Today the church rightly remembers an icon of the rights of humanity: Saint Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist, Author, and Activist.
Saint Frederick was born into slavery in Maryland, a state many people forget was actually part of the historic South. His mother died when he was a young boy, and he was raised by his grandparents. It was rumored that his birth father was the plantation owner, though Saint Frederick himself never truly knew. He also barely knew his mother, as the barbaric practice of separating children from parents was common practice on plantations across the states where slavery was legal.
He was extremely bright and savvy, he learned to read and write by bartering food for lessons from neighborhood children. He went on, then, to teach other slaves to read using the Bible and the Sunday School hour as the classroom.
He escaped from slavery by pretending to be a sailor, aided by a uniform given him by his love, Anna Murray, and successfully hopped a train that aided him in getting to the free commonwealth of Pennsylvania. From there he went to New York City, sending for Anna Murray to meet him there, eventually marrying her in 1838. The couple eventually settled in Massachusetts and Douglass became a licensed preacher.
A fantastic orator and writer, Saint Frederick would spend his days making connections with other stakeholders in the area, and writing for the “Liberator” magazine. He attended protests and organized boycotts of local transportation (he refused to sit in segregated areas), lobbying for the equal treatment of African-Descent citizens as well as women.
As his fame grew, especially after the publication of his autobiography, he traveled to the British Isles as both a touring opportunity as well as a safe-guard against his former owners hearing about him and trying to take him back. For two years he toured the isles, even meeting with Thomas Clarkson, the famous British abolitionist who had persuaded Parliament to outlaw slavery.
This meeting gave him infinite hope that the same could be true of America, an America that he lamented “didn’t recognize him as even a man.”
Saint Frederick returned to the states and began publishing his first magazine, “North Star,” writing against slavery and butting heads with politicians and leaders who suggested anything other than total freedom for slaves, and he lobbied hard for school desegregation.
By the time the Civil War was underway, the famous St. Frederick met with President Lincoln to discuss a future free from slavery. He argued that willing men of all races should be allowed to fight for the Union, and post-war was disappointed that President Lincoln didn’t have the decency to publicly advocated for suffrage for free Black citizens who had so faithfully defended the Union.
During Reconstruction Douglass worked hard through political and social avenues to ensure the newly-granted rights of Black citizens were respected. He supported the election of President Grant, and became the first Black citizen to be nominated on the Vice Presidential ticket of the Equal Rights Party (though he didn’t even know he had been nominated).
That year his house burned down. Arson is suspected. But he continued on his speaking circuit, writing and lobbying for equal rights.
President Hayes appointed Douglass as the Marshal of the District of Columbia, the first person of color so named.
In 1881 he published his seminal work, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, and in 1888 received a vote for the Presidential nomination at the Republican National Convention.
On February 20th, 1895 Saint Frederick, having attended a meeting of the National Council of Women, returned home and suffered a massive heart-attack. He was 77 years old. Thousands attended his funeral out of respect to his legacy of fighting for equality.
Saint Frederick is an inspiration and an icon. He worked with anyone as long as they were trying to “do good,” and this fact got him much criticism from radicals who thought no one should ever work with someone of a differing ideology, ever. But St. Frederick was fond of saying, “I would unite with anybody to do right, and with nobody to do wrong.”
Saint Frederick is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, of many things, but primarily it is simply this: laws that are unjust are worth disobeying.
Let those with ears to hear, hear.
-history gleaned from Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals as well as public source material
-icon written by Kelly Latimore