Escape From Slavery, 1838
Frederick Douglass lived a remarkable life. Born in 1818 on Maryland's Eastern Shore, his mother was a slave, his father an unknown white man. Eventually he was sent to Baltimore where he worked as a ship's caulker in the thriving seaport. He made his dash to freedom from there in 1838. His ability to eloquently articulate the plight of the slave through his various publications and public speeches brought him international renown. Towards the end of his life, Douglass served his country as Consul General to Haiti and Charge d'Affaires for Santo Domingo. He died in 1895.
Douglass began his life in bondage working the fields on Maryland's Eastern Shore. At age 18, he was sent to Baltimore where he learned to caulk ships. He worked in the local shipyards earning a wage that was not given to him but to his master. His first step to freedom was to borrow the identity papers of a freed slave:
"It was the custom in the State of Maryland to require the free colored people to have what were called free papers. These instruments they were required to renew very often, and by charging a fee for this writing, considerable sums from time to time were collected by the State. In these papers the name, age, color, height, and form of the freeman were described, together with any scars or other marks upon his person which could assist in his identification. This device in some measure defeated itself-since more than one man could be found to answer the same general description. Hence many slaves could escape by personating the owner of one set of papers; and this was often done as follows: A slave, nearly or sufficiently answering the description set forth in the papers, would borrow or hire them them till by means of them he could escape to a free State, and then, by mail or otherwise, would return them to the owner. The operation was a hazardous one for the lender as well as for the borrower. A failure on the part of the fugitive to send back the papers would imperil his benefactor, and the discovery of the papers in possession of the wrong man would imperil both the fugitive and his friend."
Armed with these papers, and disguised as a sailor, Douglass nervously clamors aboard a train heading North on a Monday morning:
"I was not so fortunate as to resemble any of my free acquaintances sufficiently to answer the description of their papers. But I had one friend - a sailor - who owned a sailor's protection, which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers - describing his person and certifying to the fact that he was a free American sailor. The instrument had at its head the American eagle, which gave it the appearance at once of an authorized document. This protection, when in my hands did not describe its bearer very accurately. Indeed, it called for a man much darker than myself, and close examination of it would have caused my arrest at the start.
In order to avoid this fatal scrutiny on the part of railroad officials, I arranged with Isaac Rolls, a Baltimore hackman, to bring my baggage to the Philadelphia train just on the moment of starting, and jumped upon the car myself when the train was in motion. Had I gone into the station and offered to purchase a ticket, I should have been instantly and carefully examined, and undoubtedly arrested. In choosing this plan I considered the jostle of the train, and the natural haste of the conductor, in a train crowded with passengers and relied upon my skill and address in playing the sailor, as described in my protection to do the rest. One element in my favor was the kind feeling which prevailed in Baltimore and other sea-ports at the time, toward 'those who go down to the sea in ships.' 'Free trade and sailors' rights' just then expressed the sentiment of the country. In my clothes I was rigged out in sailor style. I had on a red shirt and a tarpaulin hat, and a black cravat tied in sailor fashion carelessly and loosely about my neck. My knowledge of ships and sailor's talk came much to my assistance, for I knew a ship from stem to stem, and from keelson to cross-trees, and could talk sailor like an 'old salt.'
I was well on the way to Havre de Grace before the conductor came into the negro car to collect tickets and examine the papers of his black passengers. This was a critical moment in the drama. My whole future depended upon the decision of this conductor. Agitated though I was while this ceremony was proceeding, still, externally, at least, I was apparently calm and self-possessed. He went on with his duty - examining several colored passengers before reaching me. He was somewhat harsh in tone and peremptory in manner until he reached me, when, strange enough, and to my surprise and relief, his whole manner changed. Seeing that I did not readily produce my free papers, as the other colored persons in the car had done, he said to me, in friendly contrast with his bearing toward the others:
"This was a critical
moment in the drama"
'I suppose you have your free papers?' To which I answered:
'No, sir; I never carry my free papers to sea with me.'
'But you have something to show that you are a freeman, haven't you?'
'Yes sir,' I answered: 'I have a paper with the American eagle on it, and that will carry me around the world.'
With this I drew from my deep sailor's pocket my seaman's protection, as before
described. The merest glance at the paper satisfied him, and he took my fare
and went on about his business. This moment of time was one of the most anxious
I ever experienced. Had the conductor looked closely at the paper, he could
not have failed to discover that it called for a very different looking person
from myself, and in that case it would have been his duty to arrest me on the
instant and send me back to Baltimore from the first station. When he left
me with the assurance that I was all right, though much relieved, I realized
that I was still in great danger: I was still in Maryland, and subject to arrest
at any moment. I saw on the train several persons who would have known me in
any other clothes, and I feared they might recognize me, even in my sailor
'rig,' and report me to the conductor, who would then subject me to a closer
examination, which I knew well would be fatal to me.
|Slave Pen, Alexandria, VA
Slaves were held here before auction.
Though I was not a murderer fleeing from justice, I felt perhaps quite as miserable as such a criminal. The train was moving at a very high rate of speed for that epoch of railroad travel, but to my anxious mind it was moving far too slowly. Minutes were hours, and hours were days during this part of my flight. After Maryland, I was to pass through Delaware - another slave State, where slave-catchers generally awaited their prey, for it was not in the interior of the State, but on its borders, that these human hounds were most vigilant and active. The borderlines between slavery and freedom were the dangerous ones for the fugitives. The heart of no fox or deer, with hungry hounds on his trail in full chase, could have beaten more anxiously or noisily than did mine from the time I left Baltimore till I reached Philadelphia."
"My free life began on the third of September, 1838. On the morning of the fourth of that month, after an anxious and most perilous but safe journey, I found myself in the big city of New York, a a free man - one more added to the mighty throng which, like the confused waves of the troubled sea, surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway.
But my gladness was short-lived, for I was not yet out of the reach and power of the slave-holders."
Fleeing New York City, Douglass makes his way north to the sea town of New Bedford where he experiences the exhilaration of freedom:
"The fifth day after my arrival, I put on the clothes of a common laborer, and went upon the wharves in search of work. On my way down Union Street I saw a large pile of coal in front of the house of Rev. Ephraim Peabody, the Unitarian minister. I went to the kitchen door and asked the privilege of bringing in and putting away this coal. 'What will you charge?' said the lady. 'I will leave that to you, madam.' 'You may put it away,' she said. I was not long in accomplishing the job, when the dear lady put into my hand two silver half-dollars. To understand the emotion which swelled my heart as I clasped this money, realizing that I had no master who could take it from me,-- that it was mine -- that my hands were my own, and could earn more of the precious coin -- one must have been in some sense himself a slave."
Douglass, Frederick, My Escape From Slavery, Century Magazine (1881); Douglass, Frederick, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855).
How To Cite This Article:
"Escape From Slavery, 1838," EyeWitness to history, www.eyewitnestohistory.com (1999).