Walking with the Saints
In Holy Women, Holy Men, they refer to Frederick Douglass as being a “Prophetic Witness”. That he very much was, but the fact of the matter is, if the system that Douglass was born into had its way, he would have never been heard of at all. Douglass was born into slavery in or around 1818, on a plantation in Maryland. Common practices during slavery were to separate the infant from the mother at an early age, therefore Douglass would be raised by his Grandmother till the age of 6 before being given to another slave owner. Another likely possibility is that Douglass was the plantation owner’s son.
At 10 years old, Douglass would be sent to serve at a home in Baltimore. In the city, he would later write, slaves were almost like freemen, having more privileges and rights. It would be here, serving the Hugh Auld and family, that Sophia Auld would begin tutoring Douglass on how to read and write. He described her as a kind-hearted woman, but her husband Hugh Auld disapproved. Auld thought that teaching slaves to read and write was a pathway to revolt and insurrection. But Douglass was not deterred. In secret, Douglass would continue teaching himself how to read and write by reading the signs the dock workers would write on the shipping containers and by learning from local white children.
Douglass devoured pamphlets, books and essays and by 16 years old he was teaching a weekly Sunday School crowd of other slaves, how to read the New Testament. The slave owners were incensed by this and burst in one Sunday Morning armed with clubs and stones and dispersed of the church.
Douglass would attempt escape from his masters several times, but finally he was able to escape from his owner by getting on a train and traveling to Pennsylvania dressed as a Sailor and carrying documents from a free black seaman. He was aided in all of this by his future wife Anna Murray, a free black woman from Maryland.
They would eventually settle in Massachusetts where they would both set to the work of abolishing slavery. It was said of Douglass, that he was an amazing intellectual and orator that was the antithesis of the commonly held view that black people could never be as smart or as well-spoken as white people. Over the years of his life, Douglass would work tirelessly for the abolishment of slavery, woman’s rights and for equal rights of all people no matter color, race, gender or creed.
Despite being raised in a system that would first take his family, then try to take his mind and silence him forever, Frederick Douglass persevered. But not merely preserved, he thrived and was never broken in such a way that hate would sink into his heart, even though he lived under the threat of re-capture by Hugh Auld.
Douglass’ contributions to the anti-slavery movement are unprecedented, but it is an interesting story that brings into fullness the man of grace that Douglass was. Thomas Auld (Hugh Auld’s brother and Frederick Douglass’ former owner) was on his deathbed. Auld’s daughter had met Douglass at a speech some years prior and had kept in contact. In this moment, Douglass sought to reconcile with the man who had owned him, punished him and in that moment they both found grace and reconciliation. It is told that both men cried, truths were told, apologies made, and it speaks to the true charter of Frederick Douglass. This meeting was by no means popular, and in fact he was widely criticized for this. But it is in this extension of God’s grace through Douglass that gave peace to both men and is a true beacon of what we can achieve when we choose to seek grace and reconciliation.