Black History Month: February 14, 1818 – Birthday of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey on February 14, 1818. [He did not know the exact date, but according to the Library of Congress, he celebrated his birthday on February 14 in memory of his mother, who had brought him a heart-shaped cake on the night that he last saw her.]

He was determined to make a better life for himself. As a biography of Douglass on the website of the Oxford African American Studies Center relates:

“Despite his situation, Frederick managed to learn to read and write, sometimes by bribing white boys into teaching him in exchange for bits of bread. At the age of about twelve, he acquired a copy of the Columbian Orator, a book of famous speeches that formed the basis for his later skills as an outstanding public lecturer. After he gained basic literacy, Frederick began to reach out to others, assisting his fellow slaves to read and operating a forbidden Sunday school. As he gained more knowledge of the world at large, he could no longer passively submit to a life of slavery. In September 1838, he borrowed the identification papers of a free black sailor and boarded a train for the North. Locating in New Bedford, Massachusetts, he took the name Frederick Douglass, after a character in Sir Walter Scott’s epic poem, The Lady in the Lake.”

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Frederick Douglass as a young man

Within a few years Douglass gained fame as an abolitionist, author, and orator. He published his narrative detailing his time as a slave, edited his own newspaper, and traveled throughout the United States and Britain lecturing on important civil rights and social justice topics. When the Civil War erupted in 1861, Douglass was twice invited to the White House to see President Abraham Lincoln, and then acted as a recruiter for African American troops. Following Lincoln’s death, at the unveiling of the Emancipation Memorial in Washington’s Lincoln Park, Douglass was pressed to speak, and received a standing ovation, as well as a gift from Mary Todd Lincoln of Lincoln’s favorite walking stick. She knew how highly Lincoln regarded him.

Frederick Douglass in later life

Frederick Douglass in later life

Following the war, Douglass continued speaking, writing, advising presidents, and encouraging civil rights movements. Douglass died of a heart attack at Cedar Hill on 20 February 1895, having just returned from a rally for women’s suffrage. He was buried in Rochester, NY, where many members of his family still lived.

Douglass’s three autobiographies are still read and respected and at least one is available free online: Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881).

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11 Responses to Black History Month: February 14, 1818 – Birthday of Frederick Douglass

  1. Sandy says:

    What an accomplished gentleman. It is inspiring that he was able to rise above the obstacles. I think way back in the day, maybe in high school, I read a book about him. It feels familiar. I love these little mini history lessons!

  2. Julie P. says:

    What an amazing man. I remember studying him in school but I never learned about Lincoln’s walking stick.

  3. This is one person that I would love to have met!!!

  4. Jenny says:

    Wow, I somehow managed not to know that Douglass’s birthday is the same as my sister’s. Lucky her! Frederick Douglass is wonderful wonderful and I love him so much because he’s utterly my hero. Thanks for posting this!

  5. softdrink says:

    I didn’t know that he had taken the name Frederick Douglass from a poem!

  6. Bookjourney says:

    Another amazing post! Very cool information and I really thought the birthdays being the same was interesting.

  7. Valerie says:

    I have been appreciating your history lessons this month! “the Radical and the Republican” looks like an interesting book. I’d probably want to start there to get some background before trying to dive into any of Douglass’s works. Thanks for providing the links to free versions of his books, too.

  8. Margot says:

    When I graduated from college (Jan. 1966), my first job was teaching (37 students) fifth grade in an all-black school named for Douglass. We studied all aspects of Douglass’ life. He was still inspirational to those children and I hope to the students who are still attending the school. Thanks for the reminder.

  9. ds says:

    Thank you for the education; I know very little about Mr. Douglass, but much more after reading this! A timely reminder that his books are still important. Thanks again.

  10. Nymeth says:

    I have got to read his books! I’ve been meaning to for years. Thank you for this – I love how much time and research you put into these posts. They are truly appreciated.

  11. kayria hildebran says:

    When I frist read about him it said that they did not know when his brithday was and they said that he chose to celebrate his brithday on February 14, turns out thathis birthday is on February 14. So thatwas cool to find out.

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