Growing up, Frederick Douglass endured repeated beatings for learning to read and write, and for teaching fellow slaves. As an adult—following a failed escape attempt— his owner sent him to toil in the Baltimore shipyards. After two years, Douglass disguised himself as a sailor, borrowed papers from a free black man, and took a train north.
Normally, escaped slaves laid low, but Douglass risked recapture by becoming a noted orator against slavery and for woman suffrage. His eloquence steadily won converts to those causes both here and abroad. He persevered despite frequent threats and occasional beatings by hostile mobs.
Douglass reached an even larger audience as a writer. He penned bestselling autobiographies documenting the evils of slavery. From 1851–63, he published periodicals promoting abolition, feminism, and other reforms.
During the Civil War, Douglass helped persuade President Lincoln to enlist black soldiers, and then worked tirelessly to recruit them to the Union ranks. After the war, he continued to campaign for civil rights and woman suffrage.
“Right is of no Sex — Truth is of no Color — God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.” (1847)
“I make no pretension to patriotism. So long as my voice can be heard on this or the other side of the Atlantic, I will hold up America to the lightning scorn of moral indignation. In doing this, I shall feel myself discharging the duty of a true patriot; for he is a lover of his country who rebukes and does not excuse its sins. It is righteousness that exalteth a nation while sin is a reproach to any people.” (1847)
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.” (1857)
“We deem it a settled point that the destiny of the colored man is bound up with that of the white people of this country…. We are here, and here we are likely to be. To imagine that we shall ever be eradicated is absurd and ridiculous. We can be remodified, changed, assimilated, but never extinguished. We repeat, therefore, that we are here; and that this is our country; and the question for the philosophers and statesmen of the land ought to be, What principles should dictate the policy of the action toward us? We shall neither die out, nor be driven out; but shall go with this people, either as a testimony against them, or as an evidence in their favor throughout their generations.” (1858)
“I hold that a liberal and brotherly welcome to all who are likely to come to the United States is the only wise policy which this nation can adopt…. If we would reach a degree of civilization higher and grander than any yet attained, we should welcome to our ample continent all the nations, kindreds, tongues and peoples, and as fast as they learn our language and comprehend the duties of citizenship, we should incorporate them into the American body politic. The outspread wings of the American eagle are broad enough to shelter all who are likely to come. As a matter of selfish policy, leaving right and humanity out of the question, we cannot wisely pursue any other course…. Man is man the world over…. A smile or a tear has no nationality. Joy and sorrow speak alike in all nations, and they above all the confusion of tongues proclaim the brotherhood of man…. Let the Chinaman come; he will help to augment the national wealth; he will help to develop our boundless resources; he will help to pay off our national debt; he will help to lighten the burden of our national taxation; he will give us the benefit of his skill as manufacturer and as a tiller of the soil, in which he is unsurpassed…. We should welcome all men of every shade of religious opinion, as among the best means of checking the arrogance and intolerance which are the almost inevitable concomitants of general conformity.” (1869)
“Opportunity is important but exertion is indispensable…. We may explain success mainly by one word and that word is WORK! WORK!! WORK!!! WORK!!!!” (1872)
“I deny… that there is now, properly speaking, any such thing as a negro problem before the American people. It is not the negro, educated or illiterate, intelligent or ignorant, who is on trial, or whose qualities are giving trouble to the nation… The real question, the all-commanding question, is whether American justice, American liberty, American civilization, American law, and American Christianity can be made to include and protect, alike and forever, all American citizens…. It is whether this great nation shall conquer its prejudices, rise to the dignity of its professions, and proceed in the sublime course of truth and liberty marked out for itself during the [Civil War], or shall swing back to its ancient moorings of slavery and barbarism.” (1889)
“Education means emancipation. It means light and liberty. It means the uplifting of the soul of man into the glorious light of truth, the light by which men can only be made free.” (1894)