• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass found freedom and love

As Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey made friends with more and more free blacks, a fire began to burn within him to be rid of slavery’s chains. He now began to consider various avenues by which he could buy his way to freedom and asked his owner for permission to “hire his own time.” Hugh Auld agreed to Frederick’s request, with two stipulations:

- Frederick would be responsible for finding his own job(s), find his own place to live, provide his own clothes and buy his own caulking tools.

- He was also required to pay Hugh $3 each week.

This would not be an easy commitment for Frederick to keep. With the wear and tear on clothes, the cost of room and board and the risk of tools breaking or being lost, Frederick had to earn at least $6 per week if he was to break even; not an task for a Negro of his day to accomplish. However, given it meant his chance for freedom, Frederick signed on to the challenge with vigor.

As Frederick’s list of Baltimore friends continued to increase, a special name was added to the list. Anna Murray worked as a domestic servant and was part of a small group of young Negroes who welcomed this hardworking visionary into their group. It did not take long for the couple to fall in love and begin to talk of marriage. Frederick shared with Anna his deepest desire for freedom and she determined in her heart to do whatever she could to help see to it his dream became a reality.

In 1838, Frederick put forth every bit of energy available to work many hours and earn every dollar possible. Each Saturday, he returned to his master and handed over the required $3 to keep his part of the agreement. One Saturday, he worked extra hours, with plans to attend a local camp meeting with friends afterwards. By the time he finished work, he realized he would not have time enough to make it back to his master’s home to pay the money he owed and return for the camp meeting, so he made the decision to attend the camp meeting and pay his master the following day. It turned out to be a decision which changed his life.

The following day when Frederick returned to Hugh Auld’s home, his master was furious. Hugh’s mind was filled with thoughts of Frederick escaping and it destroyed his trust in the young man. He punished Frederick by taking away the privilege to hire his own time.

Rather than breaking the young man’s spirit, Hugh’s punishment stoked a fire of determination in Frederick’s heart to escape. He now knew it was time and feared if he did not do so, life would take a turn for the worse. Frederick envisioned himself being returned to the plantation on Maryland’s eastern shore; or worse yet, sold to a plantation in the South. The possibility of moving south upset Frederick, not only because of the stories he had heard regarding the way slaves were worked and treated there, but it also meant separation from Anna.

Frederick continued to work to keep Hugh from suspecting anything as he began to develop his plan of escape. Frederick told Anna he would travel to New York City and once settled, send for her and there they would be married. The first thing he did was set a date – September 3, 1838; three weeks away. Since Frederick was again required to turn over his earnings to Hugh, he was unable to set aside any money on which to escape, but Anna could. She gave him a portion of her earnings, and made a sailor’s outfit for him.

More than just clothes and money would be needed for his trip. Maryland law required all free blacks to have certain papers with them at all times which contained the individual’s physical description (height, weight, gender, etc), along with comments about any birth marks or scars on the individual’s body. Those who were serving in the Navy carried a sailor’s protection paper. A friend of Frederick’s who was currently in the Navy offered to loan Frederick his set. The friend’s description did not totally match Frederick and were he to be caught with these papers, he would immediately be arrested and suffer severe consequences. It was a chance Frederick was willing to take.

Frederick decided his trip would be made in the open, from Baltimore to Philadelphia. From there, it was on to New York City. He would wear the uniform Anna made for him and carry his friend’s papers. His mode of transportation would be the train, ferry and steamship. Over the course of the trip, Frederick would conduct himself in such a manner that no one would have a reason to question who he was, where he was going or why.

Timing was now of the essence. The plan was for one of his friends to arrive at the train station just prior to departure with Frederick’s bag. Then Frederick would hop on the train just as it began to pull away from the station, while the conductor was collecting tickets. When the conductor questioned Frederick about his papers, he told the man he never carried them with him out to sea. Instead, he had a document which contained a picture of a large eagle and allowed him to travel. He showed the eagle picture on the borrowed papers to the conductor. This satisfied the conductor, who collected the required train fare from Frederick and moved on. So far, so good. Frederick breathed a small sigh of relief, but knew he was not out of the woods yet. Danger still lurked around every corner for this run-away slave.

When Frederick arrived in Havre de Grace, Maryland for the second leg of his trip, events soon made him a bit nervous. At the ferry, one of the workers recognized him. When he reached the next train, the same thing happened. These individuals had the power to ruin Frederick’s plans, but thankfully they did not and he continued on his journey.

The next part of the journey would be the most dangerous so far. When he reached Wilmington, Delaware and stepped off the train, Frederick boarded a steamship. In towns like Wilmington, slaves on the run had to proceed with caution. Slave hunters would hang out in droves to catch runaways and return them to their masters for a fee. They also needed to remain cautious of Negroes they did not know. Many a poor black who learned a new individual in town was a runaway slave would quickly pass the information on to a slave hunter in return for a few coins. Thankfully no one bothered him and Frederick went aboard the steamship for the trip to Philadelphia on the Delaware River.

As Frederick stepped off the ship and placed his feet in the City of Brotherly Love, he breathed a momentary breath of freedom; a breath he knew would not be repeated if he did not keep moving. The mere act of crossing into a free state was not enough. The slave hunters were still allowed to capture the runaways within a certain distance, so the slave had to stay on the move. As in the prior situations, no one bothered Frederick as he continued on his journey.

Being in Philadelphia filled Frederick’s mind with thoughts regarding the country’s Founding Fathers and the fact they had walked these same streets years before. He first thought of famous white men – Adams, Franklin and Jefferson; followed by black ones – Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and James Forten. He had no way of knowing at the time that one day his name would also be included among this elite group. Right now, his primary concern was making it to New York City safe and sound.

After locating the station, Frederick boarded the train. As it sped off into the night, he could now afford the luxury of relaxing a bit during the last part of his journey to freedom. When morning dawned, Frederick heard the whistle announce their arrival in New York and felt the train come to a stop. His 24 hour flight to freedom had come to an end as he stepped from the train that brisk autumn morning. Frederick Augustus Bailey had finally broken the chains of slavery which had bound him all of his life.

* * * * *

I prayed for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.

Frederick Douglass

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