“Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” These were the words of Frederick Douglass. He believed strongly that blacks had to unwaveringly struggle for equal rights. “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” With this determination, Douglass spoke out against the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850. He became one of the most renowned orators and journalists in the fight against enslavement.
Douglass was born into slavery in 1817, near Tuckahoe, Md. He adopted Feb. 14 as his birthday because his mother used to call him her “little valentine.” He was mistreated during slavery, and tried to escape. He was sent to a “slave breaker,” who whipped him without mercy. Douglass fought back. He successfully escaped on his third try, with assistance from a free black woman named Anna Murray, whom he met in Baltimore. The two later married.
Douglass began reading anti-slavery papers and attending meetings with abolitionists. He became a speaker and quickly earned a reputation of being able to move an audience with his powerful words and descriptions of the horrors of slavery. He wrote “A Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” which detailed the inhumane treatment of slaves. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed, Douglass responded with strong words. He wrote that the true remedy to this law was “a good revolver, a steady hand and a determination to shoot down any man attempting to kidnap.”
Abolitionists nicknamed the act the “Bloodhound Law” for the dogs that were used to track runaway slaves. Slave catchers were also given the right to search private homes and return fugitives. This harsh law sent thousands of escaped slaves fleeing to Canada. They risked beatings and death, and traveled until they were emaciated. Their goal was to reach the Niagara Frontier and cross the border to Canada.
Prior to becoming president, Millard Fillmore practiced law in East Aurora and took a stand against slavery, defending escaped slaves. However, Fillmore denounced the abolitionists on his way up the political ladder and signed the law in 1850.
As a result of the Fugitive Slave Act, Douglass became a determined agent of the Underground Railroad. By this time he had moved to Rochester. He raised money to assist fugitive slaves, and used his home as a station on the Underground Railroad. Often escaped slaves would be waiting on his doorstep. He helped hundreds to freedom. He enlisted the aid of others in Rochester who were more than willing to help. Douglass established a newspaper called the North Star and used it to speak out against slavery.
Douglass often spoke in Buffalo. As a member of the anti-slavery society, he became involved with the Colored Convention Movement. In 1843, blacks met in Buffalo as part of 100 anti-slavery conventions in several states. A building located at Washington and Seneca streets was used for the first meeting by Douglass and other abolitionists. He spoke each day for a week. He also spoke at the site now known as LaSalle Park to a crowd of about 5,000 people. His eloquent speeches, writings and anti-slavery activities forced the public to become aware of the plight of blacks.
Douglass died on Feb. 20, 1895, of a heart attack. Earlier that day, he had given a speech to the National Council of Negro Women. In 1955, his home in Anacostia, D.C., was purchased as a national shrine under the National Park Service. A commemorative stamp was issued in his honor in 1967. With his voice and pen, he addressed numerous issues, including women’s rights, world peace and full civil rights for blacks.
The history of the work of men and women who played major roles as conductors on the Underground Railroad in Western New York has yet to be told. Perhaps one day we will get the whole story.
Eva M. Doyle is a columnist for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the third of four parts.