Frederick Douglass was an escaped slave who became a leading voice in the movement that fought to end slavery in the United States in the years before the Civil War.
Last week, the National Park Service honored Douglass's birth and Black History Month with the reopening of his home at Cedar Hill, a historic site in Washington, D.C. The two-story house, which contains many of Douglass's personal possessions, had undergone a three-year restoration. (Thanks to the NPS website, however, you don't have to live in the nation's capital to visit it. Take a tour online at www.cr.nps.gov/museum/exhibits/douglass/power.htm.)
He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to a slave mother and a white father he never knew. Douglass grew up to become the first black citizen to hold a government office – as US minister and consul general to Haiti.
As a youth, he never went to school. Educating slaves was outlawed in the South, so he secretly taught himself to read and write. At 21 years old, he escaped from his slave owner to Massachusetts and changed his last name to Douglass, to hide his identity. His 1845 autobiography, "Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave," was a bestseller. (It can be read online at www.history.rochester.edu/class/douglass/duglas11.txt.) He also published antislavery newspapers.
In the 1850s, Douglass was involved with the Underground Railroad, the system set up by antislavery groups to bring runaway slaves from the South to sanctuaries in the North and in Canada. His home in Rochester, N.Y. – where he lived with his wife, Anna, and their children – was near the Canadian border. It became an important station on the route, housing as many as 11 fugitive slaves at a time.
In his lifetime, Douglass witnessed many firsts for blacks, including the abolition of slavery in 1865. Five years later, he saw the adoption of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution, which granted African- Americans the right to vote.
He died in 1895. But his memory – and that of blacks before and after him – is celebrated all month.