By age 12, Maryland native Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey had a favorite book. It wasn’t the Bible or popular fiction. It was a school text first published in 1797. The Columbian Orator taught the art of eloquence while promoting such American virtues and values as individual rights, hard work, reason, frugality, and limited government.
What's remarkable about this is that it was illegal for Frederick to learn to read. He was a slave.
“I prayed [for freedom] for 20 years,” said Frederick, “but received no answer until I prayed with my legs.” In 1838, he fled to New York City. Later, in his own eloquent style, he recalled his feelings on reaching it.
Being north of the Mason Dixon Line didn’t make Frederick safe. To avoid being returned to his former master, he changed his name from Bailey to Douglass. But as a black man, he lived for decades with the danger that slave hunters might kidnap him and sell him back into servitude in the South.
When Douglass escaped in 1838, many Northerners still pictured slaves as strumming on banjoes and dancing happily in the sunshine. Douglass gave an eyewitness account of the everyday brutality inflicted on people who had absolutely no rights – not even the right to share their misery with those they loved. Although he was often heckled or physically attacked at abolitionist meetings, Douglass became one of the most prominent among a crescendo of voices demanding freedom for the 4 million men, women and children who were slaves on United States soil. Douglass’s first abolitionist newspaper was named for the North Star - the guiding light for slaves on the run.
In the decades immediately following the Civil War, former slaves didn’t generally settle in New York. The city’s black population remained relatively small until around the time of Douglass’s death. (His dates are 1818-1895.) But in the 1890s, Southern states began to pass Jim Crow laws that mandated segregation of blacks and throttled their political rights. Millions of blacks emigrated to northern cities. Many came to Harlem, where in the 1920s, the Harlem Renaissance attracted black writers, musicians, painters, sculptors, and intellectuals from across the country. Frederick Douglass and Duke Ellington link Central Park to the southern edge of Harlem.