Before Frederick Douglass became the most influential African-American of the 19th century, he took a long, frightening journey to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Enslaved in Baltimore, he had to choose one of two routes out of bondage. One went north through New Jersey, up the Hudson, west to Rochester, N.Y., and across Lake Ontario to Canada. The second went across Long Island Sound to New England.
Frederick Douglass chose New England.
Once he arrived, he was surprised to find that white men who held no slaves were neither ignorant nor poor. He saw ‘solid wealth and grandeur,’ and found that “even the laboring classes lived in better houses …more abundantly supplied with conveniences and comforts, than the houses of many who owned slaves on the Eastern Shore.”
He was describing New Bedford, Mass.
Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Bailey on a Maryland plantation in February 1818, probably in his grandmother’s shack. His master may have been his father; he had no idea. He was separated from his mother as an infant.
As a boy he secretly taught himself to read and write. At 19 he fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman who worked as a servant.
By the age of 20, he had worked for a half dozen masters and tried to escape several times. In the summer of 1838 he was working as a caulker for $9 a week at Butler’s Shipyard in Baltimore – and giving all but 25 cents of his earnings to his master. Frederick Douglass was determined to escape to freedom.
On Sept. 3, 1838, Frederick Douglass stepped onto a train in Baltimore. He was dressed in a sailor’s uniform Anna Murray had made for him. He carried three things: a little money, identification papers from a free black seaman and the names of people who could help him.
Unfortunately, the identification papers described someone who looked quite different from Frederick Douglass. He had bypassed the ticket window where his papers could be checked carefully and waited until the last minute to board the train.
One reason he had chosen his mariner’s disguise was the typical Baltimorean’s warm feeling toward sailors. The train conductor clearly liked sailors and only glanced at the runaway’s seaman’s papers. As Frederick Douglass’s heart pounded terrifically, the conductor pronounced him “all right.”
Frederick Douglass got off the train in Havre De Grace and boarded a ferry to cross the Susquehanna River. On the boat he was approached by an African-American deckhand he knew from Baltimore. The man asked him where he was going and why. Douglass sidestepped the conversation.
Across the river, he stood on the platform for his train to Wilmington and saw a ship’s captain who knew him – but was looking the other way. He was also seen by a German blacksmith who recognized him, but for some reason didn’t betray him.
Frederick Douglass reached Delaware without further incident and boarded a steamer to Philadelphia. In the city he found a black porter who advised him what to do. He boarded a ferry, then the night train, then another ferry, then he disembarked on the free soil of New York City.
His sensations were “too intense and too rapid for words.”
Still, there was a bounty on his head. He had no money. He knew no one.
On a New York street he ran into an acquaintance, a fearful escapee from slavery, who told him New York was full of slave catchers. Douglass should trust no one, the man said, and stay away from the colored boardinghouses and wharves. Douglass spent the night sleeping behind a stack of barrels on a wharf.
The next day he risked a remark with a stranger, a sailor, who took him to the home of David Ruggles, a black journalist who helped hundreds of runaway slaves.
Where To Next?
Frederick Douglass stayed a few days with Ruggles, who helped him work out a plan. First, Anna had to come to New York so they could be married. Not an easy task, for she couldn’t read and had to navigate three trains and four boats. But she made it, and they became man and wife in David Ruggles’ parlor.
Then they had to decide where to live. New Bedford, Mass., was the obvious solution. The whaling city’s maritime industries were open to African-Americans, and many who escaped from slavery put down roots there. New Bedford by 1853 would have the highest population of African-Americans in the Northeast. Nearly a third had moved there from the South.
At any one time before the Civil War, 300 to 700 fugitive slaves were estimated to live in New Bedford.
Rescuing Frederick Douglass
Ruggles gave Frederick Douglass a five-dollar bill. He and Anna boarded a steamship for Newport, where they ran out of money. At the stagecoach stop to New Bedford, they met two Quakers, William Taber and Joseph Ricketson. The men told them to get into the stage with them. When the stage driver left them off in New Bedford, he held their luggage because they couldn’t pay him.
Taber and Ricketson directed the newlyweds to 21-23 Seventh Street, a former Quaker meeting house now the home of Nathan and Mary Johnson. They knew the Johnsons as well-to-do free black abolitionists.
Nathan paid the fare and got their baggage back. He then suggested his guest choose a new last name.
He was now Frederick Douglass, and he was home free.
With thanks to Frederick Douglass by William S. McFeely.
Images: New Bedford By English Wikipedia user Daniel Case, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4364093.
Tours of the Nathan and Mary Johnson properties are available by appointment. Click here for more information. This story was updated in 2023.