Friday, April 20, 2012

Today's Hero of Literacy: Frederick Douglass

(A special guest blog from Bob Erwin)

Wow, talk about a hero of literacy!

(1818-95) spent the first twenty years of his life in slavery, and if he had not escaped to New York and beyond he might have spent another twenty-five. As a slave he could expect zero schooling. The great majority of whites at the time believed that it was wrong – in several southern states it was against the law- to teach a slave to read.

As an illiterate boy Douglas was loaned to his master’s Baltimore relatives George and Sophia Auld. Sophia took to reading the Bible aloud sometimes when George was at work, and Douglass was fascinated by the relationship between her words and the marks on the page. By showing his intelligence and appealing to her Christian kindness, he persuaded her to teach him to read.

She and her pupil, proud of how well the boy had learned the rudiments, gave a surprise demonstration to George one day and were shocked by his angry order to stop the lessons immediately. “If you learn that nigger…how to read the Bible,” Douglass recalled the man’s words, “there will be no keeping him.” Later Douglass sarcastically referred to this tirade as an “antislavery lecture.”

Too late, George.

Douglass continued to work away surreptitiously with whatever reading material came to hand. On the streets of Baltimore he traded biscuits for spelling lessons from white boys. He attended churches organized by free blacks, thrilled to witness them reading and preaching. There came a day when with money earned from polishing boots he bought a copy of the Columbian Orator. This was a standard guide of the day for the public speakers, likewise studied by young Abraham Lincoln out in Illinois.

When Douglass escaped the South, he found the abolitionists and they found him, and he lectured all across the North. He got along with men such as Wendell Phillips who recognized his eloquence and dignity. He scorned sponsors who suggested he put a “touch of plantation” into his speeches to suit white notions of how a “darky” talked.

Elated by Emancipation midway through the Civil War, Douglass threw himself into recruiting black men for the Union army, including the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteers. From an unprecedented and intense meeting with Lincoln in the summer of 1863 he came away convinced that the President meant to guard black interests.

Before, during, and after the war Douglass--never a one-tune fiddler--continued to speak, write and edit for a variety of causes. He agitated, as he called it, for women’s rights, free public education, and the abolition of capital punishment.

Many historians believe that Frederick Douglass (who changed his name from Bailey to throw slavecatchers off the track) was the most influential black person of his time. And it all started with him practicing his alphabet on fences in the alleys of Baltimore.

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