Man Without a Birthday: The Life of Frederick Douglass (February 14, 1818-February 20, 1895), Part 1

February is Black History Month, an unofficial holiday honoring the contributions of African Americans to the history of the United States. The month-long celebration is rooted in an earlier celebration known as Black History Week, the first of which was established by historian Carter G. Woodson in mid-February 1926. The date chosen was based, in part, on the date of birth of Frederick Douglass. This is ironic since Douglass himself did not know when he was actually born. He said that he adopted February 14th, St. Valentine’s Day, as his birthday because his mother had called him her “little valentine.”


38-year old Frederick Douglass (1856)

For those of us who have had yearly celebrations of our birth and are in contact with our parents, it is hard to realize the anguish that this ambiguity caused Douglass. One can hear the frustration, sarcasm, pain and anger in his third and final autobiography, The Life & Times of Frederick Douglass, when he discusses slaves’ uncertainty of their background, an uncertainty which he shared:

Genealogical trees did not flourish among slaves. A person of some consequence in civilized society, sometimes designated as father, was literally unknown to slave law and to slave practice. I never met a slave in that part of the country who could tell me with any certainty how old he was. … Masters allowed no questions concerning their ages to be put to them by slaves. Such questions were regarded by the masters as evidence of an impudent curiosity.

Even well into adulthood– as a man of 59 –Douglass continued to seek information about his background. Travelling to Talbot County, Maryland in 1877, he spoke to one of his former masters. The most Thomas Auld could tell him was that he was born in February 1818. No information was available as to the day or who his father was.

Just as he adopted a date of birth, Douglass adopted a new name as well. Douglass was not his birth name. He was born Frederick Augustus Bailey in Tuckahoe (Talbot County), Maryland, one of six children born to a slave woman, Harriett Bailey, and an unknown white man. Frederick Douglass never learned who his father was, although he assumed it was one of his mother’s owners (she had three). He grew up on the plantation of Col. Edward Lloyd, although Harriett and her children were actually owned by Lloyd’s plantation manager, Aaron Anthony. Separated from her child while Douglass was still an infant, Harriett was relocated (most likely sold) to another master, “Mr. Stewart,” 12 miles from the Lloyds and Anthonys. Douglass only saw her a handful of times thereafter, and always at night, since she had to return to the Stewart property by daybreak.

At the age of 8, Douglass was relocated to Baltimore, where he lived with Anthony’s daughter Lucretia, her husband Thomas Auld, and Auld’s parents, Hugh and Sophia Auld. The following year he returned to Lloyd’s plantation and was permanently separated from his mother and siblings, save for his sister Eliza. Later in 1827, he was sent back to Baltimore to live again with the Auld family, where he lived for six more years. During this time, he learned to read and write.


Frederick Douglass Memorial (1941) at its original location, St. Paul Street and Central Avenue. The statue was later moved to its present location, South Avenue at Highland Park.

Hired out as a laborer while in Baltimore, he made contact with the free black community in that city. In September 1838, using the papers of a free black sailor, he fled to New York City. It was there, among the abolitionist community, that he met and married his first wife, Anna Murray (1813? -August 4, 1882). Shortly thereafter, they moved to New Bedford, Massachusetts. There, he adopted the surname by which he would be known henceforth – Douglass — taking the name from an outlaw in Sir Walter Scott’s poem, “Lady of the Lake” (1810), but adding an additional S.

[To be continued]

-Christopher Brennan


For More Information:

Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (Boston: Published at the Anti-Slavery Office, 1845).

Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (New York: Miller, Orton & Mulligan, 1855).

Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe & Fiske Co., 1892).

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W.W. Norton, 1991).

Daryl Michael Scott, “The History of Black History Month,” Black Past ( : accessed January 15, 2018). Dr. Scott is Professor of History at Howard University.

Published in: on February 1, 2018 at 10:00 am  Leave a Comment  

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