Google’s honoring of Frederick Douglass through a doodle on its search page Monday highlights one of America's most prominent abolitionists.
Douglass’ life story and his oral and literary work still stand as defining items in the saga of slavery and racial injustice in the United States. Remembering his career is also a relevant way to observe the start of African American History Month.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born into slavery in Maryland early in the 19th century. After beginning his life on a plantation, Douglass was sent to Baltimore, where he was first exposed to the alphabet and literacy. Allowing slaves to learn to read and write was not accepted at the time, but Douglass was briefly helped by his master’s wife and continued to secretly learn even after her teaching was discovered. His ability to read led him to various newspapers and publications, where he was exposed to the ideals of freedom.
Douglass was eventually sent back to a plantation, where he began to teach other slaves – and he did so for months, until several plantation owners stopped him. Years later, Douglass escaped from slavery and made his way to freedom in New York City in 1838. There, he married a free black woman, Anna Murray, whom he had fallen in love with in Baltimore. The two eventually settled in southern Massachusetts, where they took on the name Douglass.
Douglass went on to work as a preacher and anti-slavery activist, becoming friends with fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison. Douglass’ best known work, his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published in 1845. Not only did the book take a stark account of the life of a slave in America, but it also challenged the belief that slaves could not write or be educated. That book went on to become an influential bestseller, shifting much public opinion on the topic of slavery and the abilities of blacks.
Douglass was considered a brilliant speaker, and made a standout appearance as the lone black attendee at the landmark Seneca Falls Convention of 1848, where he spoke on behalf of women’s suffrage, leading to its inclusion in the convention’s resolutions.
Douglass became one of the more prominent black figures in the US in the 1800s, eventually advising presidents Abraham Lincoln and Andrew Johnson on issues such as the treatment of black soldiers and the right of blacks to vote. Without his approval, Douglass became the first African American nominated for vice president, as the running mate of Victoria Woodhull of the Equal Rights Party.
After the end of the Civil War, Douglass’ work as a writer and public speaker in the abolitionist movement continued through the Reconstruction era until his death in 1895. Since then, he has been honored through the naming of schools, parks, landmarks, and more, as well as his inclusion in honorary societies and by various art and film portrayals.
Douglass’s speeches, published works, and contribution to social reform are still recognized today.
African American History Month was officially established by President Gerald R. Ford in 1976 to “review with admiration the impressive contributions of black Americans to our national life and culture,” and to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Clearly, Google sees honoring the work of Frederick Douglass is a good way to start off this month of commemoration.