Carolyn Shuttlesworth
Literature & Culture
Material Type:
Primary Source
Community College / Lower Division, College / Upper Division
Creative Commons Attribution

19th Century: 1845


African American Literature 1619-1926

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895)

                    Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself

     I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot County, Maryland.  I have no accurate knowlege of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it.  By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.  I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday.  They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time. cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time.  A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood.  The white children could tell their ages.  I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege.  I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it.  He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.  The nearest estimate I can give makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-eight years of age.  I come to this, from hearing my master say, some time during 1835, I was about seventeen years old.

     My mother was named Harriet Bailey,  She was the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey, both coloured, and quite dark.  My mother was of a darker complexion than either my grandmother or grandather.  

     My father was a white man.  He was admitted to be such by all I have ever heard speak of my parentage.  The opinion was also whispered that my master was my father, but of the correctness of this opinion, I know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld from me. My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant- before I knew her as my mother.  It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age.  Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired off to some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labor.  For what this se[aration is done, I do not know, unless it be to hider the development of the child's affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child.  This is the inevitable result.

     I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night.  She was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve miles from my home.  She made her journeys to see me in the night, travelling the whole distance on foot, after the performance of her day's work.  She was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has special permission from his or her master to the contrary- a permission which they seldom get, and one that gives to him that gives it the name of being a kind master.  I do not recollect of ever seeing my mother by the light of day.  She was with me in the night.  She would lie down with me, and get me to sleep, but long before i waked she was gone.  Very little communication ever took place between us.  Death soon ended what little we could have while she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering.  She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master's farms, near Lee's Mill.  I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial.  She was gone long before I knew anything about it.  Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.

     Called thus suddenly away, she left me without the slightest intimation of who my father was.  The whisper that my master was my father, may or may not be true; and, true or false, it is of but little consequence to my purpose whilst the fact remains, in all its glaring odiousness, that slaveholders have ordained, and by law established, that the children of slave women shall in all cases follow the condition of their mothers; and this is done too obviously to administer to their own lusts, and make a gratification of their wicked desires profitable as well as pleasurable, for by this cunnibg arrangement, the slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves the double relation of master and father.




                                                        Editorial from North Star, Vol. 1, No.1

     We solemnly dedicate the "North Star" to the cause of our long oppressed and plundered fellow countrymen.  May God bless the undertaking to your good!  It shall fearlessly assert your rights, faithfully proclaim your wrongs, and earnestly demand for you instant and even-handed justice.  Giving no quarter to slavery at the South, it will hold no truce with oppressors at the North.  While it shall boldly advocate emancipation for our enslaved brethren, it will omit no opportunity to gain for the nominally free complete enfranchisement.  Every effort to injure or degrade you or your cause= originating wheresoever, or with whomsoever- shall find in it a constant, unswerving and inflexible foe...

     Remember that we are one, that our cause is one, and that we must help each other, if we would succeed.  We have drank to the dregs the bitter cup of slavery;  we have worn the heavy yoke; we have sighed beneath our bonds, and writhed beneath the bloody lash;- cruel mementoes of our oneness are indelibly marked on our living flesh.  We are one with you under the ban of prejudice and proscription- one with you under the slander of inferiority- one with you in social and political disfranchisement.  What you suffer, we suffer; what you endure, we endure.  We are indissolubly united, and must fall or flourish together...