Frederick Douglass remains a towering figure in the annals of history for his long-established fight against the practice of slavery in America. Much has been written about the well-known abolitionist, who himself penned down his accomplishments in thousands of books and letters. The same cannot really be said of David Ruggles, whose background work saved Douglass’ freedom. Ruggles, also an abolitionist and arguably the first full-time Black activist, took Douglass in right after the latter’s escape from slavery in Baltimore in September 1838.
Douglass had no money, food, shelter or friends when he reached New York. Ruggles giving him shelter did save him from slave catchers roaming the streets of New York searching for fugitives. Ruggles would mentor Douglass and give him a five-dollar bill to move to safer refuge in New Bedford, Massachusetts. But that five-dollar bill would cause Ruggles problems later on.
Ruggles, born in Norwich, Connecticut in 1810, was the eldest of seven children, to free Black parents. He was educated at religious charity schools in Norwich before working as a mariner in New York in 1827. By the following year, he had opened a grocery shop. In the early 1830s, he joined the growing anti-slavery movement in New York, advocating for what he termed “practical abolitionism”. He argued that “abolitionists should not just philosophize about the day slavery would end, but strive to help all victims of human bondage,” the David Ruggles Center for History and Education wrote. Ruggles also battled for civil disobedience and self-defense.
The abolitionist and writer went on to operate New York’s first library and bookstore for Black people, where he sold anti-slavery publications until it was destroyed by a mob. By 1833, he had been appointed as an agent to canvas for subscribers for The Emancipator, an abolitionist weekly. Ruggles also started writing, publishing articles and pamphlets for newspapers throughout the Northeast. He wrote, printed and published the first journal edited by an African-American, The Mirror of Liberty, in the 1830s.
During this period, he became a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad, helping around 600 enslaved people to freedom, including Douglass. Becoming a founder of the New York Committee of Vigilance, he also helped in the fight against kidnapping free Blacks in New York, as well as fugitive African Americans, who are illegally sold into slavery in the South.
Douglass, during his lifetime, praised Ruggles in his writings for saving him when he first arrived in New York after leaving Baltimore. Though Douglass was on free soil, he was not legally a free man and did not want to speak with anyone for fear they will turn him in. He was relieved when Ruggles showed up to help. Douglass stayed in Ruggles’ home for his first 10 days out of enslavement. There, he began his life as a free man. Ruggles mentored him in radical abolitionism. Since Ruggles’ home was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Douglass met dozens of men and women who passed through on their way to freedom. Douglass also wrote for his fiancé Anna Murray to join him from Baltimore and the two got married in the home of Ruggles. The couple subsequently left for New Bedford, Massachusetts. Ruggles gave him a letter of recommendation as well as the five dollars that got him in trouble with members of the Vigilance Committee.
Soon after Douglass had left, Ruggles, whose tactics were usually criticized by some Black abolitionists as “too extreme”, was kicked out as secretary of the Vigilance Committee after the latter went through its financial books. Ruggles, under audit, could not account for the numerous five-dollar bills he had been giving to self-emancipated people. Thus, he was asked to leave, but he continued to edit articles and pamphlets until he began suffering from serious ill-health. He became weak and nearly blind. His health improved after being put through hydrotherapy, also known as the “water cure”. Ruggles learned the practice and built a small hydrotherapy hospital in Florence, a village near Northampton. Some of his patients were William Lloyd Garrison, Sojourner Truth, Mary Brown (John Brown’s wife) and Lucy Stone.
Around this time, Douglass had become the most famous abolitionist in America. He often paid visits to Ruggles in Northampton. The two continued to stay in contact until Ruggles breathed his last in December 1849, in Florence, Massachusetts, at the age of 39. Douglass, in his second autobiography published in 1855, described how indebted he was to Ruggles. He recalled “Mr. Ruggles as the first officer of the under-ground railroad with whom I met after reaching the north, and indeed, the first of whom I heard anything.”