Facts & Observations by Jonathan Sprout
He escaped the master’s whip at the age of 20 when he fled North, disguised as a sailor. As a strong voice for civil rights, his lecturing and reasoning were so impressive that opponents refused to believe he had been a slave. A beacon of morality whose vision transcended race and gender, he wrote books and published a newspaper discussing both the evils of slavery and the rights of women.
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who favor freedom without agitation want crops without plowing ... they want rain without thunder and lightning.” -- Frederick Douglass
“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” -- Frederick Douglass
Born trapped in slavery where it was against the law for him to read, to learn and to grow as a human, he was proactive, creative and resourceful enough to free himself of slavery, and then to create himself ultimately as a brilliant and compassionate man who helped not only the cause of freedom for blacks, but also the cause of the basic rights for women. He soared from a lowly slave to a most respected man whose advice Abraham Lincoln would would sometimes seek.
As did Susan B. Anthony, Douglass had the clarity to rise above his own life and see things that were difficult for most others to realize -- that all blacks had the right to be free and to vote, and that all women had the right to vote.
Mr. Douglass went to his grave not knowing how old he was. Since the birth records of slaves were poorly kept, he was never able to determine accurately when he was born. It’s my understanding that he died, thinking he had been born in 1819, but a few years after his death, it was determined that he had been born in 1818.
Imagine how strange life might be for a person who doesn’t know how old s/he is and who doesn’t know when his/her birthday is!
Frederick Douglass believed that people will not change unless they are stirred up to do so. To agitate is to excite and to stir up.
There’s a great story behind our song Agitate, which appears on my CD More American Heroes. The story, as told to me by a park ranger at the Douglass Home, starts when an elderly Mr. Douglass is returning home after having given an inspiring lecture in town (Washington, DC). On the front porch, awaiting his return is a young African-American man who had attended the lecture. The young man tells Mr. Douglass how inspired he is and asks Mr. Douglass, “What can I do? How can I help?”
Douglass turns to him and slowly says, “Agitate… Agitate… Agitate.” He then walks wearily into his house. The young man walks away, stunned by Douglass’s clarity and simplicity.
A little while later, Frederick Douglass has a heart attack in the front hallway of his house and dies there in his wife’s arms.
I visited the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, DC and I highly recommend it. This was his home for the last eighteen years of his life. There’s also a bookstore and gift shop on the property.