• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass opened a new era in American history

As the newlyweds began life in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Frederick worked any job he could find. Though a highly skilled ship caulker, Frederick experienced an intense level of segregation. He may have been living in a "free" state, but he was still a Negro and thus forbidden to work, eat, live and even sit in certain places.


While loading oil barrels on a sloop headed for New York, Frederick relished the thought that the wages he earned were all his. He no longer had to hand over any portion of it to someone else. He later hired on at a brass foundry where he endured physical labor and high temperatures. Douglass worked the bellows and swung the crane. He also emptied containers in which boiling metal was poured to create items of various shapes. It was not uncommon for him to work around the clock.


Frederick also hired on as a house servant to Attorney John H. Clifford, who later became governor. Douglass’s duties involved serving Clifford’s guests in the dining room. On one occasion, aristocrat Robert C. Winthrop was Clifford’s dinner guest. Standing behind Winthrop’s chair, Frederick was able to hear the conversation between this influential man and his host. At this time in his life, Douglass could never imagine he would one day share a speaking platform with Winthrop. For now, Douglass considered himself blessed to be living a life free of slavery and able to provide for his growing family.


Life in New Bedford was a change for Anna as well. Unlike her days in the slave states when she had to carry water from a well, her new home had an indoor pump, along with a sink and drain. It was also a treat for her to clean her own home instead of someone else’s. At the end of a hard day’s work, Frederick returned home to a hot meal Anna had prepared and enjoyed the company of their growing family around the table.


Five children were born to Frederick and Anna: the first three in New Bedford, Massachusetts - Rosetta, Lewis Henry and Frederick Jr. Charles Remond arrived after the family moved to Lynn, Massachusetts. The youngest, Annie, was born in Rochester, New York and died at a young age.


Church attendance held an important place in Frederick’s life; thus finding a church home in New Bedford was high on his to-do list. Elm Street Methodist Church was the first congregation he visited. Here he learned segregation was as much a part of the church as it was society. When he arrived, he was instructed to sit in the balcony with the other Negroes. Several weeks later, the church held a communion service. The white worshipers were served first, then the Negroes. Frederick later said, “I went out and have never been in that church since, although I honestly went there with a view to joining that body.”


Douglass began to struggle with the fact that even though he was a free man living in a free state; people who professed to be Christians judged his worthiness simply by the color of his skin. This frustration would haunt him the rest of his life. He visited several other churches and met with the same attitudes; until he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (A.M.E. Zion). This congregation met in a school building on Second Street and it was here Frederick quickly formed some strong bonds. Before long, he was a class leader and preached sermons, which helped build his skills as a speaker.


Five months after moving to New Bedford, Frederick was introduced to a local publication called the Liberator. The newspaper was edited by William Lloyd Garrison and proclaimed a firm stand opposing slavery. After reading it, Douglass said, “I not only liked, I loved this paper, and its editor. He seemed a match for all the opponents of emancipation.” Much as a starving man will quickly devour a meal set before him, Douglass devoured this publication.


As he continued to read the articles published in the Liberator, a fire was stoked in Douglass's soul. He developed a truer understanding of what an abolitionist truly was and gained greater insight into their movement; now strongly prevalent throughout the northern United States and England. He learned the names of numerous abolitionists, the most prominent one being William Lloyd Garrison.


In addition to reading the weekly edition of the Liberator, Frederick began attending each antislavery meeting. Seated in the crowded room, he listened, learned and applauded. At first, the idea of becoming a public advocate for this heartfelt cause did not occur to him, but change was in the air.

Plans were made in the summer of 1841 for an antislavery convention to be held in Nantucket. When word of the meeting reached Douglass, he made plans to attend. On August 11, 1841, he joined a crowd of 1,000 men and women for the gathering which set his heart on fire for the cause. During the meeting, Douglass received the shock of his life.


Renowned abolitionist William Coffin was in attendance and moved through the crowd in Frederick’s direction. When he spoke Douglass’s name, Frederick was shocked over the fact this famous man actually knew who he was. Douglass soon learned Coffin had attended the church in New Bedford and heard him speak. Now Coffin invited him to address the crowd gathered here.


Frederick found himself momentarily stunned - he, Frederick Douglass, a fugitive slave, was being asked to speak before a crowd of mostly white individuals? This was unheard of, even at an antislavery convention! With some additional encouragement from Coffin, Douglass approached the platform and began to speak. Suddenly, something the likes of an electrifying charge shot through the crowd; a crowd which had originally been relatively quiet, but soon came to life and demonstrated as much excitement as Douglass himself.


When Frederick finished speaking and left the platform, Garrison came to the podium. Having heard Douglass’s recollection of his days as a slave, Garrison declared, “Patrick Henry of revolutionary fame, never made a speech more eloquent in the cause of liberty than the one we have just listened to from the lips of that hunted fugitive."

This was the first time in American history a fugitive ever showed the courage to stand before a crowd and offer a first-hand account of life as a slave.


As the meeting closed, Douglass was approached by John Collins, general agent for the Massachusetts Antislavery Society. During their conversation, Collins impressed upon Frederick the need for him to join the society as a speaker. Douglass, however, refused. He had a family to support. Frederick was also concerned as to what he would say, uneducated as he was, to those gathered at these conventions.


Outweighing both of these concerns in Frederick’s thoughts was the possibility of Hugh Auld and various slave hunters becoming aware of his new name and location. Collins, however, would not be dissuaded. He wanted Douglass out there. Eventually Frederick gave in and agreed to Collins’ request for a period of three months. Thus began not only a new adventure in the life of Frederick Douglass, but also a new era in United States history.

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