Students across the country learn about Frederick Douglass, a former slave whose harrowing life story is told in his eponymous memoir. But beyond learning about the bravery required to escape from the shackles of a Maryland plantation, few understand his influence in the shaping of early African-American culture. This paper will explain how Douglass was instrumental in forging this ethos by his outspokenness against injustice, his concern for socioeconomic equality and his cooperation with sympathetic white leaders.
Douglass' story of escaping bondage to a life of advocacy for his suffering peers makes him one of America's most visible examples of the difficulties of antebellum life for blacks. Douglas was started as a slave in Baltimore, where the wife of his owner taught him to read. He continued teaching himself by reading newspapers. But he was eventually sold into harsher conditions under an overseer named Austin Gore, who once shot a slave friend for running away from a cruel beating (Foner 1950 12). Heinous treatment was not uncommon. But Douglass had the courage to run away in 1838 and years later had his freedom purchased by a group of supporters in the United Kingdom.
In the first sense, Douglass' act of extirpating himself from slavery set the earliest bar in African-American culture. Along with Harriet Jacobs, Henry Brown, Anthony Burns and other figures, Douglass proved to other slaves that freedom is a necessity and something that must be sought after with "the temerity to risk life and limb in the hope of a better future" (Battle & Wells 2006 82). The risks it took to flee inspired pride and determination in the black population-necessary characteristics for its upcoming role in the Civil War, the reconstruction effort and later assimilation to white society.
Yet Douglass did more than just set an example for his fellow slaves to run away from slavery. He crafted the beginnings of African-American ...