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Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist and Advisor to the President-- Task #15-- Frederick Douglass Escapes from Slavery-- The Story of How He Escaped.

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TASK #15--
Frederick Douglass Escapes Slavery


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.


Seaman’s Protection Certificate for Samuel Fox, August 12, 1854. Free Blacks in the Ante-Bellum Period.


The African-American Odyssey: A Quest for Full Citizenship. Black History Collection. Manuscript Division




       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 sailor:

       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 Slave External in part to refute charges that it was impossible that someone of his accomplishments could have been a slave.

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