• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass Learns the True Meaning of Slavery

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born in a slave cabin during February of 1818 on Colonel Edward Lloyd's plantation in Tuckahoe, along the eastern shore of Maryland. His mother, Harriett, was sent to a different plantation twelve miles away a short time later. Whenever she could, Harriett walked the 12 miles after working all day to spend a few hours with her young son, then would leave and walk back home, arriving at the plantation before daybreak to avoid punishment. She died when he was seven. Frederick never learned the identity of his father, but he knew the man was white; most likely his master.


Frederick was raised by his grandparents, Isaac and Betsey Bailey. His love for his grandmother was especially strong. The comfort he found in her arms and her nurturing ways instilled memories he would carry the rest of his life. For his first five years, Frederick totally enjoyed life because Betsey shielded him from the fact he was a slave. Years later, Frederick recalled his grandmother’s remarks as she revealed to him the cabin in which they lived, the lands surrounding them and even he himself and the rest of his family belonged to “Old Master.”


In time, the day came when Frederick was introduced to the harsh reality of his station in life. On a warm summer day, Betsey took six year old Frederick on a long journey through the woods. He sensed by his grandmother’s behavior something was wrong, but she did not tell him what it was. As they continued through the woods, the child’s active imagination conjured up images of the tree stumps as monsters, causing him to cling more tightly to his grandmother.


Their long journey came to an end as Betsey and Frederick emerged from the woods and encountered a group of children playing among several buildings. While Frederick was getting acquainted with the children, many of them his half-brothers, sisters and cousins, Betsey disappeared back into the woods. When Frederick became aware of fact she was gone, he wept bitterly. The memory of that day remained with him the rest of his life and served to fuel his hatred of this despicable institution known as slavery.


Frederick was told he belonged to Captain Aaron Anthony. Anthony served as chief clerk and butler to Colonel Lloyd, owner of the most prosperous plantation in the state of Maryland. Nothing happened on the plantation without Anthony’s knowledge and say-so. He carried the keys to Lloyd’s storehouses, oversaw the goods which were brought onto the plantation, along with the various blacksmith and other shops on the acreage. All total, Anthony owned 30 slaves of his own, in addition to three farms in Tuckahoe; however, he and his family lived in a house on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation so it would be more convenient for him to fulfill his clerk and butler duties.


While still a child, Frederick’s duties were relatively light – bringing in the cows, running errands and carrying firewood. As he performed these tasks, he watched the events taking place around him which filled his heart with sorrow and fear – slaves being whipped or treated with cruelty and brutality. He sensed it probably would not be long before he too would face this type of treatment. Though his childhood slavery days were hard, Frederick found a friend in Lucretia, Captain Anthony’s grown daughter. When he stood under her window and sang, she slipped him additional food.


Frederick’s life changed again at the age of seven. He left Colonel Lloyd’s plantation and was sent to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld, Lucretia’s brother-in-law. Frederick was taken to the creek to scrub himself clean, then received his own pair of trousers from Lucretia. As he boarded the sloop that would carry him down river, Frederick said goodbye to the only home he had ever known and looked forward to a new life in Baltimore.


The Aulds’ home was located on Alliciana Street in Fell's Point, not far from the shipyard. This would be Frederick’s home for the next seven years. After meeting Hugh and Sophia, Frederick was introduced to their son Thomas and told his job would be to care for the lad. Frederick now learned the most important lesson of his life – the power knowledge offered, and how vital it was to be able to read and write.


Frederick’s innocent lessons began with Sophia teaching him the letters of the alphabet. He learned so quickly, she was soon combining the letters in groups of three and four to spell small words. One day, however, Master Hugh walked into the room and discovered his wife teaching the child slave to read. He scolded Sophia for her actions and told her, “There will be no keeping him. It will forever unfit him to be a slave. He will become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.” Hugh also reminded her it was against the law to teach a slave to read. Hearing this remark opened the eyes of Frederick’s understanding to the pathway from slavery to freedom.


Because he was denied the reading lessons at home, Frederick devised a new plan. He now turned to the poor white children nearby as tutors. Whenever he was sent on an errand, Frederick carried with him some bread and a book. He exchanged the bread for reading lessons. As time passed, Frederick developed friendships with his tutors. When he was 12, he told some of his friends, “I wish I could be as free as they would be when they got to be men.”


Frederick had now learned to read, but could not yet write. While working at Durgin & Bailey’s shipyard, he watched carpenters saw wood and write letters on the pieces to indicate their placement on the ship. The first four letters he learned were “L” (larboard - port), “S” (starboard), “F” (forward) and “A” (aft). Having mastered these four letters, Frederick began to challenge others boys, stating he could write as well as them, using these four letters as examples. In the process, those he challenged wrote additional letters, which Frederick later mastered until he could do the entire alphabet.


“I had now penetrated the secret of all slavery and oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power and the avarice of man.” Frederick Douglass


As the years passed, deaths in Captain Anthony’s family resulted in an unstable lifestyle for Frederick. He and the other slaves (married/single, young/old) were inventoried with the cows, pigs, chickens and other livestock. At the age of 16, Frederick went to Baltimore for awhile, then returned to live in St. Michaels with Thomas Auld and his wife.


A young boy’s nightmares became life’s reality for the 16 year old Frederick. As a strong youth, he had reached the point he could now fall victim to the brutalities of a slave’s life. Believing life in Baltimore had spoiled Frederick for slave life, Thomas sent him to a slave-breaker, who gave Frederick his first exposure to the life of a field hand. Though the conditions under which he worked were harsh, they paled to his treatment by the slave-breaker.

In time, Frederick fell into despair, “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul and spirit.” Whenever he found the opportunity for moments of respite, Frederick would stand along the shore of Chesapeake Bay and watch the ships sail away. During these times, he cried out, “O God, save me! God, deliver me! Let me be free!” Providence would later answer the young man’s prayer, but life had other plans for him first.


Over the next six months, Frederick’s level of despair mounted. Then one day, something snapped inside him and he physically lashed out at the abuse he received from Mr. Covey. In the process, he and Mr. Covey both learned Frederick was the stronger of the two. Frederick won the fight and Mr. Covey never beat him again. This became another turning point in Frederick’s life. The slave-breakers in the area now feared the strong young “buck” and Frederick determined in his heart to flee slavery, no matter the cost.


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"Knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom."


Frederick Douglass



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