“The opinion was … whispered that my master was my father; but of the correctness of this opinion I know nothing…. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant…. It [was] common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.
“I do not recollect ever seeing my mother by the light of day. … She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone.”
After this separation, he lived with his maternal grandmother, Betty Bailey. His mother died when Douglass was about ten. At age seven, Douglass was separated from his grandmother and moved to the Wye House plantation, where Aaron Anthony worked as overseer. When Anthony died, Douglass was given to Lucretia Auld, wife of Thomas Auld. She sent Douglass to serve Thomas’ brother Hugh Auld in Baltimore.
When Douglass was about twelve years old, Hugh Auld’s wife Sophia started teaching him the alphabet despite the fact that it was against the law to teach slaves to read. Douglass described her as a kind and tender-hearted woman, who treated Douglass the way one human being ought to treat another. When Hugh Auld discovered her activity, he strongly disapproved, saying that if a slave learned to read, he would become dissatisfied with his condition and desire freedom. Douglass later referred to this statement as the “first decidedly antislavery lecture” he had ever heard. As told in his autobiography, Douglass succeeded in learning to read from white children in the neighborhood and by observing the writings of men with whom he worked. Mrs. Auld one day saw Douglass reading a newspaper; she ran over to him and snatched it from him, with a face that said education and slavery were incompatible with each other. Douglass is noted as saying that “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”
When Douglass was hired out to William Freeland, he taught other slaves on the plantation to read the New Testament at a weekly Sunday school. As word spread, the interest among slaves in learning to read was so great that in any week, more than 40 slaves would attend lessons. For about six months, their study went relatively unnoticed. While Freeland was complacent about their activities, other plantation owners became incensed that their slaves were being educated. One Sunday they burst in on the gathering, armed with clubs and stones, to disperse the congregation permanently.
In 1833, Thomas Auld took Douglass back from Hugh after a dispute (“[a]s a means of punishing Hugh,” Douglass wrote). Dissatisfied with Douglass, Thomas Auld sent him to work for Edward Covey, a poor farmer who had a reputation as a “slave-breaker.” He whipped Douglass regularly. The sixteen-year-old Douglass was nearly broken psychologically by his ordeal under Covey, but he finally rebelled against the beatings and fought back. After losing a physical confrontation with Douglass, Covey never tried to beat him again.
Douglass first tried to escape from Freeland, who had hired him out from his owner Colonel Lloyd, but was unsuccessful. In 1836, he tried to escape from his new owner Covey, but failed again. In 1837, Douglass met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore about five years older than he was. Her freedom strengthened his belief in the possibility of gaining his own freedom.
On September 3, 1838, Douglass successfully escaped by boarding a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland. Dressed in a sailor’s uniform, provided to him by Murray, who also gave him part of her savings to cover his travel costs, he carried identification papers which he had obtained from a free black seaman. He crossed the Susquehanna River by ferry at Havre de Grace, then continued by train to Wilmington, Delaware. From there he went by steamboat to “Quaker City” (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and continued to the safe house of abolitionist David Ruggles in New York; the whole journey took less than 24 hours.
Frederick Douglass later wrote of his arrival in New York:
I have often been asked, how I felt when first I found myself on free soil. And my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the ‘quick round of blood,’ I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: ‘I felt as one might feel upon escape from a den of hungry lions.’ Anguish and grief, like darkness and rain, may be depicted; but gladness and joy, like the rainbow, defy the skill of pen or pencil