The Importance of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

One of the aims of the Church History Review is to enable the reader to enter history, to provide a door through which you can discover lessons from the past to help you today. We’re inspired by those who have, through faith and patience, overcome almost impossible obstacles.

When I was in the USA earlier this year I stayed in a southern state and wanted to read more of its history. I found a little second-hand bookstore and spent some pleasant hours searching through the shelves for poetry and biography from the area. Like many in the UK in the 1970s, my family had eagerly watched each episode of Alex Haley’s Roots TV series. I was also aware that some former American slaves had written their biographies and discovered this bookstore had two or three. Their stories, told in such close and honest detail, are deeply shocking. I have only been in one significant car accident. As I pulled out onto a main road a speeding driver who wasn’t concentrating smashed into the back of my car. He hit me so hard the back of my driver’s seat broke, and the car was written off. Reading these narratives, particularly the one I will focus on in the next few posts, was a similar kind of experience. You might not want to be exposed to such a jarring experience, but let me urge you to read on for at least the following reasons:

history – I want to know what was actually going on.
understanding – autobiography (as with poetry) helps me connect with another person’s experience. It informs my humanity. It can change my perspective and behaviour.
context – I felt, as I read Douglass’ story, that I gained a fuller understanding of the USA itself – missing puzzle pieces fell into place; and actually not only the US picture, but any postcolonial or mutli-cultural context.
Christian instruction – as we’ll see, Douglass had a strong and justified critique of the failure of the church to apply the gospel to issues of racism

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery on a plantation in Maryland before the American Civil War. In 1838 when he was twenty he made a dangerous and daring escape and became an influential speaker in the growing abolitionist movement in the North. His first book was the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave published in 1845 and from which the following extracts are taken:

My father was a white man. He was admitted to be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage. The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. 

My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.

I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home. She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day’s work. She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission from his or her master to the contrary—a permission which they seldom get, and one that gives to him that gives it the proud name of being a kind master.

I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day. She was with me in the night. She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very little communication ever took place between us. Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering. She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care…’ [i]

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[i] Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, 1845, p.2 (Dover Thrift Edition, 1995)

©2018 Lex Loizides / Church History Review


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