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Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, circa 1860s.
Frederick Douglass, circa 1860s. (Credit: Library of Congress)

In the early 1800s, Frederick Douglass worked along the docks and shipyards in Baltimore, Maryland as a caulker – making ships watertight by packing seams with a waterproof material, such as oakum or pitch.

“Standing at the docks of this neighborhood today, which is located south of Johns Hopkins Hospital and is one of the city's most popular local hangouts for fun, food, and revelry, it is still possible to imagine how hundreds of free and enslaved black shipyard workers crowded docks in search of work—just like Douglass. The historic cobblestone streets help visitors imagine the world that existed at these docks more than 100 years ago and that served as the

intellectual birthplace for America's and Baltimore's most influential abolitionist,” according to the Baltimore Literary Heritage Project.

Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass.
Daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass. (Credit: The Art Institute of Chicago )

In Baltimore, Douglass got a job in a shipyard. He met some free African-Americans who asked him to join a club called "the East Baltimore Mutual Improvement Society." There he met his first wife, Anna Murray, and they soon ran away to New York. He met abolitionists, began public speaking, and in 1895, published his autobiography. His owner, Thomas Auld, sent slave catchers after him. Douglass was now the most famous runaway slave in the country, and his fame gave him no sanctuary in the states. So, he went to England, where he made speeches, and abolitionists there raised money and bought his freedom.

Douglass returned to America as a free man. He started his newspaper, The North Star, a thing a slave was not allowed to do. His house in Rochester became a stop on the Underground Railroad. He became friends with such people as William Lloyd Garrison, Harriet Tubman and President Abraham Lincoln. Douglass encouraged Lincoln to free the slaves, just as he had been freed. Lincoln listened and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Douglass held many government positions until his death on February 20, 1895.

Douglass' autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.
Douglass' autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. (Credit: Afro American Publishing)

The life of Douglas is honored through the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, an educational and national heritage site that highlights African American maritime history. Visitors can learn about the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company and the establishment of the African American Community in Baltimore during the 1800’s.

Douglass' most well-known work is his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published in 1845. Critics frequently attacked the book as inauthentic, not believing that a black man could possibly have produced so eloquent a piece of literature. The book was an immediate bestseller and received overwhelmingly positive critical reviews. Within three years of its publication, it had been reprinted nine times with 11,000 copies circulating in the United States; it was also translated into the French and Dutch languages.

His experiences were so rewarding that he once remarked that he was treated not "as a color, but as a man."


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