Frederick Douglass: Influential Black Leaders
A slave. A free person among slaves. A free person who must still fight for full emancipation. Every black person who has called America home has existed in one of these three states. Frederick Douglass endured them all and spoke to these unique human conditions while demanding complete black inclusion in the American experiment.
With his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, published in 1845, Douglass provided arguably the most influential slavenarrative. Born in Maryland in 1818, the son of a slave mother and a white father, possibly his owner, Douglass escaped bondage by fleeing North. Through his vivid portrayals of brutality, the severing of familial bonds and mental torture, he documented the iniquity of the peculiar institution and disproved the Southern propaganda of the happy slave.
Douglass rose to prominence in the abolitionist movement, partly due to his personal experience of having lived as chattel, but also he knew how to enrapture an audience. One observer described him as strikingly memorable. “He was more than six feet in height, and his majestic form, as he rose to speak, straight as an arrow, muscular, yet lithe and graceful, his flashing eye, and more than all, his voice, that rivaled Webster’s in its richness, and in the depth and sonorousness of its cadences, made up such an ideal of an orator as the listeners never forgot.”
Particularly relevant today, Douglass leaves behind a blueprint for challenging racism. In August 1862, President Abraham Lincoln invited black leaders to the White House to sell them on the idea of black immigration out of the country. Douglass called Lincoln’s idea “ridiculous” and believed the president showed a “pride of race and blood” and “contempt for negroes.” Through a subsequent friendship with Douglass, Lincoln learned he had erred.
Douglass was not always successful in changing the mind of a president. At the White House in 1866, Douglass told President Andrew Johnson that “we do hope that you … will favorably regard the placing in our hands the ballot with which to save ourselves.” Johnson continued to oppose black suffrage, yet Douglass taught everyone the small victories to be reaped by simply resisting the shackles of oppression.
He died in 1895, but his spirit in standing before white supremacy and calling it by its name remains. – Brando Simeo Starkey