Frederick Douglass

Courtesy of the National Gallary of Art

A Comparison of the Lives of Slaves


Catherine Belcher

In North America, slavery officially began in 1671 when Virginia instituted slavery.  This was done to meet the growing labor demands; however, the first Africans arrived in Virginia much earlier in 1619.  (Understanding Slavery)  Slavery is the “condition in which one human being is owned by another.”  This concept doesn't make sense in the 'land of the free'.  Slaves were property, to be used and sold at the will of their masters.  (“Slavery”)  The conditions of slaves differed depending on where they lived, city or country, the wealth of their masters, the temperament of their masters as well as several other variables.

One man, Frederick Douglass, emerged from the life of slavery after much hardship and struggle.  Frederick Douglass was born “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey” around 1818.  Douglass managed to escape around the year 1838 at which time he went to New York where he met with and married Anna Murray, a free woman.  Originally, Frederick had chosen 'Johnson' to be his last name; however, upon arrival he found the name to be quite common, on Mr. Johnson being a new friend of his.  Therefore, Frederick sought another name and allowed Mr. Johnson to help, with only one rule.  “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.” (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)  Thus Frederick Bailey became Frederick Douglass.  Frederick had a unique, sorrow-filled yet uplifting life.

He grew up somewhat sheltered from the reality of slavery.  Frederick saw his mother no more than four or five short times and was left without any real indication as to who his father was.  “Slavery made his mother a myth and his father a mystery (When the Lion Wrote History).”  In his early years he was with his grandmother outside of the plantation to be raised until he was ready to do labor.  As a result of this broken early life, Frederick, like most slaves, was struck by a sort of identity loss.  He barely new his mother, didn't know who his father was, didn't have any real connections to his siblings and furthermore, he didn't know how old he was.  Most slave have this problem.  (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)  For instance, Harriet Smith, a woman who was a slave in Texas told of similar problems.  “I really don't know my age, only by the, the children telling me, of course.”  Harriet also lost her mother and was left to the life of the slave alone.  “My ma died, and she, and she didn't know nothing about our age.”  Still, she was able to find a sort of estimate.  “But the children traced back from the ex-slave up to now. I was about thirteen years old at the break up [of slavery].”  (Smith Interview)  Douglass did some tracing back of his own.  He went to a relative of his old master, Thomas Cedar, and who provided information that helped narrow the year he was born down to 1817 or 1818.  After his death it was found on a ledger that he was born February of 1818.  (When the Lion Wrote History)

At about the age of eight or nine, Frederick's shelter was broken.  He saw his Aunt Hester being whipped for disobeying their master.  He began to see the horror in slavery.  Soon after this, he was sent to Baltimore and was glad for it; however, he soon became discontent with how his life was progressing.  “I didn't know I was a slave until I found out I couldn't do the things I wanted (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass).”  Still, this move to Baltimore proved to be an immense turning point in his life.  The family had never had slaves before and as a result were more kind than he was used to, especially the woman.  Compared with other masters who would end up whipping and beating Frederick for minor offenses, Mr. and Mrs. Auld were what some would call “good masters.”  (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)  Another man, Joe McDonald, had similar if not better circumstances with his masters.  They allowed him to stay in the house with them and told him “Joe, if you get cold come in our room by the grate.”  Moreover, something not very common was the fact that his masters and he had built a relationship in which they were able to joke with each other.  (McDonald Interview)

Something else that Joe and Frederick had in common was education.  Joe's master's wanted him to be smart and for people to know that he was raised right by white people and wanted him to live well after they were gone. 

When we are dead and in heaven, we wants to raise you as an intelligent nigga.  We wants you to have good friends like we have got.  You'll never be scratched by good rich, sensible folks because they can tell who you are by your raising and your compliments.  That show they you been raised, not by the colored but by the white.  (McDonald Interview)

This wasn't necessarily the case for Frederick, but there is a similarity in that the masters had a part in their educations.  Mrs. Lucretia Auld began teaching Frederick, but was halted by her husband who Frederick credits with inspiring him to learn more.  Frederick took every opportunity he could to learn, using boys in town to help him read or write and then reading whatever he could get his hands on and writing whenever he could and wherever he could.  (Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass)

Slaves over the centuries lived under many different conditions, some not as bad as others, while some were much worse than most.  These millions of slaves and their forced labor for over two centuries were key in building up the United States to what it has become.  Slavery was an immense wrong done to many unfortunate souls, but thankfully an end was put to it by exposing it and those who participated.  Frederick Douglass explained that exposing the truth will bring an end.  “I expose slavery in this country, because to expose it is to kill it.  Slavery is one of those monsters of darkness to whom the light of truth is death.  Expose slavery, and it dies (My Bondage and My Freedom).”

Works Cited
Discovery Education.  Understanding Slavery.  2010.  Web.  28 Apr. 2010.

Douglass, Frederick.  My Bondage and My Freedom.  Ed. William L. Andrews. New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855.  418.  Web. 

Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Kansas: Publishing,      2005.  Print.

Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History.  Dir. Orlando Bagwell.  Narr. Alfre Woodard.  28      Nov. 1994.

McDonald, Joe.  Interview.  American Memory.  The Library of Congress.

"Slavery." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2010. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 28 Apr. 2010             <>.

Smith, Harriet.  Interview.  American Memory.  The Library of Congress.

Links to Interviews