Frederick Douglass: Father of the Civil Rights Movement

Frederick Douglass: The Early Years

Born into slavery in Talbot County, Maryland, Douglass emerged as a beacon of hope and resilience, challenging the status quo and advocating for the rights of all people, regardless of race or color. Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County in 1818. According to his autobiography, “The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” he was “born in Tuckahoe…about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland.” His enslaved mother named him Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. He was part of the sixth generation of Baileys in Talbot County, a lineage that continues today. As a child, he spent his first six years living in his grandparents’ cabin, where he was born.

Today, located just upstream from the farm where Douglass was born, the Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe provides a window to the landscape, which has not varied much since Douglass was a child.
Today, located just upstream from the farm where Douglass was born, the Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe provides a window to the landscape, which has not varied much since Douglass was a child. 

Frederick Douglass: A Life Enslaved

In 1824, Douglass walked 12 miles with his grandmother to a Miles River Neck plantation to begin life as a slave boy.  He never saw his grandmother again.  Two years later, Douglass was sent to Fells Point in Baltimore, where he stayed until his teenage years before being recalled back to St. Michaels. 

St. Michaels Museum
The St. Michaels Museum offers a Frederick Douglass exhibit, that focuses on the eleven years he spent in Talbot County.

Frederick Douglass: A Failed Escape

Upon return to Talbot County, he found St. Michaels to be in stark contrast to Fells Point, where he had been permitted to attend church, improve his reading, and move around the city when not at work.  When just 15 years old, Douglass drew negative attention after starting a Sabbath school for Black students and was rented out to Edward Covey, who had a reputation for breaking the spirits of rebellious slaves.  Instead of breaking him, this experience strengthened his resolve to be free.  His first attempt to self-liberate was unsuccessful though, and Douglass was jailed in Easton.  He walked over 15 miles to prison while tied behind a mounted horse. 

Frederick Douglass credited his older sister, Eliza Bailey Mitchell, with teaching him how to survive in the face of hunger and abuse.  Eliza’s husband bought her freedom, and she became matriarch to many generations in St. Michaels and the surrounding area.  The Mitchell home can now be seen at the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum.
Frederick Douglass credited his older sister, Eliza Bailey Mitchell, with teaching him how to survive in the face of hunger and abuse.  Eliza’s husband bought her freedom, and she became matriarch to many generations in St. Michaels and the surrounding area.  The Mitchell home can now be seen on the campus of the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum, which also houses the Hooper Strait Lighthouse photographed above.

Frederick Douglass: Path to Freedom

Upon release, Douglass was sent back to Fells Point.  Two years later, in 1838, he successfully escaped slavery at the age of 20 while disguised as a sailor. This pivotal moment marked the beginning of his remarkable journey as a champion of freedom and equality. 

Talbot County Courthouse in Easton, Maryland
A bronze statue of Douglass stands outside of the current Talbot County Courthouse, where Douglass delivered his famous “Self-Made Man” speech as a free man in 1878, 42 years after he was jailed nearby. He also spoke at the Bethel A.M.E. Church and Asbury United Methodist Church in The Hill, a historic Black neighborhood.

Frederick Douglass: A Prominent Abolitionist

Throughout his life, Douglass used the power of words to ignite change. He became a prominent abolitionist, delivering impassioned speeches and writing influential narratives. Douglass’ advocacy extended beyond the abolition of slavery. He was a staunch advocate for women’s rights, recognizing the interconnectedness of various forms of oppression. His partnership with suffragists such as Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton underscored his commitment to equality for all marginalized groups.

Frederick Douglass Mural
The Frederick Douglass Mural, located at 505 South Street is painted in a timeline-style. One can see Douglass’ life, from slavery to his career as an abolitionist.

Douglass’ legacy continued to resonate through future generations of civil rights activists as they continued the fight for justice and equality. As we reflect on the 60th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act, let us honor Frederick Douglass, the Father of the Civil Rights Movement, whose indomitable spirit and tireless advocacy paved the way for progress and social change. Read more about the future generations that were inspired to take part in the Civil Rights movement on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. 

Frederick Douglass Driving Tour
Experience the Frederick Douglass driving tour for more information on Frederick Douglass and his time in Talbot County, Maryland. Extend your visit with Visit Maryland’s “Following in his Footsteps” tour that will take you to Baltimore and Annapolis.

Read next: The Birthplace of Frederick Douglass

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