Here’s a love story from Maryland History—of particular interest for Valentine’s Day and Black History Month.
If it were up to you, what day would you choose for your birthday?
One young man, whose given name was Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey, and who was born into slavery in Talbot County, MD, in 1818, faced this choice as he became an adult. As an infant, he was separated from his mother and was raised by his maternal grandmother. During his childhood he was able to see his mother only intermittently before her death when he was about 10 years old.
So when it came to choosing a day for his birthday, young Frederick had a reason for the date he chose. He felt pretty sure his birthday was sometime in late January or February. He recalled how his mother, on the occasions she could be with him, sometimes called him her “little Valentine.” In honor of his mother’s love, he chose February 14 as his birthday.
When he was 20, Frederick escaped from those who had enslaved him, disguised as one of the sailors who frequently came through Baltimore, many of whom were freeborn African-Americans. He carried with him identification papers borrowed from a free black seaman who didn’t look remotely like him; however, they fooled the authorities he encountered. He used this disguise on a train that he boarded and took north out of Baltimore to Havre de Grace in Hartford County, and then he traveled by ferry, train, and ship, through Delaware and finally into the free states of Pennsylvania and New York.
The sailor’s uniform he wore and the money for his travel were given to him by a young woman with whom he had fallen in love—Anna Murray. She was a free black woman from Baltimore who helped him arrange his disguise and escape. When Frederick arrived in New York, he sent for Miss Murray to follow him north. They were married on September 15, 1838, just 11 days after he had arrived in New York.
Eventually the couple settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts. They took the surname “Douglass” to help confound those who might be looking for a Frederick Bailey. They had five children and were married for 44 years until Anna’s death in 1882.
So that is how Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey became Frederick Douglass. He finally secured the funds to purchase his legal freedom by 1846. Douglas was an outspoken abolitionist and strong moral voice during the struggle to end slavery in the United States. He championed the woman’s right to vote at a time when it was not politically popular. He served as Washington, D.C.’s first Postmaster General—entrusted by President Lincoln to manage mail during the height of the Civil War. As one the most talented orators our nation has ever produced, he traveled extensively to speak about the evils of slavery and oppression.
This year is the 199th anniversary of his birth. Late in his life Frederick Douglass began celebrating another day as another birthday: September 3, the day he broke free from slavery and boarded a train with a disguise and a ticket purchased for him by Anna Murray.
Valentine’s Day is a time for remembering the people who love us and for honoring the people we love. And Black History Month is an opportunity to retell the stories of people whose passion for life, love for each other, and willingness to risk their lives for freedom and justice shaped the world we all share. These are stories that inspire all of us.