February 14 Is Frederick Douglass Day

February 14 isn’t just Valentine’s Day; it includes the celebration of Frederick Douglass’ birthday. I just found that out today when doing some research about the civil rights hero. It was a coincidence since I wanted to write about him this week in recognition of Black History Month. (As I shared two years ago, Black History Month grew out of Black History Week, which was originally scheduled to occur around this time in recognition of Douglass and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays.)

Today, I also read the republished New York Times obituary for Frederick Douglass. While it didn’t make mention of his birthday, the article was posted in recognition of it and it discussed Douglass’ role as a suffragist ally.

So, what do I have to offer on Frederick Douglass Day? Well, I wanted to discuss his life and how this celebration came to be. Let’s do this trivia style.

Did You Know …?

Douglass’ Birth Name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.

Douglass was born around 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland to Harriot Bailey. While Douglass didn’t know who his father was, he may have been fathered by a slaveowner of the plantation where he was born. He was selected to live in the master’s home on the plantation when he was young.

Douglass Was Taught the Alphabet by a Slaveowner.

At one point in his youth, Douglass was sold to Lucretia Auld. He was later sent to live with Auld, Captain Hugh Auld the of Lucretia’s husband, Thomas. Sofia Auld, Hugh’s wife, taught Douglass how to read the alphabet when he was 12. After she was forbidden by her husband to give Douglass more lessons, the young boy learned what he could from white children and others nearby.

Douglass would teach other slaves to read, too. When he was hired out to William Freeland, Douglass held a weekly church service where he would teach slaves on the plantation to read the New Testament. Eventually, as many as 40 slaves attended those services until other slave owners put a stop to it.

Frederick Douglass Escaped Slavery with the Help of the Woman Who Became His First Wife.

Douglass met Anna Murray, a free black woman, when he was working for Edward Covey, an especially abusive master. Douglass had tried to escape from Covey twice, but Murray assisted Douglass on his third attempt.

On September 3, 1838, Douglass boarded a train to Havre de Grace, Maryland; he was able to do so because Murray provided him with money and a sailor’s uniform. He was then able to make his way to the house of David Ruggles in New York. The two were married soon after. The couple then assumed the name of Douglass to escape detection by captors.

Douglass Wrote Several Versions of His Autobiography.

The first autobiography Douglass wrote was titled, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, which was published n 1845. Other versions of the autobiography included My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and Life and Times of Frederick Douglas (1881); the latter was revised in 1892.

Douglass Purchased His Freedom with the Help of British Benefactors.

Shortly after he published his autobiography, Douglass escaped to Great Britain, where he toured England and Ireland shortly before the potato famine began. During those two years, Douglass spoke of his experiences with slavery. Unlike in the States, Douglass’ speeches were always warmly received.

Eventually, some of the friends Douglass made abroad raised enough money to help Douglass purchase his freedom.

Douglass Produced an Abolitionist Newspaper Called The North Star.

The paper bore that name because slaves would often use the North Star to guide them when escaping to freedom. The first issue of the paper was published in 1847 and its motto was thus: “Right is of no sex—Truth is of no color—God is the Father of us all, and we are brethren.” Douglass changed the name of the paper to Frederick Douglass’ Paper in 1851, but it ceased publication before the Civil War began.

Douglass’ Civil Rights Work Didn’t Just Include Abolitionism.

As mentioned above (and two years ago), Douglass was a women’s rights activist. He sympathized with the women who were fighting for the right to vote and he was the only black man in attendance when the first women’s rights convention was held at Seneca Falls, New York in 1848. There, Douglass supported Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s push to include voting rights in the platform.

Douglass Held a Few Political Positions During and After Reconstruction.

Douglass’ role in the U.S. government started during the Civil War, actually. That’s when he advised Abraham Lincoln about arming slaves and allowing them to fight for the North. The two men grew apart on the issue of freeing slaves in the North. (The Emancipation Proclamation only decreed that all slaves in Confederate States be freed.)

After the Civil War, Douglass was appointed the assistant secretary of the Santo Domingo Commission (1871). He went on to serve as the District of Columbia as marshal (1871-1881) and the recorder of deeds (1881-1886). His final appointment was as U.S. minister and consul general to Haiti, from 1889-1891.

Douglass Later Married a White Feminist.

After Anna’s death, Douglass married Helen Pitts. Ms. Pitts was from Honeoye, New York, and the daughter of Gideon Pitts, Jr., an abolitionist. This created quite a scandal at the time, due to the racial difference and the fact that Pitts was nearly 20 years Douglass’ junior. Their marriage lasted until Douglass’ death.

Douglass died in the hallway of his home while talking to his wife about the events of the triennial conference of the National Women’s Suffrage Association.

Why Was February 14 Chosen as Frederick Douglass Day?

Douglass didn’t know exactly when he was born, but there is evidence that he was born in February 1818. Douglass eventually chose February 14 as his birthday because one year his mother made him a heart-shaped cake.

Douglass’ birthday first became a public celebration on February 28, 1888. That’s when Bethel Literary Society in Washington, D.C. honored the human rights leader. The society chose to celebrate Douglass’ birth again on February 18, 1896, nearly a year after his death.

In the years following the 1896 observance of Douglass’ birthday by the Bethel Literary Society, local black children’s schools began observing “Douglass Day.” The first observance occurred on February 13, 1897 because February 14 was on a Saturday. The observance expanded to Chicago and other cities in 1901.


Biography.com Editors “Frederick Douglass Biography.” Biography.com. A&E Television Networks. 2 Apr 2014. Last Updated 22 Jan 2019. Web. Retrieved 14 Feb 2019. <https://www.biography.com/people/frederick-douglass-9278324>.

Bomboy, Scott. “The story behind the Frederick Douglass birthday celebration.” National Constitution Center. 14 Feb 2019. Weblog.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Frederick Douglass.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 14 Feb 2019. Web. <https://www.britannica.com/biography/Frederick-Douglass>.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “The North Star.” Encyclopædia Britannica. 11 Nov 2016. Web. Retrieved 14 Feb 2019. <https://www.britannica.com/topic/The-North-Star-American-newspaper>.

“Frederick Douglass’ Original New York Times Obituary.” The New York Times. 14. Feb 2019. Web. <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/14/obituaries/frederick-douglass-dead-1895.html>.

History.com Editors. “Frederick Douglass.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. 27 Oct 2009. Last Updated 15 Jan 2019. Web. Retrieved 14 Feb 2019. <https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/frederick-douglass>.


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