• Exploring American History

Frederick Douglass returns to his birthplace

Due to being born a slave, Frederick Douglass missed out on much of what normally comprises family life. He never knew who his father was, though scuttlebutt said he was the plantation’s owner. He scarcely knew his mother. While Frederick was still very young, she was sent to another plantation approximately 12 miles away. Due to the fact she had no transportation other than her feet and had to walk to and from after putting in a hard day’s work, she was not able to make the trip as often as she would like to spend time with her son. Numerous half-brothers, sisters and cousins were counted among the children on the plantation, but Frederick never received the opportunity to develop much of a relationship with any of them.

Eventually, Douglass fled slavery and all it implied. Once he did, his main focus was to 1) avoid capture and 2) build a life. Consequently, the idea of making contact with his family was continually pushed to the back burner. Following the Civil War, his attitude began to change.

In 1848, Douglass celebrated the 10th anniversary of his escape from slavery. One September night after his children were tucked into bed and the house was quiet, Douglass composed a letter to his former master, Thomas Auld. In the letter, Douglass implored Auld to send him information about his siblings and grandmother. He also asked Auld to free his grandmother, if she was still alive, so Douglass could care for her himself and offer her the love he felt she deserved in her twilight years. Lastly, he asked Auld to mentally walk a mile in his shoes and imagine how he would have felt if Douglass had held his family in bondage. His letter never received an answer.

Douglass’s quest to reunite with his family finally began to bear some fruit. He made contact with his sister, Eliza, who had been freed from slavery in the 1830s by her husband. Afterward, the siblings stayed in touch as much as possible. Brother Perry’s whereabouts required a 40-year search before the two brothers were reunited. Douglass had learned Perry was in Texas and still enslaved. He was finally able to move Perry and his family to Rochester.

Prior to the Civil War, Frederick Douglass began making a name for himself in various speaking and social circles. Following the war, he skyrocketed to stardom. Now a man of great influence, Douglass numbered citizens on both sides of the Atlantic as friends. He was also appointed by President Hayes as the US Marshall for the District of Columbia.

Charles Caldwell, a friend of Douglass’s, invited him back to Talbot County, Maryland for a visit and Douglass now felt the time had come to return to his roots. After his arrival, another invitation arrived; this one totally unexpected. Having been told Douglass was in the area, 80+-year-old Thomas Auld sent word asking Douglass to come to visit. Frederick immediately accepted.

Now that slavery was destroyed and slave and master stood on equal ground, I was not only willing to meet with him, but was very glad to do so.

Prior to this time, Douglass’s mind was filled with memories of Auld’s horrific behavior towards him. However, he now harbored no bitterness.

Due to Auld’s bedridden status, he now lived with his daughter. When Douglass arrived at the house, he was taken to Auld’s bedroom. Greetings were exchanged as Auld referred to Frederick as “Marshall Douglass,” and referred to as “Captain Auld.” As the two men shook hands, emotions ruled. Tears filled Auld’s eyes and Douglass discovered himself to be speechless. When Douglass eventually found his voice, he asked Auld what reaction he had had to Frederick’s escape so many years ago. Auld told him:

“Frederick, I always knew you were too smart to be a slave and had I been in your place, I should have done as you did.”

Auld also informed Frederick of the fact he had rescued Douglass’s grandmother from poverty to care for her in her final years. This brought a deep level of comfort to Douglass. Due to Auld’s frail health, Douglass kept his visit short. Not long after the meeting, Auld died.

Douglass now returned home with closure regarding that part of his life.

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