• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass meets David Ruggles

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was filled with a strong sense of accomplishment as he walked the streets of New York City. He now rejoiced in the fact he had fulfilled his goal to escape his master and the bondage of slavery. Though he was now free in body, his spirit was still in bondage. Despite the fact he had “escaped from a den of hungry lions,” Frederick knew he was still in danger. As a runaway slave, a price was now on his head and there were many individuals who would love nothing more than to turn him over to any one of a number of slave catchers operating in New York City in return for a nice reward.

In addition to being wary of those around him, Frederick was hungry and filled with despair. To save money, he slept in alleys or at the dock. Eventually he reached the point where placed his trust in a friendly-faced sailor and asked for help. The sailor became a true friend to Frederick and made it possible for the fearful runaway to meet David Ruggles. At this time in history, New York City became the “go to” place for many a Negro fugitive who sought freedom from slavery and a better life. For these, who were often penniless and living on their last scrap of hope, David Ruggles was a savior indeed.

A dedicated abolitionist, David Ruggles was part of a group known as the New York Vigilance Committee. These individuals served as the go-between for runaway slaves and the Underground Railroad. The various conductors and officers active with the Railroad provided the fugitives with food, clothing and shelter. Secret hideouts were made available to conceal the fugitives while arrangements were being made to move them along on the next leg of their journey to freedom. Some of the conductors would also pay for train or steamboat passage.

Ruggles sent Frederick to 36 Lispenard Street where he had a bookstore and reading room. Frederick remained here until Anna joined him. When she arrived, Reverend James W. C. Pennington married them, with Ruggles and a friend serving as witnesses. At the time of the wedding, Frederick was advised to change his last name in an effort to protect him from being discovered by kidnappers. Accepting the advice, he changed his name to 'Johnson.'

Knowing Frederick was a skilled caulker, Ruggles recommended the couple move to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He knew Frederick would have an easier time finding work there, plus an active branch of the Underground Railroad was in the area, overseen by Nathan and Mary Johnson.

The newlyweds soon boarded a steamship and made the journey to Newport, Rhode Island. From there, a stage coach ride completed their journey. When Frederick and Anna arrived at the Johnsons’ home, they were met with a warm welcome. Nathan also loaned Frederick the $2 he needed to get their trunks out of hock with the stage coach company.

After arriving in Bedford, the first thing Frederick and Anna needed was a place to live. The Johnsons owned a number of houses in Bedford, one of which they quickly made available. Nathan also advised Frederick to change his last name to something other than “Johnson,” due to the fact there were already a large number of families in the city with that same last name. He recommended the name “Douglas,” for the noble character in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, The Lady of the Lake. Frederick agreed with the suggestion and that day Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey/Johnson became Frederick Douglass – a name which would become a major player in American history.

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