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        Frederick Douglass | Orator, Editor, and Abolitionist

        After escaping from slavery in 1838, Frederick Douglass went on to become a prominent writer, orator, and abolitionist in the years leading up to the Civil War. Through two primary source activities and a short video, understand how Douglass stood firm in his beliefs and rose to prominence, and explore the importance of literacy in his life. 

        Lesson Summary

        Students explore what it means to speak out for your beliefs, or to right a wrong. After watching a short video, they will reflect on Douglass’s courage and the importance of literacy in his activism. They will read excerpts from Douglass’s autobiographies and examine an 1850 etching of Douglass being pulled away from a stage prior to giving a speech. Finally, they will reflect on Douglass’s importance as both a historical figure and as a role model for their own lives.

        Time Allotment

        20 - 40 minutes



        • Abhorrence – dislike
        • Despondent – sad
        • Eloquent – well-spoken
        • Skeptic – a person who has a doubting attitude 


        Abolitionist Movement – In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Americans who were opposed to slavery advocated for the emancipation of enslaved people and end the institution of slavery. A common tactic used by abolitionists was to have formerly enslaved people speak about their experiences. Frederick Douglass became the most well known of these speakers. 

        Learn more about the Abolitionist Movement:

        Emancipation Proclamation - President Abraham Lincoln issued 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."


        Background on Frederick Douglass | Orator, Editor and Abolitionist

        Frederick Douglass was born in 1818, during the time when the Abolitionist Movement was growing in influence and slavery was beginning to divide the growing nation. He was born into slavery in Maryland, taken away from his mother, and by the age of seven sent to Baltimore to work. At age 12, he began secretly teaching himself to read and write, which was against the law for slaves.

        Two attempts to escape slavery failed. Finally, on September 3, 1838, he succeeded in a daring escape with the help of a free black woman named Anna Murray. Frederick had fallen in love with Anna and eleven days later he was able to marry her. The couple settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where Douglass sought work as a free man.

        Douglass could have simply vanished into the safety of obscurity. Instead at the age of 23, Douglass began giving eloquent, emotional speeches about his life as a slave. Audiences rose to their feet to applaud the young man who bravely called for racial equality and the end of slavery.

        His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, was published in 1845, and became an immediate bestseller. At the time, skeptics insisted a Black man could not have produced such a moving and beautiful piece of literature. At risk of recapture by bounty hunters, Douglass traveled overseas, in part to remain safe. 

        Trips to England exposed him to a level of equality he never experienced back home and he saw what could be possible for his own country. 

        Returning two years later, Douglass went on to publish the North Star, a weekly abolitionist newspaper. When the Civil War broke out, Douglass, now famous, advised President Abraham Lincoln on the role and treatment of black soldiers.

        The North won the war, and slavery was eventually abolished. Douglass worked diligently his entire life to improve the lives of African Americans.

        Cedar Hill House

        His wife Anna passed away in 1882, and Douglass remarried Helen Pitts in 1884. Douglass was the son of a black woman born into slavery, and an unknown white man. Pitts was the daughter of white parents who were abolitionists. Despite her parents’ political views, they opposed the marriage because of Douglass’s race. Interracial marriage was not formally legalized in the United States until 1967.

        The couple endured public scorn. Still, the marriage lasted until the end of Douglass’s life. On February 20, 1895, Douglass received a standing ovation following a speech he gave in Rochester, New York. He died of a heart attack later that day.


        Introductory Activity

        (5 minutes)

        Ask students, by a show of hands, if they have ever spoken up for something they believe in. Then, ask them to leave their hands up if they would be willing to risk physical harm to take this stand.

        Introduce Frederick Douglass:

        Frederick Douglass, once he had fled enslavement could have chosen to live a life of obscurity. Instead, he became an outspoken critic of the institution of slavery, not just for personal reasons, but for moral reasons as well. 

        Learning Activities

        Video and Class Discussion (10 minutes)

        Distribute Graphic Organizer for students to fill out while viewing the video.

        Download Graphic Organizer [PDF]

        Play the Video

        Discussion questions after viewing:

        1. What was the biggest challenge Douglass faced? What was his most significant act of bravery?

        2. In what ways were reading and writing examples of Douglass’s bravery? What risks did he take to learn to read and write? How did the contents of his writing indicate his courage?

        3. What might have motivated Douglass to continue to speak out, even after being physically attacked and having his hand broken?

        4. If Douglass were alive today, on what issues would you want him to speak out?

        Examining Primary Sources

        Visual Primary Source Activity (10 minutes)

        Project or make copies of the following image, a Winslow Homer illustration from Harper’s Weekly from December 15, 1860. A general interest news magazine, Harper’s took a moderate stance on the issue of slavery in order to maintain its position as the most widely read periodical in the country prior to and during the Civil War.

        Ask students to examine the print and describe what they see. Ask them to try to identity Frederick Douglass in the print. He is the figure on stage with arms raised. Then ask them to make predictions about what is going on in the scene.

        Explain that Douglass, and William Lloyd Garrison, another abolitionist, were slated to speak to an abolitionist group in Boston, Massachusetts, not long after Abraham Lincoln was elected President. The meeting was disrupted by anti-abolitionists. The police arrived, and Douglass, along with Garrison, was forcibly removed from the stage. Indicate that this image is a wood engraving, likely done from a sketch produced by an artist who was at the meeting.


        1. Why would the abolitionists be removed from their own meeting? 

        2. What does this engraving indicate about Douglass’s physical bravery? 

        3. Garrison is the man being arrested on the right. How does he look different in the picture from Frederick Douglass? What can you see in the picture that makes you think that? 

        4. How would you respond to a conflict like this? Which person in the image best represents your reaction? 

        Written Primary Source Activity (15 minutes)

        In addition to writing many speeches, letters, news articles, etc., Frederick Douglass wrote three autobiographies. For an activity using quotations from two of these works, click here.

        Download Written Primary Source Activity [PDF]


        Culminating Activity

        This can be done as an in-class follow-up to the lesson, as a homework assignment or as a multi-day in-class project.

        To be completed using the Graphic Organizer.

        Individually or in small groups, have students develop a plan for a Frederick Douglass memorial in their town or city. Students will need to:

        • Develop a design for the memorial
        • Write the text for an explanatory sign or plaque
        • Determine the appropriate location for their memorial
        • Explain how a Frederick Douglass memorial can inspire young people in the 21st Century

        As an extension activity, students can write a letter to local authorities or to a local newspaper requesting that their memorial be erected.


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