Home » Biography » Biography – Early Life

Biography – Early Life

Map of Talbot County in 1886. Source: Library of Congress.

Frederick Douglass, named at birth Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, was born in c.1818 in Tuckahoe, Talbot County, Maryland. The date of his birth is unknown as records were not kept at the time. He adopted February 14 as his birthday as his mother called him “my valentine”.

Douglass was a slave by birth, his mother was a black slave woman named Harriet Bailey and his father a white man, alleged to be his master Aaron Anthony. Holmes Hill farm was his home for his first seven or eight years.

 

Family

Since day one he was subjected to the cruelties of slavery when he was separated from his mother and sent to live with his grandmother, Betsey Bailey. This was a common practice since young childbearing women were more productive on the field and older women raising children. His mother, Harriet Bailey, was a woman of great intellect; she was the only slave known in the area being able to read and write. Douglass’ mother worked in a different plantation, he saw her four or five times during the first seven years of his life, she died in 1825. For his mother to visit it required her to travel 12 miles each way and she was only able to do such trip after a day worth of work, so she would arrive by evening and leave before dawn. His grandmother was in charge of twelve other children who were Frederick’s brothers, sisters and cousins. Frederick had four sisters Sarah, Eliza, Kitty and Arianna and one brother, Perry.

 

Great House

Wye House also known as the Great House is still owned by the Lloyd family.

In 1826 when he was about 7 or 8 years old the inevitable happened, Douglass was separated from his grandmother. As described in his Narrative this was the first time he felt a sense of abandonment and betrayal. His grandmother left him in the Why House plantation, known as the Great House, where Master Lloyd and his family lived. Lloyd was a wealthy slave owner, he kept 10 to 15 house servants and it was said he owned more than 1,000 slaves. He owned more than 20 farms where they mainly grew tobacco, corn and wheat. Too young to work on the field Douglass worked driving up the cows, keeping fowls out of the garden, cleaning the yard and running errands. During his stay at the Great House he observed for the first time the brutal conditions under which slaves were subjected, especially under the supervision of Captain Anthony.

 

Learning to read and write- The Auld family in Baltimore

Frederick was treated well in the Great House but within a year he was given to the Auld family in Baltimore as a companion to their toddler son, Thomas. Sailing on a ship to Baltimore was one of the most interesting and exciting events of his life. In Baltimore he was received with open arms by Sophia Auld, the wife of Hugh Auld, Frederick was Sophia’s first slave. Sophia was kind to Frederick and Frederick enjoyed playing and taking care of little Thomas. She considered it normal when she started teaching him his ABCs since he showed a natural curiosity to learn. In a short period of time Frederick was putting together 3 and 4 letter words, Sophia felt proud of him.

When Hugh Auld found out of his wife’s doings he disapproved of her teaching a slave to read. A loud argument broke out between husband and wife while Frederick listened to every word said. His disapproval was based on it being unlawful and unsafe to educate a slave and that slavery and education are incompatible with each other. Education unfits a slave to be a slave and they would want to be free.

After that incident Sophia’s behavior towards Frederick changed. However it was too late, Frederick was determined to learn to read and write and be free. From a young age Douglass knew his path to freedom was knowledge. Everywhere he went he would carry a Webster’s spelling book. He asked the poor white neighbor children to teach him in exchange for bread and practiced writing on board fences, brick walls and pavement. From these children he found out the existence of the Columbian Orator. He was about 12 and with the money he saved by polishing boots he was able to buy his own journal. He read and memorized every article; The Columbian Orator opened the doors to his understanding of the concept of freedom and human rights. He found out the meaning of the term “abolition” by reading the Baltimore American.

Douglass lived with the Aulds for seven years until Captain Anthony, his master, suddenly died leaving no will. His property had to be valued including all his slaves in order to distribute the inheritance between his two children, Lucretia and Andrew. It was decided that Frederick would belong to Lucretia Auld who was married to Thomas Auld. A few months later Lucretia died and her property was inherited by her husband.

 

Related Information

First African American slaves

The Transatlantic slave trade