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As President Donald Trump noted in a speech on Feb. 1, “during this month, we honor the tremendous history of African-Americans throughout our country.”
He identified Frederick Douglass as someone who has “done an amazing job” and “is being recognized more and more.”
Here’s a primer on Douglass, for those who might not know about the job he has done or the recognition he deserves.
Douglass was born a slave in Maryland around 1818. His father may have been a plantation owner. His mother died when he was 10.
During his childhood, there was a ban on teaching slaves to read and write. A woman defied the ban and taught Douglass the alphabet when he was 12. He began reading avidly, and credits newspapers with clarifying his views on human rights.
As a teenager, he began sharing what he learned with other slaves. He read to them, but also taught them to read. His lessons were cut short when a slave owner, known as a “slave-breaker,” physically abused Douglass in an effort to break him psychologically.
When Douglass was 20 years old, he escaped from slavery to New York, and then settled in Massachusetts. He began regularly giving anti-slavery lectures. During a lecture tour in 1843, he was chased and beaten by an angry mob.
He started his published writing career with an autobiography that was released in 1845. His fame increased, and his book became a bestseller. Critics questioned how a former slave with no formal education could have written what he did.
He had to escape to Ireland and England after his autobiography was published, as he was threatened with recapture into slavery. British supporters raised money to purchase his freedom. Two years later, he returned to the United States.
His career expanded. He began publishing abolitionist newspapers, and became a vocal supporter of women’s rights. He was the only African-American to attend the Seneca Falls, N.Y., women’s rights convention in 1848, when he argued strongly in favor of women having the right to vote. He reasoned that he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if all women did not have the same right.
His political life expanded, too. He counseled President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and President Andrew Johnson on black suffrage. He held various political posts, and was also nominated for vice president of the United States. That made him the first African-American to appear on a presidential ballot.
On the day of his death in February 1895, Douglass had appeared at a Women’s National Council meeting. He spent the meeting sitting next to Susan B. Anthony, a lifelong friend. He died later that evening after falling to his knees, with his hands clasped.
Here are some of Douglass’ most famous words:
“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
“The marriage institution cannot exist among slaves, and one sixth of the population of democratic America is denied its privileges by the law of the land. What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?”
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. … This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”