, Research Paper
The Slave Years of Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was born a slave in 1817 as Frederick Bailey on a farm in Tuckahoe, near Easton town in Talbot County, Maryland. The owner of the farm, Captain Anthony, was Frederick’s first master. Frederick’s mother, Harriet Bailey, worked for long hours in the fields of Captain Anthony’s farm situated twelve miles away from their home. Because of this, Frederick’s mother was unable to take care of him and so Frederick was sent to live with his grandmother, Betsey Bailey. Betsey was too old for field labour; thus, her job was to take care of children until they were old enough to work. Being so far apart, Frederick was only able to see his mother four or five times in his life. Those times that they did meet were very short and happened during the nights (24; ch.1). Harriet Bailey died when Frederick was about seven years old, but he did not know anything about her death until much later. Hence, Frederick had little memory of his mother. It was unclear who Frederick’s father was. Frederick himself had very little information about his father except that he was white. Frederick had also speculated that his father might be Captain Anthony. Thus, Frederick spent his childhood with his grandmother on the outskirts of the plantation. During these years, he had no understanding of slavery or the situation that he was in.
At the age of six, Frederick began his work for Captain Anthony. The slave children of Captain Anthony were fed corn meal mush that was placed in a trough. They looked like so many pigs that ate mush with oyster-shells, naked hands until they left the trough satisfied (52; ch.5). Moreover, these slaves only got two coarse linen shirts, reaching to their knees, for clothing per year. Seven to ten years old children were almost naked all seasons. They were not provided beds or warm blankets. Hence, they slept in the kitchen on cold winter nights in order to keep themselves warm (51; ch.5).
On one night, Frederick witnessed a whipping of his Aunt Hester by Captain Anthony because she had disobeyed his orders. It was the first time that Frederick saw a horrible exhibition. It was also the first of a long series of outrages that he was a witness and later to be a victim of (28; ch.1). In 1826, Lucretia Auld, a daughter of Anthony, told Frederick that he was being sent to Baltimore to live with her husband’s brother, Mr. Hugh Auld. Thus, Frederick left Colonel Lloyd’s plantation when he was eight years old. He enjoyed his three happiest days before he left his home by washing off the plantation scurf in the creek, and preparing himself for his departure. He scrubbed himself clean, since Lucretia would give him a pair of pants to wear to Baltimore. Frederick left Tuckahoe with joy. He was eager to go to Baltimore and to leave his unhappy life at the plantation behind. His mother was now dead, his grandmother lived far away and his siblings were separated early in his life. As a result, Frederick was on his way to Baltimore to work, for the first time, with the hope of reward (53; ch.5).
After arriving to the Auld family, Frederick was told to take care of little Thomas, an infant son. Sophia Auld was his mistress, whom Frederick described as ” a woman of the kindest heart and finest feelings” (57; ch.6). Mrs. Auld taught him the ABC’s, and then to spell simple words. At that point, Mr. Auld found out and became furious because it was unlawful and unsafe to teach a slave to read. Hugh Auld said to his wife that teaching a slave to read and to write that would make him unfit to be a slave. He told his wife that a slave who can read and write would not obey his master any more. Furthermore, this slave could escape to freedom place (58; ch.6). From that moment, Frederick figured out what a slavery life was. He learned from Mr. Auld that knowing how to read and to write could lead him to freedom. Hence, he made gaining knowledge his primary goal. Sophia Auld, persuaded by her husband, changed her thoughts about teaching Frederick. She began treating him as a slave, not like any other child. Mrs. Auld would get angry whenever she caught Frederick reading a newspaper or books. Learning from her husband, Sophia recognized that education and slavery were the two opposite things that were not compatible with each other. On the other hand, Frederick was still learning to read from his poor white friends, whom he met on the streets while he was sent on errands. He paid “these teachers” pieces of bread in order to get more valuable bread of knowledge (65; ch.7). As a result, Frederick gradually learned to read. “A slave for life” was being thought heavily upon his head when he was twelve years old. He bought a book with a title “The Columbian Orator”, which contained dialogues dealing with liberty and human rights. Frederick was consumed with the thoughts written in this book. He then began to read city papers and learned the words abolition and abolitionist (69; ch.7). After that he succeeded in learning how to write from his friends and from his little Master Thomas’s copybooks. After living with the Aulds for about five years, he went back to the place of his birth to attend to Captain Anthony’s death. All Captain Anthony’s property was divided between his son and daughter, Andrew and Lucretia. After the division of the property, Frederick fell to the portion of Lucretia and was sent back to Baltimore to live with Master Hugh family again. Unfortunately, Lucretia and Andrew died within that same year and so all the property of his old master was given to the strangers – two Auld brothers. Frederick was angered when his grandmother, considered too old for any work, was sent into the woods to die. This event increased his hatred of slavery. At this time, there was a conflict between the two brothers; thus, Master Thomas took Frederick to live with him as punishment to his brother, Master Hugh (78; ch.8).
In March of 1832, Frederick, a 15 year-old-boy, left Baltimore and went to live with his new master, Thomas Auld, at St. Michael’s. Thomas was described as a mean and cruel but coward man who never gave a slave enough food to eat. Therefore, slaves had to steal food from neighboring farms to survive. Frederick was extremely unhappy about his new situation because of his dislike for his new master. He quickly became unsuitable for Thomas’s purpose. As a result, Frederick received severe whippings from Thomas, all for no good reason (87; ch.9). In January 1833, Frederick was sent to Edward Covey for one year. Mr. Covey was a poor farmer and an expert “nigger-breaker”. However, Covey fed his slaves better than Thomas did. Covey gave them enough to eat, but very little time to eat before they were sent back to work. Slaves of Covey must work from dawn until after dusk. Frederick worked for the first time in his life as a field hand in the woods of Covey. After working for one week, Frederick got the first serious beating from Covey. During the six months that followed, Frederick was continually whipped as serious as the first time until he was broken in body, spirit and soul. On one of the hottest days of August 1833, Frederick’s strength failed him and he could not stand any longer in the field. As Covey saw this, he kicked and beat Frederick until Frederick became unconscious. After Frederick got his strength back, he went back to the Auld farm to beg them to let him stay. Unluckily, Thomas Auld refused and sent him back to Covey. One day, when Covey began tying him for a whipping, Frederick found the strength to rebel this beating. The spirit of resolving to fight suddenly came to his mind that suited his action to the resolution (103; ch.10). There was a battle between Frederick and Covey for nearly two hours, until Covey finally gave up. From that time on, Covey stopped whipping him. “I felt as I never felt before. It was a glorious resurrection, from the tomb of slavery, to the heaven of freedom”, Frederick wrote (105; ch.10). He felt like he was freed as a result of this victory.
After working for Mr. Covey for a year, Frederick was sent to work for a farmer named William Freeland, a relatively kind master. Freeland gave the slaves enough food and time to eat. By that time, Frederick did not care for having a kind master. All he concentrated on was getting his freedom. He held his Sabbath school, an illegal school, to teach the slaves nearly a whole year. Then, came up with a plan for escape. His group planned to steal a boat to row up the Chesapeake Bay before Easter holidays in 1835. This plan failed when one of his fellow-slaves betrayed them. Frederick was put into jail for about one week. To Frederick’s surprise, Captain Thomas Auld came up and took him out of jail. After that, Thomas sent him back to Baltimore to live with Hugh Auld again. Since the two Auld brothers had resolved their differences. Hugh Auld then hired Frederick, as a caulker, to work on an extensive shipbuilder project. One day, a group of white apprentices beat up Frederick and made his eyeball almost burst (130; ch.10). That was how the white men treated a black slave person in the shipyard.
After Frederick recovered from his injuries, he began his apprenticeship with Master Hugh. Within one year, Frederick was able to get the highest wage possible for a caulker. After being an experienced caulker, Frederick sought his own employment and collected his own money earning. It was rightfully his own; yet, he must give all his wages to Hugh Auld at each Saturday night. Sometimes, Hugh gave Frederick back a little money from his wages to encourage him. As time went on, Frederick resented having to give up all his hard-earned money to Master Hugh. He then got the privilege for his own work, gave his master money from his working and kept extra money for himself. His mind always thought about a freedom of life. Frederick had joined a group of educated free blacks, and made friends with a number of warm-hearted friends in Baltimore. One of them was Anna Murray, his intended wife. Thinking about escape was hard for him, at that time, because of the love and friendship that had surrounded him. Furthermore, there could be the danger that he might get caught during his escaping, and his life would end with death. But finally, Frederick decided to escape to freedom. On the third day of September 1838, with money that he borrowed from Anna, Frederick bought a ticket and succeeded in reaching New York. He left his chains of slavery and became a free man on that day. His feeling was “like one who had escaped a den of hungry lions” (143; ch.11). Frederick finally changed his name from Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Frederick Douglass. A new world had opened in front of his eyes.
Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave. Ed. Benjamin Quarles. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1960.