Frederick Douglass remains a towering figure in the annals of history for his long-established fight against the practice of slavery in America. The former slave gained his freedom on this day in 1838, marking the beginning of a journey that still astounds to this day.
Then known by his birth name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, Douglass had attempted to escape over the past two years before his success. After meeting a free Black woman, Anna Murray, and falling for her, Douglass hatched his plan of attack with Ms. Murray’s help when he was just 20 years of age. On that day, Douglass hopped aboard a railroad train heading north disguised as a free Black sailor.
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The ruse was made possible by Douglass’ knowledge of the sea by way of his working on the Baltimore waterfront. He was able to obtain sailor’s papers from a free man as part of his ruse, and donned an outfit befitting of the role he played. Although freed Blacks had to produce papers, sailors often did not have to. However, the papers of sailors listed a physical description of its owners and Douglass did not fit the bill.
By miracle and fate, the White train conductor did not discover Douglass’ impersonation and he rode the train through the slave states of Maryland and Delaware, still not outside the confines of danger and doubt. When he reached the town of Havre de Grace in Maryland, which at the time was near the Pennsylvania border, he crossed the Susquehanna River by ferry. The stressful journey finally ended when Douglass reached the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles in New York City.
Frederick Douglass later wrote of his arrival in New York City in one of his many autobiographies, titled “The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass”:
I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: ‘I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil.
Murray, who used funds to buy the sailor’s outfit Douglass wore, later joined him in New York. They were married on September 15, 1838, remaining married for 44 years. The pair used the last name Johnson as to not stir up attention to themselves. They later traveled to Massachusetts, where they chose the name Douglass to divert the trail of slave-catchers in the North. Douglass became a well-known abolitionist and preacher known for his command of language and prose. Eventually, Douglass was able to buy his freedom by way of money given by his supporters.
Douglass did not know his actual day of birth, but he celebrated September 3 in a similar fashion, the day when he became truly free.