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The Honorable Frederick Douglass: An American Story, Part 1 of 2

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In his twilight years, Frederick Douglass became the first African American to serve in the Cabinet of the United States, holding the position of Minister to the Republic of Haiti. He was a major contributor to the rise of the abolitionist political movement that played a major role in the eventual delivery of the Emancipation Proclamation and the abolition of slavery in the United States.

As a youngster, he spent six relatively carefree years in Tuckahoe, playing in the fields near the shores of Chesapeake Bay under the watchful eyes of his grandparents. This idyllic life ended abruptly when he was assigned as a personal slave to the plantation owner’s similarly aged son. He quickly came to understand what his future life would entail, experiencing subjugation and drudgery under the absolute control of the plantation owner.

The path to freedom revealed itself to Frederick when, at age 12, he was moved to another plantation, and there, the property owner’s wife, Sophia Auld, began to secretly teach him to read, even though to educate a slave was strictly forbidden. This childhood time spent in Baltimore had a tremendous impact on his future life. Using 50 cents he saved from shining shoes, Frederick Douglass bought a very popular schoolbook “The Columbian Orator,” a collection of political essays, poems, and speeches by His Excellency George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Socrates. The book also contains a philosophical dialogue between a slave owner and a slave. This important book helped Frederick Douglass to fully articulate the case against slavery.

Later in 1845, moved by the misery of those in servitude that he continued to witness all around him, he wrote, “I’ve sat on Kenner’s Wharf at the foot of Philpot Street in Baltimore, and I’ve seen men and women chained and put on a ship to go to New Orleans, and I still hear their cries.” Frederick recalled standing on the bank begging for God’s deliverance and he vowed to run away.

As today is the Fourth of July, we will close our program with his words: “[…]God speed the year of jubilee The wide world o’er! When from their galling chains set free, Th’ oppress’d shall vilely bend the knee, And wear the yoke of tyranny Like brutes no more. That year will come, and freedom’s reign, To man his plundered rights again Restore.”
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