READ THE STORY: On September 3,
1838, abolitionist, journalist, author, and human rights advocate
Frederick Douglass made his dramatic
escape from slavery—traveling
north by train and boat—from Baltimore, through Delaware, to
Philadelphia. That same night, he took a train to New York, where he
arrived the following morning.
“On Monday, the third day of September, 1838, in accordance with
my resolution, I bade farewell to the city of Baltimore, and to that
slavery which had been my abhorrence from childhood.”
Life and Times of Frederick
Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape from Bondage, and his
Complete History to the Present Time. External
Hartford, Conn: Park Publishing Co., 1881.
Portrait of Frederick Douglass, Frontispiece.
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
Written by Himself.
External Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.
Born into slavery on a plantation in Tuckahoe, Maryland, circa
1817, he was the son of a black mother and an unidentified white father.
He never knew the date of his birth, but celebrated his birthday on
February 14 in memory of his mother, who had brought him a heart-shaped
cake on the night that he last saw her.
Only a small boy when his mother died, Douglass, born Frederick
Bailey, lived with his grandmother in the slave quarters until he was
eight years old, when he was “hired out” and sent to work in the home of
Hugh Auld. While working for the Auld family in Baltimore, Frederick
began to acquire a formal education. Mrs. Auld broke Maryland state law
in order to teach the young boy to read, and Frederick later tried to
learn all he could from schoolboys he met on the streets of Baltimore.
The African-American Odyssey:
A Quest for Full Citizenship. Black History Collection.
After an earlier unsuccessful attempt, Frederick escaped from
slavery in 1838 by posing as a free sailor wearing a red shirt, a
tarpaulin hat, and a black scarf tied loosely around his neck. He
boarded a train bound for Philadelphia.
On sped the train and I was well on my way…when the conductor
came into the negro car to collect tickets and examine the papers of his
black passengers. This was a critical moment in the drama.
Frederick had to be able to sound, as well as look, like a
My knowledge of ships and sailor’s talk came much to my
assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stern and from keelson to
cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an ‘old salt.’
Overjoyed at being free when he reached New York City, Frederick
immediately had to face feelings of loneliness and fear as a stranger in
a strange land. Fortunately, he was soon given assistance by free black
abolitionist and activist David Ruggles.
Two weeks after reaching a free state, Douglass married Anna
Murray, a free black woman whom he had met in Baltimore. He settled in
New Bedford, Massachusetts, where his experience as a ship caulker
enabled him to find work on the docks. In New Bedford, Frederick gave a
friend the privilege of choosing for him a new name, since he might be
sought under the old name as a runaway:
I gave Mr. Johnson the privilege of choosing me a name, but told
him he must not take from me the name of “Frederick.” I must hold on to
that, to preserve a sense of my identity. Mr. Johnson had just been
reading the Lady of the Lake,
and at once suggested that my name be “Douglass.”
Three years later, Frederick Douglass began to give lectures on
behalf of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society. Douglass wrote
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American SlaveExternal in part to refute charges that it was impossible
that someone of his accomplishments could have been a slave.