13 Incredible Facts About Frederick Douglass

Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock
Photo Illustration: Mental Floss. Douglass: Glasshouse Images, Alamy. Backgrounds: iStock

The list of Frederick Douglass's accomplishments is astonishing—respected orator, famous writer, abolitionist, civil rights leader, presidential consultant—even more so when you consider that he was a former slave with no formal education. In honor of his 201st birthday, here are 13 incredible facts about the life of Frederick Douglass.

1. He bartered bread for knowledge.

Because Douglass was a slave, he wasn't allowed to learn to read or write. A wife of a Baltimore slave owner did teach him the alphabet when he was around 12, but she stopped after her husband interfered. Young Douglass took matters into his own hands, cleverly fitting in a reading lesson whenever he was on the street running errands for his owner. As he detailed in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he'd carry a book with him while out and about and trade small pieces of bread to the white kids in his neighborhood, asking them to help him learn to read the book in exchange.

2. He credited a schoolbook with shaping his views on human rights.

Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Engraving of Frederick Douglass, circa the 1850s.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

During his youth, Douglass obtained a copy of The Columbian Orator, a collection of essays, dialogues, and speeches on a range of subjects, including slavery. Published in 1797, the Orator was required reading for most schoolchildren in the 1800s and featured 84 selections from authors like Cicero and Milton. Abraham Lincoln was also influenced by the collection when he was first starting in politics.

3. He taught other slaves to read.

While he was hired out to a farmer named William Freeland, a teenaged Douglass taught fellow slaves to read the New Testament—but a mob of locals soon broke up the classes. Undeterred, Douglas began the classes again, sometimes teaching as many as 40 people.

4. His first wife helped him escape from slavery.

Portrait of Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick Douglass's first wife.
First published in Rosetta Douglass Sprague's book My Mother As I Recall Her, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Anna Murray was an independent laundress in Baltimore and met Douglass at some point in the mid-1830s. Together they hatched a plan, and one night in 1838, Douglass took a northbound train clothed in a sailor's uniform procured by Anna, with money from her savings in his pocket alongside papers from a sailor friend. About 24 hours later, he arrived in Manhattan a free man. Anna soon joined him, and they married on September 15, 1838.

5. He called out his former owner.

In an 1848 open letter in the newspaper he owned and published, The North Star, Douglass wrote passionately about the evils of slavery to his former owner, Thomas Auld, saying "I am your fellow man, but not your slave." He also inquired after his family members who were still enslaved a decade after his escape.

6. He took his name from a poem.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, but after escaping slavery, Douglass used assumed names to avoid detection. Arriving in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass, then using the surname "Johnson," felt there were too many other Johnsons in the area to distinguish himself. He asked his host (ironically named Nathan Johnson) to suggest a new name, and Mr. Johnson came up with Douglas, a character in Sir Walter Scott's poem The Lady of the Lake.

7. He was deemed the 19th century's most photographed American.

Portrait of Frederick Douglass
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There are 160 separate portraits of Douglass, more than Abraham Lincoln or Walt Whitman, two other heroes of the 19th century. Douglass wrote extensively on the subject during the Civil War, calling photography a "democratic art" that could finally represent black people as humans rather than "things." He gave his portraits away at talks and lectures, hoping his image could change the common perceptions of black men.

8. He refused to celebrate Independence Day.

Douglass was well-known as a powerful orator, and his July 5, 1852 speech to a group of hundreds of abolitionists in Rochester, New York, is considered a masterwork. Entitled "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July," the speech ridiculed the audience for inviting a former slave to speak at a celebration of the country who enslaved him. "This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine," he famously said to those in attendance. "Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day?" Douglass refused to celebrate the holiday until all slaves were emancipated and laws like the Compromise of 1850, which required citizens (including northerners) to return runaway slaves to their owners, were negated.

9. He recruited black soldiers for the Civil War.

The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
The Union attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston, during the American Civil War. The fort was under attack from July 18 to September 7, 1863, by soldiers including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first African-American regiment in the U.S. Army.
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Douglass was a famous abolitionist by the time the war began in 1861. He actively petitioned President Lincoln to allow black troops in the Union army, writing in his newspaper: "Let the slaves and free colored people be called into service, and formed into a liberating army, to march into the South and raise the banner of Emancipation among the slaves." After Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass worked tirelessly to enlist black soldiers, and two of his sons would join the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, famous for its contributions in the brutal battle of Fort Wagner.

10. He served under five presidents.

Later in life, Douglass became more of a statesman, serving in highly appointed federal positions, including U.S. Marshal for D.C., Recorder of Deeds for D.C., and Minister Resident and Consul General to Haiti. Rutherford B. Hayes was the first to appoint Douglass to a position in 1877, and Presidents Garfield, Arthur, Cleveland, and Benjamin Harrison each sought his counsel in various positions as well.

11. He was nominated for Vice President of the United States.

As part of the Equal Rights Party ticket in 1872, Douglass was nominated as a VP candidate, with Victoria Woodhull as the Presidential candidate. (Woodhull was the first-ever female presidential candidate, which is why Hillary Clinton was called "the first female presidential candidate from a major party" during the 2016 election.) However, the nomination was made without his consent, and Douglass never acknowledged it (and Woodhull's candidacy itself is controversial because she wouldn't have been old enough to be president on Inauguration Day). Also, though he was never a presidential candidate, he did receive one vote at each of two nomination conventions.

12. His second marriage caused controversy.

Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.
Frederick Douglass with Helen Pitts Douglass (seated, right) and her sister Eva Pitts (standing, center), circa the 1880s.

Two years after his first wife, Anna, died of a stroke in 1882, Douglass married Helen Pitts, a white abolitionist and feminist who was 20 years younger than him. Even though she was the daughter of an abolitionist, Pitts's family (which had ancestral ties directly to the Mayflower) disapproved and disowned her—showing just how taboo interracial marriage was at the time. The black community also questioned why their most prominent spokesperson chose to marry a white woman, regardless of her politics. But despite the public's and their families' reaction, the Douglasses had a happy marriage and were together until his death in 1895 of a heart attack.

13. After early success, his Narrative went out of print.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself, his seminal autobiography, was heralded a success when it came out in 1845, with some estimating that 5000 copies sold in the first few months; the book was also popular in Ireland and Britain. But post-Civil War, as the country moved toward reconciliation and slave narratives fell out favor, the book went out of print. The first modern publication appeared in 1960—during another important era for the fight for civil rights. It is now available for free online.

This article originally ran in 2018.

When Harriet Tubman Helped Lead a Civil War Raid That Freed 750 People

A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
A portrait of Harriet Tubman, the legendary Underground Railroad conductor and Civil War nurse, scout, and spy
Photos.com/iStock via Getty Images

As clouds flitted across the moonlit sky on the night of June 2, 1863, three gunboats snaked up the Combahee River in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region. The Civil War was raging and the vessels were filled with Union troops, many of them from the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, on a mission to strike Confederate plantations. There to guide them on this perilous expedition was a black woman already famed for her bold excursions into hostile territory: Harriet Tubman.

From Underground Railroad to Union Spy

Born into slavery, Tubman—the subject of the soon-to-be-released movie Harriet—had liberated herself in 1849, fleeing north from bondage in Maryland to freedom in Philadelphia. Though a fugitive with a price on her head (her former slaveholder promised $50 for her capture, $100 if she was found out of state) Tubman repeatedly returned to Maryland to usher other slaves to freedom along the Underground Railroad, a clandestine network of people, both black and white, who facilitated the escape of enslaved people northwards. It is believed that Tubman rescued around 70 slaves this way, and by the end of the Combahee River Raid on that June night in 1863, she had helped free some 750 more.

After the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, John Andrew, the abolitionist governor of Massachusetts, had asked Tubman to head to the South and assist with the "contrabands"—a term used to refer to the thousands of enslaved people who fled to Union camps amid the chaos of the conflict. It was a fitting role for Tubman, since helping African Americans shed the bonds of slavery had become the driving purpose of her life.

She volunteered in Fort Monroe, Virginia, before heading to Port Royal, South Carolina, where she worked as a nurse for soldiers and liberated slaves. Disease ran rampant during the war, and Tubman was skilled in herbal medicine. She also oversaw the building of a laundry house, so she could train African American women to become laundresses—a vocation that would prove useful as they embarked on a new, free chapter of their lives. But according to H. Donald Winkler, who writes about Tubman’s wartime exploits in Stealing Secrets: How a Few Daring Women Deceived Generals, Impacted Battles, and Altered the Course of the Civil War, “many believe that the humanitarian aspects of her trip … were a cover for her real work as a spy operating within enemy lines.”

Biographer Catherine Clinton, author of Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom, agrees that it is possible Tubman was sent to the South at least in part to gather intelligence. “Certainly she was someone who was able to go behind the lines and make contact in a way that the soldiers were not, because she had done that on the Underground Railroad,” Clinton tells Mental Floss.

Time and again as an Underground Railroad rescuer, Tubman had proven her cunning, charisma, and steely resolve, slipping into slavery territory and back out again with multiple fugitives in tow. She secretly reached out to enslaved people to encourage their escape, scouted dangerous areas, and cultivated contacts who were ready to offer shelter and support. Tubman liked to stage her rescues on Saturday nights, because Sunday was a day of rest; by the time they were discovered missing on Monday, Tubman had been given a head start.

She also possessed an uncanny ability to avoid detection, often with the help of disguises. In her book, Clinton writes that on one trip through a town near her former Maryland home, Tubman caught sight of a man who had once been her master. Fortunately, she had a bonnet pulled low over her face and two live chickens in her hands. When the man came close, Tubman pulled on strings tied to the birds’ legs, causing them to fuss and flap—and giving her an excuse to avoid eye contact.

Such exploits earned Tubman a legendary reputation among abolitionist circles. She was nicknamed “Moses,” after the biblical figure who led the oppressed to freedom.

Whatever the initial purpose of her journey south, by 1863 Tubman was working as a covert Union operative. She recruited a small but trustworthy group of black scouts, several of whom were water pilots with a thorough knowledge of the coastal landscape. The spies would sail along waterways, take note of enemy positions and movements, and communicate the information back to Union brass. Colonel James Montgomery, a fervent abolitionist, relied on Tubman’s intelligence to stage several successful raids, according to Winkler. The most famous of these was the Combahee River Raid.

Tubman's Turn to Lead

Combahee River basin, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge, Beaufort County, South Carolina
The Combahee River basin in Beaufort County, South Carolina, near the Harriet Tubman Bridge and near where the raid is believed to have taken place.
Henry de Saussure Copeland, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The goal of the mission was to destroy Confederate supply lines, disable mines in the Combahee River, and cripple prosperous plantations along the shore. As Tubman had shown with her Underground Railroad rescues, “the great weapon was to go into enemy territory and use the subversive weapon of the enslaved people themselves,” Clinton says. So if all went according to plan, Tubman and Montgomery intended to free the plantations of their slaves, too.

But first, they would need to plot their attack. Before the fateful night, Tubman and her team of spies secretly sailed up the Combahee to map the locations of rice and cotton storehouses. Tubman also found the enslaved people who had laid Confederate “torpedoes”—stationary mines beneath the water—and promised them liberation in exchange for information. It was important to spread the word about the upcoming raid, so that when it happened, the slaves would be ready to run.

Montgomery, who had worked with Tubman to raise the 2nd South Carolina Colored Infantry, was in command of the several hundred black troops who ultimately set out up the Combahee to execute the raid on June 2. But Tubman was there to guide the ships through the mines, which were difficult to spot on a dark and cloudy night. She thus became, according to Smithsonian Magazine, the first woman in U.S. history to lead a military expedition.

One of the three Union gunboats stalled after it ran aground, but the other two were able to proceed as planned. John Adams, the lead boat, pushed up to Combahee Ferry, where there was an island, a causeway, and a pontoon bridge. Montgomery’s men burned the bridge. They also set fire to plantations, storehouses, and rice mills, pillaging whatever food and cotton supplies they could carry, according to an account by the U.S. Army. And when the gunboats approached, slaves came pouring onto the shore, where rowboats were waiting to bring them to the ships. Tubman was floored by the scene.

“I never saw such a sight,” she later recalled. “Sometimes the women would come with twins hanging around their necks; it appears I never saw so many twins in my life; bags on their shoulders, baskets on their heads, and young ones tagging along behind, all loaded; pigs squealing, chickens screaming, young ones squealing.”

The scene grew all the more chaotic when it became clear that there were too many fugitive slaves for the rowboats to accommodate at once. According to The New York Times, those left behind held onto the vessels to stop them from leaving. Hoping to restore some calm, a white officer reportedly asked Tubman to speak to “your people.” She didn’t care for the turn of phrase—“[T]hey wasn’t my people any more than they was his,” she once said—but she nevertheless began to sing:

“Come along; come along; don’t be alarmed
For Uncle Sam is rich enough
To give you all a farm.”

Her voice had the desired effect. “They throwed up their hands and began to rejoice and shout ‘Glory!’ and the rowboats would push off,” Tubman remembered. “I kept on singing until all were brought on board.”

All of this commotion did not go unnoticed by Confederate troops. But their response was sluggish. “With malaria, typhoid fever and smallpox rampant in the [Lowcountry] from spring through early fall, most Confederate troops had been pulled back from the rivers and swamps,” Winkler explains. A contingent did approach Combahee Ferry, with orders to push the Yankees back, but reportedly only succeeded in shooting one fugitive slave. Major Emmanuel, the Confederate ranking officer in the area, came after the retreating ships with a single piece of field artillery, but his men got trapped between the river and Union snipers. They were only able to fire a few shots that landed in the water.

The raid was, in other words, a tremendous success, and Tubman’s contribution was “invaluable,” Clinton says. For the next year, Tubman stayed in the South, assisting in guerrilla activities and working to support liberated slaves.

Recognition Deferred

During her three years of military service, Tubman had been paid just $200 (about $3000 in today's money). Finding herself in difficult financial straits after the war—she was the sole supporter of her elderly parents, whom she had extricated from the South during her Underground Railroad days—Tubman appealed to the federal government for additional compensation. Her cause was backed by a number of influential supporters who believed that Tubman deserved a veteran’s pension, but her campaign for payment would nevertheless span more than 30 years.

It was only in the early 1890s that Tubman began receiving a pension—not for her own wartime work, but because her late husband, Nelson Davis, had served with the Eighth United States Colored Infantry, which entitled her to $8 per month as a veteran widow. In 1899, Congress approved an Act raising that sum to $20, but as the National Archives points out, “the Act did not acknowledge that the increase was for Tubman’s own service.” The government’s resistance may have stemmed, at least in part, from the fact that documentation of Tubman’s activities on the frontlines was lacking. But Clinton believes other factors were at play.

“I found evidence that one of the members of the [pensions] committee was a South Carolina politician who blocked her pension,” Clinton says. “And it was really in many ways a point of honor ... that a black woman not be given recognition as a soldier.” Upon receiving the increased funds, Clinton adds, Tubman used the money to “bankroll a charity. That’s who she was.”

When Tubman died in 1913, she was buried with military honors in Auburn, New York. The Combahee River Raid was just one remarkable chapter in her remarkable life, but it left a powerful impression on her. Looking back on that night, when hundreds of slaves rose up and made a dash for freedom, the woman known as Moses would remember them like "the children of Israel, coming out of Egypt.”

30 Words and Phrases From Victorian Theatrical Slang

An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
An 1884 illustration of spectators in the theater
suteishi/iStock via Getty Images

In 1909, the English writer James Redding Ware published a dictionary of 19th-century slang and colloquial language called Passing English of the Victorian Era. Relatively little is known about Ware’s life—not helped by the fact that much of his work was published under the pseudonym Andrew Forrester—but among the other works attributed to him are around a dozen stage plays, many of which were first performed in the theaters of London in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

It was this firsthand experience that undoubtedly helped Ware to flesh out his dictionary with a host of slang words and expressions used by Victorian actors, actresses, theatrical producers, and backstage workers. From nicknames for incoherent actors to mooching companions and noisy babies, although many of the entries in Ware’s Passing English have sadly long since dropped out of use, they’re no less useful or applicable today.

1. Agony Piler

An actor who always seems to perform in weighty or sensationalist parts.

2. Back-Row Hopper

An audience member who visits bars frequented by actors and flatters them into buying him a drink.

3. Blue Fire

“Blue fire” was originally the name of a special effect used in Victorian theaters in which a mixture containing sulfur would be ignited to create an eerie blue glow on stage. The effect astonished audiences at the time, who had never seen anything like it before, hence "blue fire" came to be used to describe anything equally amazing or sensational, or that astounded an audience.

4. Bum-Boozer

A heavy drinker.

5. Burst

The sudden swell of people out onto a street when a play ended.

6. Button-Buster

A terrible comedian.

7. Celestials

Also known as “roof-scrapers,” the celestials were the audience members in the “gods” or the gallery, the highest tier of seats in the theater.

8. Charles His Friend

A nickname for any uninspiring part in a play whose only purpose is to give the main protagonist someone to talk to. The term apparently derives from a genuine list of the characters in a now long-forgotten drama, in which the lead’s companion was listed simply as “Charles: his friend.”

9. Deadheads

Audience members who haven’t paid to get in (as opposed to those who have, who were the livestock). Consequently, a nickname for journalists and first-night critics.

10. Decencies

A term referring to an actor’s strategically padded costume, defined by Ware as “pads used by actors, as distinct from actresses, to ameliorate outline.”

11. FLABBERDEGAZ

A fluffed line, a stumbled word, or a mistimed joke. Also called a Major Macfluffer.

12. The Ghost Walks

A reference to the famous opening scene of Hamlet, saying that “the ghost walks” (or, more often than not, that “the ghost doesn’t walk”) meant that there was (or that there wasn’t) enough money to be paid that week.

13. Gin And Fog

Hoarseness caused by heavy drinking the night before.

14. Greedy Scene

A scene in a play in which the lead actor has the stage all to him or herself.

15. Joey

To mug to the audience, or to lark about to attract someone’s attention.

16. Logie

A fake gemstone, or fake jewelry in general. Supposedly named after David Logie, an inventor who manufactured fake jewels out of zinc.

17. Matinée Dog

A nickname for the audience of a matinee performance. To "try it on the matinee dog" meant to test a new act or a new reading of a scene during a daytime performance, as the afternoon audiences were considered less discerning than the more seasoned and more demanding evening audiences.

18. Mumble-Mumper

An old, inarticulate performer whose lines cannot be easily heard or interpreted by the audience.

19. On The Pross

If you’re on the pross then you’re looking for someone to buy you a drink or a meal—pross is a shortening of “prosperous,” in the sense of searching for someone wealthy enough to buy you dinner.

20. Palatic

Very, very drunk. Probably derived from a deliberate mispronunciation of “paralytic."

21. To Play to The Gas

To make just enough money to get by—literally just enough to pay your gas bill.

22. Scorpions

An actor’s nickname for babies, whose constant noise could ruin a performance.

23. Star-Queller

An inferior actor whose terrible performance ruins the excellent performances given by everyone else.

24. Swan-Slinger

The playwright Ben Jonson famously called Shakespeare “The sweet swan of Avon” in a memorial poem published in 1623. A swan-slinger, consequently, is a Shakespearean actor.

25. To Take a Dagger And Drown Yourself

To say one thing but then do another. To stab yourself and pass the bottle, meanwhile, meant to take a swig of a drink and then pass the bottle onto the next person.

26. Thinking Part

A role in which an actor is required to say little or nothing at all. Likewise, a feeder was any role in which an actor was only required to “feed” lines to the more important character.

27. Toga-Play

Also called BC-plays, toga-plays were either classical period dramas, like Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, or plays by classical-era playwrights.

28. Twelve-Pound Actor

A child born into an acting family.

29. Village Blacksmith

“The Village Blacksmith” is the title of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the third verse of which begins, “Week in, week out, from morn till night, / You can hear his bellows blow.” It was the “week in, week out” line that inspired this expression referring to a performer or worker who isn’t a complete failure, but whose contracts rarely last longer than a single week.

30. Whooperup

A terrible singer.

[This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019]

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