The Life and Death of Abolitionist, Writer, and Civil Rights Activist: Frederick Douglass

Social Justice

By: Katherine J. Mercer

“Neither we, nor any other people, will ever be respected till we respect ourselves, and we will never respect ourselves till we have the means to live respectably.” ~ Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, 1881

Frederick DouglassThis Black History Month, let us celebrate the life and death of a true revolutionary freedom fighter, Frederick Douglass—a man who defied all odds against him in a time when the color of a person’s skin defined their roles in society. Frederick Douglass’ exact date of birth is not known outside of it being in February of 1818, but according to his wikipedia page Douglass chose St. Valentine’s day, February the 14th, to celebrate his birthday. In the same month of Douglass’ birth, lay his final resting day. At the age of 78, Frederick Douglass took his last breath on the 20th of February, 1895 after suffering from either a heart attack or stoke upon his brief return home after attending a women’s rights meeting. Before the attack, Douglass was at home with his wife awaiting a carriage to take him to the Hillside African Church so that he could deliver a lecture he was intending to give that night. Douglass left behind one daughter, three sons, a wife, and millions of admirers and followers, but went onto join his former wife, Anna and their daughter Annie in the afterlife.

Let us remember the significance of Frederick Douglass’ life as a former slave who decided to attempt to prevail and escape to the north again after he was betrayed by a fellow slave during his previous attempt at gaining freedom. Douglass knew it was better to die fighting towards a life of freedom rather than living life as a slave, with death as its only escape.

From what I learned during a heavy semester of law and literature of U.S. slavery and resistance, slavery was a form of pure evil that proceeded in stripping a person’s right to live life as a human being. Africans and African Americans that were born or sold into slavery after being taken from their native lands and were forced to work without pay, at times without food, a quick break, clean drinking water, and other human necessities. Slaves were whipped for outrageous actions such as singing to keep their days as positive as they could, they were beaten for being physically unable to work due to being previously beaten, branded, raped, and other inhumanely violent actions done upon them. Douglass knew that slavery was not a life he was meant to live, nor was anyone else, and at 20 years old on September 3, 1838 he succeeded in escaping to the north by pretending to be a free black sailor with borrowed “free papers.” From then on Douglass began his life as an abolitionist, a feminist, a civil rights activist, an orator, an American autobiographer, a statesman, a family man, and an American legend.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.After his escape, Frederick Douglass wrote three incredible autobiographies about his life as a slave: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Douglass was as fortunate, as much as a child slave could be, in being traded to the Auld family, for it is there that he began his journey into education. He was taught by his mistress the letters to the alphabet, how to write, and eventually taught himself to read after his owners grew afraid of a slave’s ability in becoming aware of the surrounding world once learning how to read and write. Douglass happened to overhear Mr. Auld lecture his wife on the importance of keeping a slave ignorant from the written language, “[because] education ruins slaves, making them unmanageable and unhappy. It was at that moment that the meaning of freedom became apparent to Douglass and he realized how the power of education was what the white man had that the slaves did not. Douglass decided to focus his energy on the written language because it was education that paved the path towards his freedom.

Education and intellectual freedom are two of the major factors in any library system and I believe most, if not all, of us can stand hand-in-hand with a man who fought for a better life by education himself and others around him.

This Black History Month and this Valentine’s day, I shine the spotlight on this American Library Association platform towards Mr. Frederick Douglass—a man who prevailed in defying the ignorance of others and in becoming one of the most inspiring and lovable people in this world, regardless of race. Without his existence, we would be at a loss in reading about one of the most shameful parts of American history, but we would also be ignorant in learning about history from a first hand perspective that the public American education system fails in recognizing in their history books. And if you haven’t already, check out one of his three harrowing, but empowering autobiographies. Happy birthday Frederick Douglass!


Katherine MercerA Latina native of Los Angeles, California, Katherine J. Mercer is proud in recently becoming a local to the Lone Star State as one of the literacy coordinators for the Dallas Public Library. After receiving her B.A in English literature from Humboldt State, then immediately choosing to travel the world for a few years while working odd end jobs, she has landed some stability in an economy that allows her the freedom to blossom in her career and life. While in Texas, Katherine has come to love and appreciate the vast cultural differences the community has to offer, including the southern hospitality, affordable living expenses, intense changes in traffic patterns, and the delicious slow-cooked brisket. She misses the beach rat life, but gets by knowing it will always be right where she left it. Follow her @KATxLA.

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