Born into slavery, Frederick Douglass decided nothing would stop him from becoming a free man. Risking all, he duly escaped enslavement when he was 20 years old. But he wasn’t content with simply his personal liberty. Douglass was a man who would never be satisfied until the cruel institution of slavery had been eliminated from America. And he played a key part in the struggle to make that happen.
Extraordinary but true: Frederick Douglass was the most-photographed American in the 19th century. According to the National Park Service’s website, he was snapped more times than even Abraham Lincoln. Douglass deliberately sought opportunities to be pictured, though he wasn’t driven by vanity. He believed photography could be a powerful political tool in his fight for equal rights for Black people.
Douglass was well aware of the potential social power of the new medium photography. As he said in 1861 in a lecture he gave, “The humbled servant girl whose income is but a few shillings per week may now possess a more perfect likeness of herself than noble ladies and court royalty.”
A stern expression
Douglass had carefully considered photography as a tool to further the cause of equality for Black people. As the National Park Service website puts it, “Douglass knew that pictures allowed him to present himself as a person worthy of respect and dignity equal to any white man, and to challenge slavery and the era’s racist social norms.”
In particular, Douglass paid close attention to exactly how he was portrayed in photographs. Usually he posed for portraits with a stern, unsmiling expression. According to the National Park Service this was to counter racist images of the “’happy slave’ caricatures that were common at the time.”
2. A slave-breaker
Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 and remained enslaved until he escaped to New York City in 1838. During his 20 years of enslavement, Douglass labored under various slave masters. One was a farmer called Edward Covey, who leased him in 1833 from Captain Thomas Auld.
Leasing of slaves was a common practice. Covey would have paid a monthly fee for Douglass and fed and housed him. According to Britannica, this Covey was “known as a ‘slave-breaker.’” This “meant someone who abused slaves physically and psychologically to make them more compliant.”
A determination to be free
On one occasion, Covey violently attacked Douglass. But the teenage slave refused to accept this and fought back vigorously. After a lengthy struggle, Douglass came out on top. This was the last time Covey inflicted physical violence on his young slave.
Douglass was later to write about this incident in his autobiography The Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass. He recalled the fight was “the turning point in my career as a slave.” And he continued that the episode “inspired me again with a determination to be free.” That freedom didn’t come for several more years, but the seeds were sown with his stand against Covey.