BIO Classroom

BIO Classroom

Bio of the Month Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 and died a prominent statesman 77 years later. Raised on a Maryland plantation, Douglass served as a house servant and a field hand throughout his childhood. Separated from his parents and subjected to brutal punishment, he managed to survive these terrible hardships and eventually escaped from the clutches of his master to achieve freedom. With a thirst for education, Douglass was a self-taught reader who saw the ability to read and write as a key to his own emancipation and that of his fellow slaves. After his daring escape from the plantation, Douglass became a tireless advocate for the abolition of slavery.
As an eloquent orator, a newspaper publisher and editor, and a committed public servant, Douglass used his talents to fight for equal rights for all Americans. Gaining prominence in his role as an abolitionist, he worked closely with presidents Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Harrison to help bring about change. Douglass helped persuade Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, an action that changed the course of history and helped bring about the elimination of slavery. Continuing a lifetime of civic and political participation, Douglass later represented the United States as its ambassador to Haiti. Douglass amassed an enormous list of writings and accomplishments in his life. Today, his gripping narrative of life as a slave is read throughout the world, and he is regarded as one of the most influential figures in American history.


While viewing the documentary, examine the ways in which Douglass accomplished his marvelous and inspirational ascent despite such great odds. How did Douglass eventually become a leading spokesperson for the full rights and equality of all Americans? What risks did he take, knowing quite well that his hard-earned freedom - and his life - could end immediately if he were caught? While you are watching, write down key quotes and adjectives that you think capture Douglass' experiences.


Biography®: Frederick Douglass would be useful for middle school and high school courses in American History, English Language Arts, and American Literature. This documentary fulfills the following standards as outlined by the National Council for History Education, the International Reading Association, and the National Council of Teachers of English: 1. Cultures of the World 2. Dimensions of Human Experience 3. Diversity in Language Use, Patterns, and Dialects Across Cultures, Ethnic Groups, Geographic Regions, and Social Roles 4. Civilization, Cultural Diffusion, and Innovation 5. Values, Beliefs, Political Ideas, and Institutions 6. Patterns of Social and Political Interaction


Using a dictionary ( or an encyclopedia, students may want to define or explain the significance of the following terms from this program:
  • Abolition
  • Aquiline
  • Creed
  • Dire
  • Emanate
  • Emancipation
  • Fugitive
  • Insurrection
  • Ironic
  • Mores
  • Orator
  • Posterity
  • Proclamation
  • Purge
  • Reminiscent
  • Smite
  • Victorian


  1. Why was Frederick Douglass unaware of his own birth date?
  2. What characteristics do you think made Douglass such an outstanding orator?
  3. What assignment ended Douglass' carefree childhood? How did he respond to this change?
  4. Douglass felt that the sentiment of the slaves' songs was misinterpreted. Explain this misinterpretation. What was the significance of songs for those held in slavery?
  5. How did Douglass learn to read?
  6. How did The Columbian Orator, a collection of famous speeches, aid Douglass in his quest to ensure equality for all people?
  7. What was the Underground Railroad? Explain how it worked. Why is the word "underground" both an appropriate and inappropriate name for this system?
  8. Exactly how was Douglass able to escape to the North? What were his key decisions and tactics?
  9. Explain how William Lloyd Garrison was an important figure in the abolitionist movement. How did Garrison and Douglass meet?
  10. How did Douglass become involved in the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society convention? How did Douglass' participation bolster his position within the abolitionist movement?
  11. In 1847, after two years of hiding in England so he would not be taken back into slavery in the United States, Douglass returned to the United States as a free man. Who purchased his freedom?
  12. Explain John Brown's contribution to the abolition of slavery. What eventually happened to Brown? How do you assess his legacy and significance?
  13. According to Douglass, what was the purpose of the Civil War?
  14. What is the Emancipation Proclamation? How did the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest one-day battle in the Civil War, help to advance the preliminary draft of this document?


  1. What are some of the attributes that constitute a hero? Would you label Frederick Douglass a hero? Offer specific examples to support your answer.
  2. Imagine that you have been asked to compose a list of "The Top 100 Americans Who Shaped This Nation." These men and women can be either living or deceased Americans. Would Frederick Douglass be included on your list? Defend your decision to include or exclude him.
  3. Obviously, the Emancipation Proclamation changed the course of U.S. history. Besides the Emancipation Proclamation, what other speeches or documents have had a major effect on the people of this nation? Make a list of the ten you think are most important.
  4. Review several speeches delivered by Frederick Douglass. How did he attempt to persuade his listeners? What were some of his techniques as an orator? Are similar techniques employed by today's speechmakers? Give specific evidence.
  5. Although the 1848 raid on Harper's Ferry accelerated the Civil War's start, John Brown and his men were unsuccessful in their attempt to free slaves and attack slaveholders. Most of Brown's men were either killed there or executed later. Before the raid, Frederick Douglass told Brown, "You're walking into a perfect steel-trap, and you will never get out alive." Why was the raid on Harper's Ferry so disastrous? Write a newspaper account of that day describing and analyzing the raid and its effects.



American Visionaries - Frederick Douglass (The National Park Service Museum Collections)
This site features items owned by Frederick Douglass and highlights his achievements. It features photos, information on related documents, a Frederick Douglass timeline, and a virtual tour of the Frederick Douglass Historic Site, with lesson plans.
Frederick Douglass
This site includes an extensive Frederick Douglass biography, a chronology of his life, photographs of his children, e-texts of his writings, and online exhibits of key historic sites related to his life.
The Frederick Douglass Papers
The Library of Congress' online collection of Frederick Douglass' papers.


Blight, David W. Douglass' Civil War: Keeping Faith in Jubilee (Louisiana State University Press, 1991).
Douglass, Frederick, and Henry Louis Gates. Frederick Douglass: Autobiographies: Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave / My Bondage and My Freedom / Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Library of America, 1994).
Douglass, Frederick, Philip S. Foner and Yuval Taylor. Frederick Douglass: Selected Speeches and Writings (Library of Black America series, The) (Lawrence Hill Books, 2000).
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass (W.W. Norton & Company, 1991).


  1. Make a collage that depicts the talents and accomplishments of Frederick Douglass.
  2. Reenact a conversation between President Abraham Lincoln and Douglass as they discussed the issues surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation.
  3. Deliver a speech of Douglass'. Attempt to catch the essence, tone, and importance of the speech - just as Douglass would have delivered it.
  4. Write a Douglass journal entry based on any event in his life. Some suggestions include his days as a slave in Maryland, his work recruiting soldiers for the Union army, or his time as a diplomat representing the United States.
  5. Douglass' tombstone in Mt. Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York simply reads: "FREDERICK DOUGLASS 1818-1895." Write your own epitaph or obituary encapsulating Douglass' life and significance.
  6. Design the main room of the Frederick Douglass Museum. Develop the room's theme. You may include writings, speeches, photos, or any other elements or physical pieces of Douglass' life.