Mysterious, Brilliant Frederick Douglass


Some years ago, after giving a talk at a college in Louisiana, I was approached at the podium by a middle-aged white man who said, with a genial smile, “Since you mentioned Frederick Douglass, I thought you’d be interested that my family used to own him.” His matter-of-factness was a shock to this Yankee clueless in Dixie. I couldn’t tell if I was meant to congratulate or, perhaps, commiserate, as if his forebears had misplaced some rare collectible. So I said something lame like, “Well, that’s quite something, thanks for letting me know.”

Frederick Douglass, Syracuse, New York, July–August 1843; whole-plate daguerreotype by an unknown photographer, from Picturing Frederick Douglass
Onondaga Historical Association
Frederick Douglass, Syracuse, New York, July–August 1843; whole-plate daguerreotype by an unknown photographer, from Picturing Frederick Douglass

The gentleman identified himself as Mr. Auld, which was, indeed, the surname of the Maryland merchant, Thomas Auld, who, from 1826 to 1846, was Frederick Douglass’s legal owner. Auld inherited the eight-year-old boy from his father-in-law, a slave master named Aaron Anthony, who may also have been Frederick’s father by one of his slaves, Harriet Bailey. Young Frederick Bailey (he took the name Douglass years later, from a swashbuckling character in a poem by Sir Walter Scott) was traded back and forth between the rural household of Thomas and Lucretia Anthony Auld and that of Thomas’s brother Hugh, in Baltimore, where Hugh’s wife, Sophia, instructed the precocious boy in the rudiments of reading. Although Maryland was among the few slave states where teaching literacy to slaves was not illegal, Hugh put a stop to it on the grounds (in Douglass’s recollection) that “if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell.” By observing the white children at their lessons, the boy continued his education surreptitiously.

With a reputation for truculence as well as high intelligence, Douglass was treated sometimes as a family servant, sometimes as an adoptive son, and sometimes as a piece of equipment to be rented out for cash. In an incident about which he often spoke and wrote in later life, he fought off a brutal slave breaker named Covey, to whom Thomas Auld had sent him and who tried to beat him for his perceived insolence before retreating in terror from the young man’s fury. In 1836, barely eighteen, Douglass joined a plot to flee to freedom in the North, but when his coconspirators lost their nerve, the plan fell apart.

The Maryland in which Douglass grew up was a state where slavery, by some measures, was in decline. By midcentury, the population of its largest city, Baltimore, exceeded 200,000, of which some 30,000 were free blacks and fewer than 7,000 were slaves. With more and more slaves allowed, by permission from their masters, to keep a portion of their wages when “hired out,” a young man with Douglass’s strength and skills could…

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