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Frederick Douglass: Greatest Black Nationalists In History

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The purpose of this paper is to discuss nationalism and its connection to Frederick Douglass. Is Frederick Douglass a nationalist? In order to answer this question, we must go back to the beginning and explore Douglass’s childhood. It is here that he develops some understanding of the world that he lives in. As Douglass gets older, he begins to see the world for what it truly is. What he sees and experiences is not right, and he knows that. He must do something. Frederick Douglass joins the abolitionist movement. It is no surprise that he experiences backlash and is presented with numerous challenges and threats. How does he respond to these challenges? If he was not a nationalist before, is he a nationalist now? If he is a nationalist, what kind of nationalist is he? It is important that we explore Frederick Douglass’s life, starting from the beginning, to get a better understanding of what led him to become the man we know him to be.

Frederick Douglass was born in Talbot County in Maryland sometime in February 1817. Because his mother was a slave, he was born a slave. For the first few years of his life, he lived with his grandmother. For a while, he thought that the home in which his grandmother lived was her own. He learned that not only did the house belong to someone else, but his grandmother did as well. Up until this point, Frederick Douglass had no knowledge of slavery. I can only imagine how he felt learning that his grandmother, her children, and himself included were slaves. His grandmother was very dear to him. Learning that one day he would be separated from her had to be heartbreaking. I believe that the day his grandmother was taken from him, was the day that he became acquainted with the true reality of slavery.

Frederick Douglass went to live on a plantation owned by a man named Colonel Lloyd. He was left under the supervision of a woman referred to as “Aunt Katy,” who happened to be a slave herself.” Aunt Katy had her own kids that she favored and often neglected the other children when it came to food. Frederick Douglass recalled being hungry often during his first summer on the plantation. “Aunt Katy” would give her children the majority of the food, leaving very little for the rest. Douglass would be so hungry that he would hurry to get the crumbs that had been shaken from the tablecloth for the animals to eat. It saddens me that a child was treated like this. But this was only the beginning. Over the course of his life, Frederick Douglass would experience many more *hardships.

In Chapter 5, Douglass recalled an event that “opened his eyes to the cruelties and wickedness of slavery.” He saw the significant impact that slavery had on his master when he would not step in to save a young woman-Douglass’s cousin-who had been severely abused and beaten by the overseer. Douglass felt that the master should have used his authority to protect the woman, and he should have. At the time, Douglass said he did not understand the reasoning behind the brutal treatment that his cousin had received. Once he was older and began writing his autobiography, he understood that the kind of treatment his cousin received was a part of the system. It had nothing to do with the overseer himself. I would say that the overseer was a victim of the system as much as the slaves were themselves. This is a notion that I have seen in previous books that we have read this semester. This leads one to wonder, where did the system come from? How did it become so deeply embedded in the minds and hearts of the slaveholders?

Frederick Douglass had begun to wonder why he was a slave. He had been told that that was just the way God had intended for things to be. Douglass knew this was not right, for it went against this image of goodness he had in his head. After learning that many other slaves were brought over from their home country of Africa and learning that his Aunt had escaped, he knew that he wanted to escape too. Because of all that had happened and what he had learned, Douglass said that “I was already, in spirit and purpose, a fugitive of slavery.”

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Frederick Douglass eventually began learning how to read. Shortly after he learned that the key to freedom was knowledge. Douglass strived to gain as much knowledge as he could. He would listen in on people’s conversations about slavery and heard the term abolitionist for the first time. He sought out to learn more about the abolitionists. He was enthused by what he found in his search because he and the abolitionists had something in common: their hatred for the cruelties and brutalities of slavery. As Douglass continued to search, he needed something more. He needed someone he could go to in confidence, a friend. Through the teachings of a minister, Frederick Douglass was led to develop a relationship with God. He came to love all mankind, slaveholders included, but he still hated slavery. He did not believe it was the will of God. He sought spiritual guidance from a man he called “Uncle Lawson, who told him that God had a special work for him to do. Frederick asked “How can this be? I am a slave and I will be for the rest of my life.” Uncle Lawson told him that the Lord would set him free.

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery on September 3, 1838. He went to New York and there he got married. Shortly after getting married, Douglass and his wife traveled to Newport, Rhode Island. From there they went to New Bedford where Frederick Douglass felt safe at last. While in New Bedford, Douglass was given a copy of the Liberator, a newspaper edited and published by William Lloyd Garrison and Isaac Knapp. Douglass loved the content in the newspaper! He was inspired by the work of William Lloyd Garrison and began attending antislavery meetings. Frederick Douglass was asked to speak at an antislavery convention held in Nantucket. This was the first out of many times that he would speak publicly.

After joining the abolitionists, Douglass experienced backlash from his colored counterparts. Not only was it rare that the people of the town encountered a fugitive slave, but it was even more so that they encountered a “fugitive slave lecturer.” Many people did not believe that he had ever been a slave. Eventually, he had no choice but, to tell the truth about his experiences as a slave. He continued on with the abolitionists “preaching and teaching” to all who would hear. At one of the meetings, Douglass and some others were attacked. But he did not let this stop him. He continued his journey.

So, looking at the course of Frederick Douglass’s life thus far, was he a nationalist? In a letter to William Garrison, Frederick Douglass wrote, “I have no end to serve, no creed to uphold, no government to defend, and as to the nation. I belong to none. I have no protection at home or resting-place abroad. The land of my birth welcomes me to her shores only as a slave and spurns with contempt the idea of treating me differently; so that I am an outcast from the society of my childhood, and an outlaw in the land of my birth.” He also wrote, “If I ever had any patriotism or any capacity for the feeling, it was whipped out of me long since by the lash of the American soul drivers. When I remember that all is cursed with the infernal spirit of slaveholding, robbery, and wrong when I remember that with the waters of her noblest rivers the tears of my brethren are borne to the ocean, disregarded and forgotten and that her most fertile fields drink daily of the warm blood of my outraged sisters, I am filled with unutterable loathing, and led to reproach myself that anything could fall from my lips in praise of such a land.”

After reading this statement, I do not think Frederick Douglass was an American Nationalist. I do not know if I would call him a nationalist at all. How could he pledge allegiance to this country when all it has done is oppress him and thousands of others like him? How could he support and promote this country’s values, when he was at one point a slave? He was not proud of his homeland and the things that had taken place there. He was an American citizen by birth but was treated as an outsider. So, no he was not an American Nationalist. He was, however, a huge supporter of antislavery. He hated slavery and the slave system and worked tirelessly to do away with it. In this sense, maybe he was a nationalist. I think he was a just firm believer in the truth and doing what was right. He wanted better for his people. If that makes him a “Black Nationalist,” then so be it. I think he may have been one of the greatest “Black Nationalists” in history.

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Frederick Douglass: Greatest Black Nationalists In History. (2021, October 03). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 4, 2023, from
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