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BY Mildred Europa Taylor, 3:00pm September 01, 2021,

Soul-stirring moment Frederick Douglass meets with man who enslaved him

Frederick Douglass, c1866. Photograph: Granger/REX/Shutterstock

A well-known abolitionist and preacher known for his command of language and prose, Frederick Douglass remains a towering figure in the annals of history for his long-established fight against the practice of slavery in America. Before his campaign against slavery and his fight for equality for African Americans, Douglass was in bondage. He was enslaved for the first 20 years of his life.

Born into slavery in 1818 on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, Douglass was enslaved by several people, but perhaps the one who made his life a misery was Captain Thomas Auld. Auld was the son of an American Army commander. A Christian and a well-known local shipbuilder, Auld inherited enslaved people through his first wife, Lucretia.

Soon, he became a cruel slaveowner, beating and starving his enslaved workers while stopping them from reading and writing or gathering to worship. Douglass, describing his moments with Auld as some of the saddest experiences of his slave life, wrote in an autobiography that Auld “subjected me to his will, made property of my body and soul, reduced me to a chattel, hired me out to a noted slave breaker to be worked like a beast and flogged into submission….”

After being leased out to other slaveowners, Douglass returned to Auld in 1838. That year, after meeting a free Black woman named Anna Murray and falling for her, Douglass hatched a plan to escape. On September 3, 1838, Douglass, with Murray’s help, hopped aboard a railroad train heading north disguised as a free Black sailor.

He escaped to the free North and would end up in Rochester, New York, with Murray. Becoming a free man, Douglass got deeply involved in the abolition movement, and this made him travel widely to give speeches, including spending two years in Europe from 1845 to 1847. He started publishing his own abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, and moved with prominent abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison. People trooped in at venues just to hear Douglass speak.

Auld at the time had become aware of Douglass’ feat as an abolitionist and a famous statesman but he never met him until 1877. Auld, 81 that year, was very sick. He wanted to make peace with his past so he asked his servant to invite Douglass to visit him in his home.

It was an emotional moment when Douglass arrived at Auld’s home on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. Douglass, in his final autobiography, said he recalls “holding [Auld’s] hand” and engaging in “friendly conversation.” Douglass was then serving as U.S. Marshal for the District of Columbia. He said in his autobiography that Auld addressed him as “Marshal Douglass”, but he quickly corrected him, saying, “not Marshal, but Frederick to you, as formerly.”

Auld couldn’t stop crying after hearing those words, Douglass wrote, adding that “seeing the circumstances of his condition affected me deeply, and for a time choked my voice and made me speechless.”

Douglass further asked Auld what he thought about his escape from slavery decades before. “Frederick,” said Auld, “I always knew you were too smart to be a slave. Had I been in your place I should have done as you did.”

“I did not run away from you,” Douglass replied. “I ran away from slavery.”

Apart from the meeting being what historians called “a victory lap for Douglass”, he would have also hoped to get a better understanding of his family roots from Auld when they met. Indeed, Douglass reconciled with Auld and the two parted as friends, but that didn’t mean he reconciled with slavery itself.

“Any interpretation of this encounter that says Black people need to suck it up and forgive white people in order to have peace misses the mark completely,” Noelle Trent, Director for Collections and Education at the National Civil Rights Museum, was quoted by National Geographic. “This is not a lesson in forgiveness. This is a lesson in personal reconciliation.”

Douglass, as a matter of fact, never shied away from publicly criticizing Auld for the way he treated him, but he always added that he never wished “to do him injustice”.

“I entertain no malice toward you personally,” Douglass wrote in an emotional open letter to Auld in 1848. “There is no roof under which you would be more safe than mine, and there is nothing in my house which you might need for your comfort, which I would not readily grant…I am your fellow-man, but not your slave.”

Last Edited by:Mildred Europa Taylor Updated: September 2, 2021


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