The Legacy of Frederick Douglass and The North Star
Frederick Douglass--my great-great-great-grandfather--has been called one of the greatest Black Americans to ever live. Numerous articles, essays, and books describe him as a great African American statesman, a gifted Black orator, and an articulate Black spokesperson for his race. White supremacy determines that these subtle shades of expression subordinate his legacy to those of the Founding Fathers, or other white men this country venerates and places on pedestals. Such segregated characterizations of historical understanding demonstrate how far we still must go as a people to achieve equality in America. Without qualification, Frederick Douglass is one of the greatest Americans to ever live.
Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on the eastern shore of Maryland sometime in 1818 to an enslaved woman and a white man. It was presumed that Douglass’s enslaver was his father, although he never knew for sure. He changed his name to Douglass after escaping at the age of 20 to avoid re-enslavement.
There is no documentation of Douglass’s birth. In his 1845 autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he wrote, “I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.” The only record that mattered to an “evangelical man-stealer" was an enslaved person’s valuation on the family accounting ledger. His enslaver saw Douglass as chattel to be bought and sold like sheep, horses, and pigs. Therefore, Douglass made the decision to choose February 14th as his birthday. He decided on this date because his mother, whom Douglass only saw a handful of times in his life, called him her “Little Valentine.”
During the nineteenth century, the United States government worked to align physical bondage with mental bondage. As a boy, Douglass was denied an education because it was illegal to teach an enslaved person to read and write. Christian enslavers who held power of the land designed a system that made education incompatible with slavery, believing an ignorant enslaved person would be content.
At the tender age of 9, Douglass identified the key to freedom: “Education makes a man unfit to be a slave.” My great ancestor understood that knowledge is power, and education means liberation. The year before he passed away, Douglass reflected on the link between education and freedom. In an 1894 speech, “Blessings of Liberty and Education,” Douglass stated,
“Education means emancipation. It means the uplifting of man into the glorious light of truth. A light which man can only be made free.”
His profound message is as relevant to achieving freedom today as it was so many years ago. My ancestor made his first attempt to escape slavery at the age of 18, but his plan came to light when a fellow enslaved person betrayed him. As punishment, Douglass spent two weeks in jail before being sent to Baltimore where his enslaver hired him out to work as a caulker in the city’s shipyards.
Two years later, on Sept. 3, 1838, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor and stuffed a borrowed Black sailor’s protection pass into his shirt pocket. Making his escape by train and by boat, Douglass eventually landed in New York City where he stepped on freedom’s soil for the first time.
Following his self-emancipation, Frederick Douglass became one of the most celebrated intellectuals of his time; he advised presidents and spoke all over the world on a range of issues, including the abolition of slavery and women’s rights. He gained notoriety for his brilliant oratory and incisive anti-slavery writings. He was a best-selling author, a journalist, and the first African American to hold the high US government ranks of minister resident and consul general to the Republic of Haiti. Understanding the transnational blight of slavery, the international reach of Douglass’s work advocated for freedom across the world.
In 2018, the country celebrated the 200th anniversary Douglass’s birth. Bicentennial committees were formed in cities significant in his life; people in the US and around the world commemorated his bicentennial by erecting statues, declaring year-long celebrations, renaming a college athletic field, and passing federal legislation. The Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commission Act moved quickly through both houses of Congress with bipartisan support and was signed into law in the months before the bicentennial year began.
It was my honor to be appointed to the Federal Bicentennial Commission by now-Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I am proud that the organization I lead, Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI), helped pass the Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act. This legislation guides the federal government’s response to the scourge of human trafficking internationally and domestically.
In honor of Douglass’s 200th birthday, FDFI launched the One Million Abolitionists project to inspire and empower one million young people to do and be more than they ever dreamed possible. We are printing and distributing one million hardcover copies of a special bicentennial edition of Douglass’s Narrative to young people everywhere. Over the past year, working closely with schools and organizations across the country, we have also engaged thousands of students in meaningful civic engagement projects within their communities. Douglass’s educational and activist legacy is alive and well.
THE NORTH STAR
On Oct. 27, 1847, at the age of 29, Frederick Douglass wrote a letter to a close friend and abolitionist supporter. “My Dear Amy [Post], I have finally decided on publishing the North Star in Rochester [New York] and to make that city my future home." From downtown Rochester's Talman Building, he launched The North Star in partnership with Black nationalist Dr. Martin Delany.
The first edition of The North Star rolled off the presses on Dec. 3, 1847. The letters inserted into the masthead made the intent of the paper clear:
“The object of the North Star will be to attack slavery in all its forms and aspects; advocate universal emancipation; exalt the standard of public morality; promote the moral and intellectual improvement of the colored people; and hasten the day of freedom to the three millions of our enslaved fellow countrymen.”
I am humbled and honored to have an opportunity to contribute to the The North Star’s relaunch. When my great ancestor’s paper was first published, he understood that it was of vital importance to create a mouthpiece for enslaved and oppressed peoples. I am pleased that Shaun King and Benjamin Dixon’s enterprise, envisioned for a new generation of activists, will take its cue from the original paper and speak to issues afflicting all disenfranchised groups while offering perspective on issues critical to the Black community.
Near the end of the great abolitionist’s life, a young man approached him in the street and asked what advice he had for someone interested in joining the fight for justice and equality. According to the story, without hesitation Douglass responded, “Agitate, Agitate, Agitate!” This response captures his life’s work. He spoke truth to power. He railed against the hypocrisy of slave-holding Christianity that promoted ideals of freedom, liberty, and equality while enslaving human beings on the blood-drenched soil of the Americas. He pressed Abraham Lincoln to do better and to move quicker toward the abolition of slavery.
We should all take pride in knowing that we stand on the shoulders of giants in the struggle for freedom, justice, and equality. The struggle continues today. It is my hope that this new digital version of The North Star will enact Frederick Douglass’s life and legacy of education, activism, and liberation journalism. Just like my ancestor’s work from 172 years ago, it promises to inspire you to be an agent of change--no matter what the cause.
About the Author
Kenneth B. Morris, Jr. is Co-founder & President of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. Mr. Morris descends from two of the most influential names in American history: he is the great-great-great grandson of Frederick Douglass and the great-great grandson of Booker T. Washington.