10 Things You May Not Know About Frederick Douglass

02/14/2017 11:50 am ET Updated Feb 17, 2017
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Frederick Douglass is one of the most important figures in American history, but many know little about the legendary abolitionist. Long before the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Douglass stood firmly in opposition to slavery and women's suffrage of the Civil War era. The social reformer's life embodies the American dream and more importantly, the power of literacy and tenacity. His passion to read elevated Douglass from enslavement to the White House. In honor of Black History Month let's remember or newly discover the incredible life and achievements of Frederick Douglass.

1. He was a self-liberated slave.

Born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Frederick was born a slave around February 14, 1818 (a chosen date, the exact birthdate is unknown) in Talbot County, Maryland. At the age of 12, Douglass insisted to learn how to read, as his mother Harriet Bailey was the only woman of color in Tuckahoe who could read. After his mother died suddenly, the slave master's wife, Sophia Auld, taught young Frederick the alphabet. He then went on to teach himself to read and write. As a teenager, Douglass continued to study political essays and journals like The Columbian Orator, which inspired him to seek a life free of slavery. In 1838, Douglass (age 20) would successfully escape to the north with the help of his future wife, Anna Murray, a free black abolitionist in Baltimore.

2. He wrote three autobiographies.

In 1845, Douglass wrote his first autobiography The Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass at about age of 27. In this work the writer chronicled events of his life, while blatantly exposing the shameful treatment of that time. His slave narrative helped to fuel the abolitionist movement of the early 19th century in the United States. Two years later, Douglass began publishing the anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star to cover politics and abolitionist issues. He wrote two more memoirs about his life: My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

3. His narratives created a fatherhood mystery.

There is some mystery surrounding the father of Frederick Douglass and it is all due to his own writings! In his first narrative, Douglass strongly implied that his father was a white man and perhaps his own master. But in his last memoir, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), he denied actually knowing the identity of his father at all.

4. He was a preacher.

Frederick Douglass became a licensed preacher of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in 1839. Fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison encouraged Douglass to speak at the annual convention of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, the dawning of a new journey as public speaker. During this time, he frequented and became a lecturer for anti-slavery conventions. The orator traveled relentlessly many miles to the East, most notably Britain and Ireland.

5. He was a Republican.

The human rights leader passionately believed that the Republican party could end slavery in the US.

I am a Republican, a black, dyed in the wool Republican, and I never intend to belong to any other party than the party of freedom and progress.

Douglass appealed to President Lincoln and his cabinet to enlist blacks into the Union Army. Despite having a critical and contentious relationship, Lincoln and Douglass both fiercely fought to abolish slavery. Over time they apparently worked out their differences, because Douglass gave the eulogy at Abraham Lincoln's funeral.

6. He was the first black citizen placed in nomination for U.S. president (twice)

On June 23, 1888, Frederick Douglass became the first black candidate placed in nomination for President. The statesman received one vote from the Kentucky Delegation at the Republican Convention in Chicago. But this nomination was not his first. In fact, the highly publicized day was actually the second time that Frederick Douglass had received a single vote to become a U.S. presidential candidate; his first vote came during the National Liberty Party Convention in 1848. Douglass had no known affiliation to the Liberty Party and was unaware of the circumstances surrounding his nomination for this convention. The patriotic abolitionist would also receive the vice president nomination at the Equal Rights Party Convention in 1872.

7. His daughter wrote a book.

Frederick and his wife Anna Murray had five children, three sons and two daughters. Their daughter Rosetta Douglass Sprague, wrote a biography titled, My Mother as I Recall Her about her mother in 1900. Sprague worried that her mother's legacy would be overshadowed by her father's considerable achievements. In the book, Douglass' daughter revealed that her mother lived an isolated life while regularly hosting white abolitionist who could barely hide their hatred for her. Anna Murray never learned to read despite her husband's attempt to teach her how. Sprague's manuscripts are preserved in a series of Douglass family papers at the Library of Congress.

8. He has a statue in the Capitol.

A bronze statue of the revered abolitionist was dedicated by Congress at a ceremony on June 19, 2013 (Juneteenth), in Emancipation Hall. Sculptor Steven Weitzman was awarded the commission to create the statue in 2006, after a decade-long struggle between residents of the District of Columbia and Congress. The dedication ceremony also honored the slave laborers who built the Capitol by placing Douglass' statue at the same site.

9. He had an affair.

Douglass had an 28-year affair with a German journalist named Ottilie Assing. The daughter of one of Germany's most prominent families, Ottilie arranged to translate his memoir, ''My Bondage and My Freedom". She lived in the Douglass family home for 22 summers until the relationship ended. Douglass refused to leave his wife Anna Murray and Ottilie returned home disillusioned. After Douglass' first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, died on August 4, 1882, he married Helen Pitts, a young abolitionist clerk about 18 months later. Upon hearing of Douglass' second marriage, a cancer stricken Assing committed suicide. Some of Assing letters to Douglass survive in the Douglass papers collection. Helen Pitts devoted her life to preserving his legacy and established the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association following his death in 1895.

10. He is in the movies.

Academy Awards nominated 1989 film Glory featured Frederick Douglass as a friend of Francis George Shaw. The early 19th century hero was played by Raymond St. Jacques.

There have been various artistic and literary portrayals of his prodigious life. Most recently, in the yet to be released 2016 documentary The Gettysburg Address, a film by Jim and Sean Conant.

A wide variety of material associated with Frederick Douglass, including manuscripts, photographs, books and other resources can be viewed via The Library of Congress at https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/douglass/

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