Sunday, March 25, 2012

Frederick Douglass: The Slavery Years

A few years ago I read Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, a book about slavery, written by a former slave about life on the Eastern Shores of Maryland.  I followed in his footsteps to the extent possible and found his birthplace, along with a few other places he either lived or spoke about as a young slave, before his escape and ultimate freedom.  After reading his book Narrative, along with other writing by Douglass, he became a bit of a historical hero of mine, opening my eyes wide to the brutal and vile practice of human slavery. 
Northwest of Easton, Maryland on highway 308 is an historical marker acknowledging Douglass was born in the area, in Tuckahoe, and leads one to believe he was born in this general vicinity.  In fact, he was born 7 miles north of this location at Tappers Corner.  We know this based on clues Douglass write in his books, as well as a return trip to the area in 1877.  

There are no markers at Tappers Corner indicating Douglass ever lived here, but it is near the treeline where he lived with his grandmother until he was six years old, in a "hut, built of clay, wood and straw."   His mother worked as a field slave 12 miles away. 

Your humble blogger at Tappers Corner, birthplace of Frederick Douglass. 
When Douglass was 6 years old he was walked the 12 miles by his grandmother to the plantation of "Old Master" and the Lloyd House (below).  He wrote that his grandmother being in "advanced age" grew sadder and sadder as they got closer, the walk "tested the endurance of my young legs" and his grandmother carried him much of the way.  He wrote as they neared the plantation (below) he noticed the fields (above) full of other slaves working.  It wasn't until his grandmother left him, terrified, did he come to know he was a slave and was put to work.  

Surely it was this entrence to the Lloyd Plantation/ Wye House that Douglass later remembered as The Long Green his grandmother walked him up after their 12 mile walk from the cabin at Tappers Corner, to leave him there to start his life as a slave.  Later, he would write about slave life at the plantation:

"I had no bed. I must have perished with cold, but that, the coldest nights, I used to steal a bag which was used for carrying corn to the mill. I would crawl into this bag, and there sleep on the cold, damp, clay floor, with my head in and feet out. My feet have been so cracked with the frost, that the pen with which I am writing might be laid in the gashes."

On seeing his Aunt Hester whipped to "within a breath of her life":

"I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not venture out till long after the bloody transaction was over. I expected it would be my turn next. It was all new to me. I had never seen any thing like it before. I had always lived with my grandmother on the outskirts of the plantation, where she was put to raise the children of the younger women. I had therefore been, until now, out of the way of the bloody scenes that often occurred on the plantation. "
It was later, when Douglass returned from working as a house slave in Baltimore, and unlawfully teaching himself how to read, was he returned to being a slave at St. Michaels, Maryland, at the age of 16.  It was here he wrote about the town:

"St. Michael's, the village in which was now my new home, compared favorably with villages in slave states, generally. There were a few comfortable dwellings in it, but the place, as a whole, wore a dull, slovenly, enterprise-forsaken aspect. The mass of the buildings were wood; they had never enjoyed the artificial adornment of paint, and time and storms had worn off the bright color of the wood, leaving them almost as black as buildings charred by a conflagration."

It was at St. Mary's Square where Douglas was said to have attended church with his Master, Thomas Auld, and later said it was the worst of all luck to have a religious and pious master, for they qouted the Bible as they whipped you.  The building in the picture is a Masonic Lodge, but sits on the site of the Methodist Church he attended.

It was also in St. Michael's Douglas had another life-changing event.  He was "rented out" to Edward Covey, a man known as a "slave breaker."

"There was, in the Bay Side, very near the camp ground, where my master got his religious impressions, a man named Edward Covey, who enjoyed the execrated reputation, of being a first rate hand at breaking young Negroes. This Covey was a poor man, a farm renter; and this reputation (hateful as it was to the slaves and to all good men) was, at the same time, of immense advantage to him. It enabled him to get his farm tilled with very little expense, compared with what it would have cost him without this most extraordinary reputation. Some slaveholders thought it an advantage to let Mr. Covey have the government of their slaves a year or two, almost free of charge, for the sake of the excellent training such slaves got under his happy management! Like some horse breakers, noted for their skill, who ride the best horses in the country without expense, Mr. Covey could have under him, the most fiery bloods of the neighborhood, for the simple reward of returning them to their owners, well broken."  Douglass made a stand after several beatings at the hands of Covey, vowing he would fight back if ever struck again by the man.  He was and he did, this becoming the sentinel moment in his life, standing up for something he believed in and risking his life to do so.

In 2003, Bay Side, a.k.a., Mount Misery (Covey's Farm) was purchased by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and is not open to the public. 

A plaque on the back of a statue of Douglass in Easton, Maryland, dedicated in the summer of 2011
It was at this house in St Michael's, where in 1877 Douglass made a return trip to make amends and forgive his ailing former owner, Thomas Auld. 


  1. Great story! It's pretty cool you got to see and experience something you had studied and found so interesting.

  2. I have also followed his path to the Fells Point area in Baltimore and may add a few pictures from there. He had a house in Washington, D.C., which is still there, but is now in kind of a bad part of town. Eventually, I will make it there, too.

  3. Great stuff...What a great idea for a trip, walking in the footsteps of history...