of abolishing slavery.
Douglass was a man who knew tyranny, who knew oppression, who knew autocracy, and he provided me the tools to confront those evils. A man born over two centuries ago spoke to me from the past ferrying his ideas and words through a tunnel in time that tore through the fabric of space and nature to educate me in the natural universal rights of all humans. Natural rights to freedom as true and dominant as the force of gravity.
And for that I am and always will be eternally grateful.