Frederick Douglass, who was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, had been separated from his family as a child. He toiled as a field hand along Maryland's rural Eastern Shore. When he was 12 years old, he was sent to
serve a new master in Baltimore where he worked as a house servant.
In Baltimore, his keen young mind found a rare source of nurturing and encouragement. He began to learn to read - he'd been fascinated watching and listening to Sophia Auld read the Bible aloud, and she taught him. She made no secret of this project from her husband, Hugh, and he reacted with fury.
"Learning will spoil [him]," he fumed. "If he learns to read the Bible, it will forever unfit him to be a slave. He should know nothing but the will of his master, and learn to obey it." Douglass, wrote in his first autobiography, "[Hugh Auld's] discourse was the first decidedly anti-slavery lecture to which it had been my lot to listen."
While he would not receive any more lessons, Douglass pursued his quest for literacy on his own. Then, he shared his hard-earned knowledge with other children who were enslaved. Yet, he remained restless and unhappy. "As I read and contemplated the subject, behold! that very discontentment which Master Hugh had predicted... It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy. …It was this everlasting thinking of my condition that tormented me."
A few years later, Douglass escaped to the free states of the North. Upon reaching free soil, he wrote later, "I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions. Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil."
His joy was tempered, however, by the plight of millions of African Americans remaining in slavery. Frederick became a brilliant writer and gifted speaker. He utilized the skill of his pen and oratory in service to his fellow humanity, becoming a powerful voice for the abolitionist movement. Over the years, through journalism, books, and lecturing, Frederick Douglass became a national, and then an international spokesman preaching against the evils of human bondage.
He carried his anti-slavery message to audiences in Britain and Ireland, and it was there that his sympathy came to encompass all mistreated peoples - in this case, the Irish, who were oppressed in many ways in Britain and in their own country.
In 1848, Douglass was the only African American to attend the Seneca Falls Convention, the first women's rights convention, in upstate New York. During the convention, Douglass spoke eloquently in favor of a resolution supporting women's suffrage. This marked the beginning of his lifelong and active support for women's equality, particularly suffrage. He argued for gender equality in his own newspapers, demonstrating his commitment to partnerships between human rights movements for freedom and justice. "When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself," Douglass reflected. "When I advocated emancipation, it was for my people. But when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found a little nobility in the act."
In the 1850s, he became one of the earliest crusaders for school desegregation, seeing equality of educational opportunities as even more crucial than votes for all, which, he also tirelessly fought for.
During the Civil War he encouraged African Americans to enlist in the U.S. Army and two of Douglass's sons served in the Union army. He actively recruited for the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Soldiers like those of the 54th fought bravely for the liberation of millions from bondage and finally achieved it.
After the war, he further distinguished himself as a government official, including going to Haiti, where the man who had been born a slave was now minister pleni¬potenti¬ary of the United States.
Since his civil rights vistas and activism expanded over the years, we can assume that, had he lived during the contemporary civil rights movement, he would have played a major role and would have reveled in its achievements - including the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the EEOC it created - as well as advocacy for other dispossessed communities.
The expansion of Douglass's civil rights visions is emblematic of how the fight for the rights of African Americans inspires and informs other human rights movements, and always will. The greatest seers, prophets and freedom fighters have always broadened their horizons to see and embrace all humanity.
This Black History Month, let's remember and celebrate the legacy that Frederick Douglass left us, and to dedicate ourselves to freedom and justice for all:
"In a composite nation like ours, as before the law, there should be … no white, no black, but common country, common citizenship, equal rights and a common destiny."