Frederick Douglass: Abolitionist and Advocate for Women's Rights

Frederick Douglass, 1876
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One of abolitionist Frederick Douglass' most famous quotes is "If there is no struggle there is no progress." Throughout his life—first as an enslaved Black man and later as an abolitionist and civil rights activist, Douglass worked to end inequality for Black Americans and women.

Enslaved From Birth

Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. His father was believed to have been a plantation owner. His mother was an enslaved woman who died when Douglass was ten years old. During Douglass' early childhood, he lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey but was sent to live in the home of a plantation owner. Following the death of his enslaver, Douglass was given to Lucretia Auld who sent him to live with her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld in Baltimore. While living in the Auld home, Douglass learned how to read and write from local White children.

For the next several years, Douglass transferred enslavers several times before self-liberating with the assistance of Anna Murray, a freed Black woman living in Baltimore. In 1838, with Murray's help, Douglass dressed in a sailor's uniform, carried identification papers belonging to a freed Black seaman, and boarded a train to Havr de Grace, Maryland. Once here, he crossed the Susquehanna River and then boarded another train to Wilmington. Then he traveled by steamboat to Philadelphia before traveling to New York City and staying in the home of David Ruggles.

A Free Man Becomes an Abolitionist

Eleven days after his arrival in New York City, Murray met him in New York City. The couple married on September 15, 1838, and adopted the last name Johnson.

Soon, however, the couple moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts and decided not to keep the last name Johnson but use Douglass instead. In New Bedford, Douglass became active in many social organizations—especially abolitionist meetings. Subscribing to William Lloyd Garrison's newspaper, The Liberator, Douglass was inspired to hear Garrison speak. In 1841, he heard Garrison speak at the Bristol Anti-Slavery Society. Garrison and Douglass were equally inspired by each other's words. As a result, Garrison wrote about Douglass in The Liberator. Soon, Douglass began telling his personal story of enslavement as an anti-slavery lecturer and was delivering speeches throughout New England—most notably at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society's annual convention.

By 1843, Douglass was touring with the American Anti-Slavery Society's Hundred Conventions project throughout Eastern and Midwestern towns in the United States where he shared his story of enslavement and persuaded listeners to be in opposition to the institution of slavery.

In 1845, Douglass published his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The text immediately became a bestseller and was reprinted nine times in its first three years of publication. The narrative was also translated into French and Dutch.

Ten years later, Douglass expanded on his personal narrative with My Bondage and My Freedom. In 1881, Douglass published Life and Times of Frederick Douglass.

Abolitionist Circuit in Europe: Ireland and England

As Douglass' popularity grew, members of the abolition movement believed that his former enslaver would try to have Douglass remanded to Maryland. As a result, Douglass was sent on tour throughout England. On August 16, 1845, Douglass left the United States for Liverpool. Douglass spent two years touring throughout Great Britain—speaking about the horrors of enslavement. Douglass was so well-received in England that he believed that he was treated not "as a color, but as a man," as he shared in his autobiography.

It was during this tour that Douglass was emancipated legally from enslavement—his supporters raised money to purchase Douglass' freedom.

Abolitionist and Women's Rights Advocate in the U.S.

Douglass returned to the United States in 1847 and, with the help of British financial supporters, began The North Star.

The following year, Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention. He was the only Black American present and supported Elizabeth Cady Stanton's position on women's suffrage. In his speech, Douglass argued that women should be involved in politics because "in this denial of the right to participate in government, not merely the degradation of woman and the perpetuation of a great injustice happens, but the maiming and repudiation of the one-half of the moral and intellectual power of the government of the world."

In 1851, Douglass decided to collaborate with abolitionist Gerrit Smith, publisher of the Liberty Party Paper. Douglass and Smith merged their respective newspapers to form Frederick Douglass' Paper, which stayed in circulation until 1860.

Believing that education was important for Black Americans to move forward in society, Douglass began a campaign to desegregate schools. Throughout the 1850s, Douglass spoke out against the inadequate schools for Black Americans.