The Baltimore Literary Heritage Project

Frfederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass pic
Frederick Douglass, article title

"Going to live at Baltimore laid the foundation, and opened the gateway, to all my subsequent prosperity. I have ever regarded it as the first plain manifestation of that kind providence which has ever since attended me, and marked my life with so many favors."
–from Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, one of the most gifted writers and speakers of the Civil War era, led the abolitionist movement by using words as a tool against the people who attempted to oppress him. The son of a black mother and a white father, Douglass began his life on Maryland's Eastern Shore. Raised as the son of a slave, he was apparently a charming young man, despite the horrid sights he witnessed on the plantation, including countless beatings. After enduring many years of hunger and mistreatment—including beatings—he was sent to Baltimore, where he began working for the brother-in-law of his master's daughter.

I look upon my departure from Colonel Lloyd's plantation as one of the most interesting events of my life. It is possible, and even quite probable, that but for the mere circumstance of being removed from the plantation to Baltimore, I should have to-day, instead of being here seated by my own table, in the enjoyment of freedom and the happiness of home, writing this Narrative, been confined in the falling chains of slavery.

Baltimore was a liberating city for Douglass, not because he left slavery behind, but because in Baltimore he learned to read. Hearing his mistress read the Bible aloud awoke a fiery curiosity in the young Douglass, and she began to teach him to read. When his master learned that his wife was giving Douglass reading lessons, he ordered her to stop, but Douglass realized that the only way to escape slavery was through education. Without words, he would have no ability to articulate the hypocrisy and horror of slavery. He paid poor white children to teach him to read, using bread as currency, and scoured the house in Baltimore for newspapers and books.

Douglass was 15 when he was forced to leave Baltimore to work on a plantation in St. Michaels. Three years later, he returned to the city to work as a caulker (a person who places sealant in a boat's hull to prevent water from seeping in) in the shipyards of Baltimore's Fells Point community. Standing at the docks of this neighborhood today, which is located south of Johns Hopkins Hospital and is one of the city's most popular local hangouts for fun, food, and revelry, it is still possible to imagine how hundreds of free and enslaved black shipyard workers crowded docks in search of work—just like Douglass. The historic cobblestone streets help visitors imagine the world that existed at these docks more than 100 years ago and that served as the intellectual birthplace for America's and Baltimore's most influential abolitionist.

Douglass left Baltimore to escape slavery, and would soon become famous for his command of English - both written and spoken. He published several important books including My Bondage and My Freedom, The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, and Frederick Douglass on Women's Rights.

Places of Interest: