Frederick Douglass Day

Frederick Douglass Day

Date Observed: On or around February 14
Locations: Communities nationwide

The birthday of famed abolitionist, orator, writer, and escaped slave Frederick Douglass is celebrated during the second week of February in many locations across the United States. February 14 is generally the date on which Douglass's birthday is observed (though there are not historical records that confirm the date).

Historical Background

Born into slavery in February 1818, Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was the son of Harriet Bailey, a slave. He never knew his father, a white man, and he seldom saw his mother, who worked in the corn fields on a plantation near Easton, Maryland. His maternal grandmother, who lived in a nearby cabin, cared for him until he was six years old, when she took him to the Lloyd Plantation where he was to join his brother and two sisters - siblings he did not know. It was on this plantation that he learned of the terrible brutality of slavery and "the bloody scenes that often occurred" there.

Frederick himself became a victim of brutal beatings and the depravity of various slave masters. But, while in bondage to Hugh and Sophia Auld in Baltimore, he learned to read and write, even though this was forbidden or illegal in much of the South. In Baltimore, Frederick heard and read about the work of abolitionists and as a teenager began to dream about emancipation. However, freedom seemed an impossible dream when he was sent to the plantation, owned by Hugh's brother Thomas, to work in the fields. Still, he managed to organize a secret school for slaves, which Thomas Auld and other whites quickly broke up.

Frederick was sent once more to Hugh Auld in Baltimore, where he began to make plans to escape. He also met a group of educated free blacks, among them a free black woman, Anna Murray. The two fell in love and were engaged in 1838, which added to Frederick's frustration and bitterness over his slave status. In September 1838 he dressed as a sailor and with a friend's certificate documenting that he was a free black man, Frederick made his way to free soil in Pennsylvania and then to New York City. There he met David Ruggler, a leader in the Underground Railroad network, with whom he stayed until Anna Murray could join him. The couple were married and traveled to New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Frederick found work as a day laborer. He also began using Douglass as his last name in order to shield his fugitive status.

In New Bedford, Douglass became involved in the abolitionist movement and soon was making speeches before anti-slavery groups. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison hired Douglass to be an agent for the Massachusetts branch of the American Anti-Slavery Society, and within a short time, Douglass became well known among abolitionists in the United States and also in England and Ireland, where he spent two years speaking out against slavery and for women's rights. In his speeches, Douglass often described his years as a slave and also documented those years in his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave. His speeches and writings countered the propaganda by southern writers who declared that slaves had an easy, contented life and were treated kindly. During the Civil War, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln and helped in the formation of the Massachusetts 54th and 55th black regiments who fought on the Union side (see also Battle of Olustee Reenactment). After the war and throughout the rest of his life, Douglass worked for the civil rights of African Americans and served in a variety of government positions - U.S. marshal of the District of Columbia, D.C. recorder of deeds, and minister to the Republic of Haiti.

Meantime, Douglass continued to speak and write, producing numerous documents, letters, and books. He tirelessly campaigned for anti-lynching laws, voting rights for African Americans, and social and economic reforms to counteract the widespread discriminatory practices that prevented equal treatment for blacks in public places. On the evening of February 20, 1895, after spending the day at a women's rights meeting, Douglass died of a heart attack in his Washington, D.C., home.

Excerpt from Narrative of the Life

of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass wrote about the first bloody scene that he witnessed as a young child when slave master Aaron Anthony whipped his aunt. This excerpt is from Chapter 1 of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845):

Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d--d b--h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, "Now, you d--d b--h, I'll learn you how to disobey my orders!" and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over.

Creation of the Observance

Harvard scholar Carter G. Woodson was responsible for designating a week in February that would include the birthday commemoration of Frederick Douglass. In 1926 Woodson initiated the first Negro History Week to take place during the second week of February. He chose this date to correspond with the birthday observances of Frederick Douglass and President Abraham Lincoln, both of whom had a great impact on African Americans. Eventually, the week became African-American History Month, during which numerous African-American contributions are highlighted.

Observances

A Frederick Douglass birthday tribute takes place each year around February 14 at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. The site is the home where Douglass lived during the years he was in the nation's capital. Events include speakers, musical performances, and a speech contest.

The New Bedford (Massachusetts) Historical Society hosts a Frederick Douglass Read-athon each February. Participants read aloud from the Life and Times of Frederick Douglass . In addition, locals observe September 17, the anniversary of the day in 1838 when Douglass and his wife arrived in the city via the Underground Railroad.

Frederick Douglass is also remembered with churches, museums, bridges, memorial halls on college campuses, and other places bearing his name. In Rochester, New York, where Douglass lived and did much of his work, his home is preserved. The city also has a statue of Douglass, and Mt. Hope Cemetery marks his burial place.

Contacts and Web Sites

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site 1411 W St., S.E. Washington, DC 20020-4813 202-426-5961 Douglass Papers Library of Congress 101 Independence Ave., S.E. Washington, DC 20540 202-707-5000

Frederick Douglass Papers Project Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis Dept. of History 425 University Blvd. CA406 Indianapolis, IN 46202 317-274-5834; fax: 317-278-7800

Further Reading

McCurdy, Michael, ed. Escape from Slavery: The Boyhood of Frederick Douglass in His Own Words . New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994. (young adult) McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Preston, Dickson J. Young Frederick Douglass: The Maryland Years. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980.

Writings by Frederick Douglass

Life and Times of Frederick Douglass. Hartford, CT: Park Publishing Company, 1881. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Douglass (Frederick) Day

February 14
Frederick Douglass Day in the United States is celebrated on February 14, the date traditionally believed to have been Douglass's birthday. Born into slavery in 1818 in Maryland, he escaped to freedom in 1838 and eventually made his home in New Bedford, Mass., where he became active in the international abolitionist movement. After the Civil War he served in the U.S. government as a marshal in the District of Columbia and as a minister to the Republic of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.
Each year Douglass's birthday is commemorated with a ceremony at his former home, Cedar Hill, which is now the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C. The event, which attracts about 300 people, features speakers on human rights, recitations of excerpts from Douglass's speeches, tours of the home, music performances, and a wreath-laying ceremony. In addition, activities including lectures, readings from his works, and film presentations about his life are also planned in New Bedford, in Rochester, N.Y., where Douglass's grave is located, and in many other locations throughout the country.
CONTACTS:
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
1411 W St. S.E.
Washington, D.C. 20020
202-426-5961
www.nps.gov/frdo/index.htm
New Bedford Friends Meeting House
83 Spring St.
New Bedford, MA 02740-5934
508-979-8828
SOURCES:
AAH-2007, p. 170
(c)
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