#InContext: Frederick Douglass

by | Dec 11, 2019

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery just over 200 years ago in February 1818. After escaping in 1838, this former slave would become one of the most renowned abolitionists, orators, writers, and statesmen in centuries. Throughout his illustrious career, Douglass tirelessly advocated for equal rights for all. He took on the enormous challenge of convincing slavery’s beneficiaries that black people should be free; that slavery was wrong. Few could have imagined that the words of a self-taught slave born over 200 years ago would still resonate today.

Born a slave, Douglass was not allowed to attend school. He remained illiterate until the age of 12 when one of his masters’ wives taught him to read. Like many slave owners of the time, his master was incredibly threatened by the prospect of his slaves being empowered by an education; an uneducated slave was easier to control. When his master’s wife stopped tutoring him at the influence of her husband, Douglass secretly continued his studies on his own. Much to the dismay of other slave owners, Douglass also taught other slaves to read and write during Sunday school. Eventually, these classes were brutally disrupted, but Douglass continued teaching and preaching after he escaped.

Douglass crossed paths with Anna Murray, a woman who would soon change his life, in Maryland in 1837. History does not remember exactly how or where they met, but it does speak volumes to Murray’s influence on his life. She, a free-born domestic worker five years his senior, and he, still a slave, would eventually get married and start a family. Murray showed Douglass what the life of a free man could look like and inspired him to escape. With her encouragement and financial support, Douglass left his birthplace of Maryland for the free state of New York in September 1838. Behind the scenes, Murray was instrumental in shaping Douglass into the legend he would become.

As the years passed, Douglass’s talents became more well-known. Though he never attended school and essentially taught himself to read and write, Douglass’s name became synonymous with excellence in writing, speaking and teaching. He garnered massive support from other abolitionists in America and Europe. He even frequently corresponded with President Abraham Lincoln and urged him to end slavery and improve the treatment of black soldiers.

As a result of the influential writings he produced and the relationships he garnered, Douglass was entrusted with several monumental speaking engagements. In April 1876, Douglass delivered the keynote speech at the opening of the Emancipation Memorial in Lincoln Park. Just a couple of months later in June 1876, Douglass was invited to speak at the 1876 National Republican Convention. It was there where he spoke the words:

“You say you have emancipated us. You have; and I thank you for it. […] But what is your emancipation? […] [W]hen you turned us loose, you gave us no acres. You turned us loose to the sky, to the storm, to the whirlwind, and, worst of all, you turned us loose to the wrath of our infuriated masters.” -Frederick Douglass, 1876.

His speech describes the extraordinary circumstances under which black people were “emancipated.” The challenges faced after the faulty emancipation of African slaves still impact black Americans to this day. Newly freed black members of society were denied equal access employment, housing, education, and other forms of wealth. Among other things, these challenges resonate in poverty levels and persistent institutional racism.

Similar challenges exist with emancipated human trafficking survivors today. Although applied to a different context, the words of Frederick Douglass very powerfully describe the experience of survivors both then and now. While human trafficking takes a different form than historic slavery in Douglass’s era, his words from his 1876 speech insists we remember that freedom without the proper support does not lead to flourishing. Too often, survivors make it out of a trafficking situation with nowhere to go and no resources to help them re-acclimate into society, often only to end up victimized again. Additionally, with traffickers rarely facing punishment, a freed survivor may always have to live with the constant fear of their trafficker or tormentor finding them again and dragging them back into a life of bondage.

Douglass reminds us that in order to help someone who was once in a position of oppression, we must take into consideration all aspects of their well-being after their escape. While the first step of freedom is certainly essential, it is not enough to stop there. His words also remind us to take a holistic approach to combating slavery in all of its forms. At the Human Trafficking Institute, we keep these words in mind as we strive to ensure that emancipation is a reality rather than a mere declaration.

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