Frederick Douglass – The Man Who Bought Himself

Yes, the famed abolitionist and activist Frederick Douglass raised money to buy himself. He came to Coventry in 1847 as part of a fund raising campaign to end slavery. He was asked to speak at the St. Mary’s Guildhall, Bayley Lane, Coventry. He was supported by the Anti-Slavery League, as well as religious groups such as the Quakers. He was on a mission to this country, on behalf of the slave population of the United States.

Upon the motion of Charles Bray, the Rev. John Sibree took the chair. It was reported in the Coventry Herald & Observer. Coventry had always been a place of liberal thinking and teaching and they could see the parallels with the plight of the negro slaves from the Bible teachings of Moses who forced the Pharaoh to let his people free.

The meeting was on the evening of Tuesday 2nd February 1847. Frederick spoke about the evils of slavery and his life as a slave. He once had been a slave and he had escaped at the age of 20, armed with fake papers, a sailor suit disguise, he escaped to the free Northern states of America with the help of Anna Murray, the free black woman from Baltimore with whom he had fallen in love. They ended up in Rochester, New York. He became a prominent activist, author and public speaker.

The Coventry Society have been actively working to get various blue plaques for historic and famous people around the city and feel that it would be a good idea to have a plaque to commemorate Frederick Douglass’s visit and his lecture within the guildhall in 1847. We feel that it’s not just the many Kings and Queens who have visited St. Mary’s Guildhall that we should recognise, but also other notable people like Frederick Douglass.

He should be remembered as part of the buildings’ long history and part of its interpretation. At the moment the Guildhall is closed to visitors for restoration work. The Coventry Trade Union Council (TUC) Executive have already given their support for a plaque or some kind of memorial to his visit.

Perhaps other Peace and Reconciliation groups, the Coventry Cathedral and the City Council would also support this idea? Do you support it?

In 2017 Frederick Douglass become immortalised by being on the United States currency.

In England, Frederick also delivered what would later be viewed as one of his most famous speeches, the so-called “London Reception Speech.” In the speech, he said, “What is to be thought of a nation boasting of its liberty, boasting of its humanity, boasting of its Christianity, boasting of its love of justice and purity, and yet having within its own borders three millions of persons denied by law the right of marriage?… I need not lift up the veil by giving you any experience of my own. Every one that can put two ideas together, must see the most fearful results from such a state of things…”

He also visited Ireland, at the time the country was just entering the early stages of the Irish Potato Famine. During his time in Ireland, he would meet the Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, who would become an inspiration for his later work. While overseas, he was impressed by the relative freedom he had as a man of colour, compared to what he had experienced in the United States.

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 on a plantation in Maryland, North America. His mother was a slave, his father was “almost certainly white,” Frederick claimed “it was whispered that my master was my father”. He was born Frederick Bailey (his mother’s name Harriet Bailey), his mother gave him the full grand name at birth of “Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey.” he took the name Douglass only after he escaped.

Frederick secretly, taught himself how to read and write. He later often said, “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.” He began to read newspapers, pamphlets, political materials, and books of every description, this new realm of thought led him to question and condemn the institution of slavery. He became a leader in the abolitionist movement, which sought to end the practice of slavery, before and during the Civil War.

He continued to push for equality and human rights until his death in 1895. As a symbol of freedom he bought himself from his original masters, really only a legal matter but it was also a great gesture that he had taken control of his own life. It was said “as Frederick Douglass approached the bed of Thomas Auld – his former owner/master tears came to his eyes. He had not seen Auld for years, and now that they were reunited, both men could not stop crying. Frederick Douglass and Thomas Auld clasped hands and spoke of past and future, confronting death and reminiscing over their years of acquaintance and separation. Auld wasn’t an old friend of Frederick’s—he was after all his former owner. But now, the two men stood on different terms”.

Image Created by Paul Maddocks

William Wilberforce MP and his colleagues persisted in campaigning to change the law and in February 1807 Britain at last outlawed the North Atlantic slave trade.

The United States followed suit a month later. But supporters of slavery in both countries were quick to take advantage of the fact that, although importing slaves was now illegal, owning slaves was not. In Britain it took a further Act of Parliament in 1833 to ban slavery itself. In the US the practice continued, sadly, for many more years. In the cotton-growing southern states, the slave population actually increased as the children of slaves were themselves enslaved like breading cattle then taking its babies away at an early age, this had happened to Frederick himself. Many cruel masters, starving and beating their enslaved workers and breaking up their attempts to worship, read or write, stopping any independent spirit with physical and emotional abuse.

It took the American Civil War and President Abraham Lincoln issuing the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’ on January 1, 1863, as the nation approached its third year of bloody civil war. The proclamation declared “that all persons held as slaves” within the rebellious states “are, and henceforward shall be free.”

Frederick was an advocate for all human rights, especially women’s rights, and specifically the right of women to vote. Frederick’s legacy as an author and leader lives on. His work served as an inspiration to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and his name even became part of 21st-century political debate.

Many people made a lot of money including upper class, middle class and even some working class, so they were not very happy to give it all up. After slavery was banned great amounts of money were paid to the owners of slaves as compensation, but not one slave got any money compensation.

Unfortunately slavery has not gone away, today it just takes a different form; the Morecombe Bay Cockling disaster of 2004 is just one of many examples that came to light due to tragic circumstances.

There is a recent video about Frederick Douglass created by Coventry University History Department here:

A petition has been launched on 38 Degrees calling on Coventry City Council to install a plaque in acknowledgement: You can sign it here:

One thought on “Frederick Douglass – The Man Who Bought Himself

  1. I am really pleased with this article. I only read about Fredric Douglass during the start of campaign about Black Lives Matter when someone mentioned his name in Social Media. So I looked at his life story on internet but I was not aware that he visited Coventry till it was mentioned in CoventryLive. I was asked to do something to mark his visit to Coventry and that is the time when I linked with colleagues from Stand Up To Racism who accepted my request to raise the petition. I will support the petition as i have already signed it.


Leave a Reply to Ram P Lakha OBE (Cllr) Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s