Frederick Douglass. Talk about a historical heavyweight. Great man.
February 14, 1818: Frederick Douglass is born.
In actuality Douglass, like many slaves, did not know the exact date of his birthday (not even the year); instead, he chose to celebrate it on February 14. Douglass had been born a slave in Maryland to a slave woman and an unidentified white man, possibly one of the owners of the plantation on which he had been born. At a young age, he was sent to Baltimore to work for a new master, whose wife taught him to read until her husband put a stop to the lessons; still Douglass honed his reading skills by learning from white children living in his neighborhood. Literacy introduced Douglass to all manner of political writing and anti-slavery material. Later in his life he would write in his autobiography that “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom”. After all, it had been his masters who, fearful that his education would lead to rebellion, had attempted to keep him (and the rest of his fellow slaves) illiterate. In the same book he quoted his master as saying, on the subject of educating slaves:
A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master-to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now… if you teach that nigger… how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master.
Douglass’ autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which he wrote in 1845, eight years after escaping to freedom in New York, was so eloquently written that many readers were skeptical that a black man - and an ex-slave, at that - had actually written the book. Nevertheless, the work proved influential in the growing abolitionist movement, and Frederick Douglass cemented his place as one of the movement’s most important black activists. He believed that education would be the African-American’s most important tool in improving his or her station; he argued that the U.S. Constitution could not be interpreted as a pro-slavery document but, in fact, the opposite; he was for many years an ardent supporter of the women’s rights movement and was the only African-American, man or woman, present at the Seneca Falls Convention. A famously powerful orator, he vehemently criticized the hypocrisy of white American society in his Fourth of July speech, and by 1861 he was one of the most famous black men in the country, acquainted even with the president himself. He lived to see the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and during Reconstruction he was nominated (without his knowledge) as Vice President to the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872.