Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist, Journalist, Reformer, 1818 - 1895

Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist, Journalist, Reformer, 1818 - 1895


By Dr. Noelle Trent


Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education


Frederick Douglass, an icon of American history, was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Talbot County, Maryland in 1818. Born a slave, Douglass escaped to freedom in his early twenties. He rose to fame with the 1845 publication of his first book The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself. He fought throughout most of his career for the abolition of slavery and worked with notable abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison and Gerrit Smith. However, Douglass’s fight for reform extended beyond the fight for abolition.


1ECBCFD8-1DD8-B71C-071A1D691D09C269-largeIn 1848 he was one of a few men to attend the Woman’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Led by Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, this convention gave birth to the women’s movement in the United States. During the Civil War, he advocated for the use of African American soldiers in the Union Army and would later become a recruiter for the United States Colored Troops. Douglass regarded the Civil War as the fight to end slavery, but like many free blacks he urged President Lincoln to emancipate the slaves as a means of insuring that slavery would never again exist in the United States. Immediately after the war, Douglass advocated for Constitutional amendments that would permanently change the status of African Americans in the United States. The change in the status of African Americans came in the form of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments which granted African Americans citizenship and the right to vote.


One of the major ways Douglass advocated for change was through his newspapers. In the early part of his career he worked for William Lloyd Garrison’s abolitionist newspaper, The Liberator. In 1847 Douglass moved to Rochester, New York to publish his own newspaper The North Star. Through a merger in 1851, Douglass created a new newspaper entitled Frederick Douglass’ Paper. In 1859, he began publishing a monthly paper entitled Douglass’s Monthly. Due to the Civil War and his efforts to recruit black soldiers for the Union Army, Douglass stopped printing his newspapers in 1863. His last newspaper, The New National Era, was published from 1870 to 1874.


heroesDuring and beyond Reconstruction, Douglass’s advocacy would take on a different form as he used his appointments to demonstrate the capabilities of African Americans. In 1874, Douglass was appointed President of the Freedman’s Savings & Trust Co., also known as the Freedman’s Bank. Freedman’s Bank was a private corporation chartered by Congress to educate and handle the finances of recently freed people. When Douglass became president, he was unaware of the bank’s internal mismanagement; the bank closed four months into his presidency. Despite the bank’s failure, Douglass believed that it demonstrated the willingness and ability of African Americans to manage their personal finances. In 1877, Douglass was appointed U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. From 1889 – 1891 he served as U.S. Minister Resident and Consul General to the Republic of Haiti. All of his positions, regardless of their successes and failures demonstrated African Americans could serve in the higher levels of government.


Douglass’s advocacy for all people continued until his death in 1895. On February 20, 1895 after speaking at a local women’s convention, he passed away in his mansion in Washington, DC. The legacy of Frederick Douglass was captured by President John F. Kennedy in 1961.


“The life of Frederick Douglass is part of the legend of America. As a successful fighter for freedom a century ago, he can give inspiration to people all around the world who are still struggling to secure their full human rights. That struggle must go on until those rights are everywhere secured. By advancing that cause through law, democratic methods and peaceful action, we in America can give an example of the freedom which Frederick Douglass symbolizes.”


FrederickDouglasEventArtOn Friday, February 5, at 6:00pm, the National Civil Rights Museum presents “Frederick Douglass: The Making of an American Prophet,” a concert theatrical about the great American abolitionist and social reformer, Frederick Douglass. The dramatization is preceded by a reception at 5:30, and followed by a panel discussion with Rhodes College History professor, Tim Huebner, and the museum’s Director of Interpretation, Collections and Education and Frederick Douglass scholar, Dr. Noelle Trent.


The performance is a powerful story of Frederick Douglass, the American slave who escaped to freedom and became one of the most prominent abolitionists of his day, famous for his fiery oratory. It details Douglass’ early years as a slave and the relationship to his later vision.


The production is free and open to the public. Online registration is encouraged.









Benjamin Quarles, Frederick Douglass, New York: Atheneum, 1968.


Philip Foner, Frederick Douglass, A Biography, New York: Citadel Press, 1964.


Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave Written by Himself, 1845.


Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and His Complete History, 1881.


Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, 1855.

Posted by Connie Dyson at 3:00 PM
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