Perhaps the most famous African American abolitionist, orator, and writer of his era, Frederick Douglass left an indelible mark on history by facilitating the growth and acceptance of equal rights — regardless of race, class, or gender.
His published works, such as The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass and those in his own newspaper, The North Star, gave oppressed slaves a voice and moved the hearts of many.
After escaping from slavery in Maryland in 1838 Douglass moved to New York City, where he delivered what are considered some of his most powerful arguments in support of the abolitionist movement.
In the autobiographical Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881, he described New York City as “a new world,” adding that his arrival at the city was:
A time of joyous excitement that words can but tamely describe.
According to the autobiography, Douglass was born into slavery around February 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland. In his early childhood, he was raised by his mother, grandmother, and finally Sophia Auld, the wife of Douglass’ then-owner Hugh Auld. Douglass recognized knowledge as the path to freedom and credited education for helping him escape slavery.
With the assistance of Sophia, Douglass became a proficient reader. With that knowledge he eventually devised and executed his own escape to freedom, and eventually, to New York City.
Although not his permanent residence, Douglass frequently stayed in the house of noted abolitionist, David Ruggles at 36 Lispenard Street, in a neighborhood now known as Tribeca. Ruggles’ abode was not only the site of a publishing house for abolitionist pamphlets and newspapers, but also served as a key stop in what is known as the Underground Railroad for helping escaped slaves to safety.
Although not explicitly stated in Douglass’ memoirs, it seems likely that living in such close proximity to a publishing house must have encouraged him to write even more. According to his autobiography, he was eventually inspired by William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator, to create and publish his newspaper The North Star, which is now seen as one of the most influential anti-slavery newspapers of its kind.
The events in Ruggles’ home helped contribute to the emancipation of four million slaves, and on February 14, 2007 the location was declared a landmark by the New York City Landmarks Preservation Committee. In a statement released at the time the vice president of the New-York Historical Society, Linda Ferber, wrote:
We salute the Landmarks Preservation Commission in furthering the public’s knowledge of the important role Frederick Douglass and his compatriots played in securing freedom for us all.
Just a seven minute walk from there, at The Tombs prison still located on 125 White Street, Douglass met a man named Stuart, who he describes in his autobiography. The two quickly struck up a friendship and, and while Douglass was hiding at 36 Lispenard Street, he considered Stuart to be a trustworthy and warm-hearted companion.
To commemorate the writings and other accomplishments of Douglass, as statue of him was constructed at 110th Street and 8th Avenue. The statue artist, Algernon Miller, integrated what the NYC Department of Parks and Recreation called a “complex colored paving pattern that alludes to traditional African American quilt designs.”
Douglass’ literary genius allowed him to open the minds and hearts of many staunch, pro-slavery minded citizens and inspired many disenfranchised people to fight against their oppressors.
Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895 at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopalian Church in downtown Washington D.C., shortly after attending a meeting at the National Council of Women.