Most high school history classes teach only that Frederick Douglass was a freed slave who helped free others. While he was instrumental in the Underground Railroad and the emancipation of slaves, he was also a major civil rights advocate. He fought for their freedom, the equal treatment of blacks and the rights of women as well. He was an abolitionist, an orator, and editor of the North Star (later renamed Frederick Douglass' Paper).
The son of a slave woman and a white man, Douglass was a plantation boy of great strength. He was taught to read by the wife of one of his masters. He worked as a calker in the shipyards. This trade helped him when he finally did plan out his escape. At about 13, he purchased his first book, The Columbian Orator, which convinced him of the right for all people to be free. The book also taught him several public speaking techniques that he would use later.
He escaped to the North in September 1838; his freedom was finally purchased in 1846. In 1850, the U.S. population was 23 million; 3.2 million were slaves.
A great orator, Douglass spoke out for the freedom of slaves. He went from city to tell the story of his being a slave. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, "brought home the collective inhumanity of slavery and the individual humanity of the slaves." His first speech was at an 1841 antislavery convention in Nantucket. At first he would not tell of where he was from nor his master's name, since he had escaped. His master could send hunters north at any moment. Once his freedom was bought however he was free to add these details to his speeches.
Fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison greatly influenced him. He devoured Garrison's weekly The Liberator, an antislavery newspaper. He started his own abolitionist paper, originally called The North Star. Douglass desired an end to slavery but he wanted to work through the Constitution of the United States.
Not only a station master, Douglass was also a notable conductor of the Underground Railroad. His house in Rochester, New York was among one of the stops of the Underground Railroad. He actively helped many escaped slaves on their flight North, most of whom fled to Canada. Douglass, unlike Garrison, believed that slaves should actively resist their oppression. He felt that slaves had every right to rebel and resist enslavement.
President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. However, slavery was not abolished until 1865 when the Thirteenth Amendment was ratified.
Douglass was instrumental in enlisting other blacks, free blacks, to fight against the Confederacy. These black troops made up the famous Massachusetts 54th. He recruited so many black soldiers that a second unit was created. Two of Douglass' sons fought in the Civil War. As early as August of 1861, Douglass pushed for blacks to enroll as soldiers. Generally there was a growing feeling among the blacks, both freed slaves and free blacks, that they did not want the white man fighting for their freedom. The Northern whites, as a whole, did not agree with slavery but still didn't feel comfortable with giving a black man a firearm.
Biographer Nathan Huggins states that Douglass, "was fearful that unless blacks became a part of the war, Northern and Southern conservatives would make a peace that left the status of blacks unchanged."
Douglass spoke with President Abraham Lincoln concerning the wages of white soldiers vs. black soldiers. It was partially due to his pressure that black soldiers finally received equal pay. While still a slave, Douglass would bring his earnings to his master each week. If it were an exceptional large amount, his master might give him a shilling. In his autobiography, Douglass wrote, "The fact that he gave me any part of my wages was proof that he suspected I had a right to the whole of them."
Meeting with Lincoln, Douglass requested that, "colored prisoners should receive the same protection and be exchanged as readily and on the same terms as white prisoners and that there should be…