Frederick Douglass -- "Grandmanny's Gone"
“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.”
“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”
"Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
“The white man's happiness cannot be purchased by the black man's misery.”
“To suppress free speech is a double wrong. It violates the rights of the hearer as well as those of the speaker.”
“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.”
I became especially interested in Frederick Douglass after I read his fascinating autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Years ago, after retiring, I wrote a manuscript about him that I hoped eighth grade students at the school where I had taught would be assigned at least in part to read. Beginning with this post, I will be sharing with you much of what I wrote.
On a summer day in August 1824, when Frederick was six, he and his grandmother left the cabin, walked up to the cross roads, and turned southwest. The walk was long, much longer he soon learned than the one in the other direction, to
, probably the only town he had been
to. For much of the trip his powerful
grandmother must have had to carry the tall, heavy child. … there was no horse the resourceful Betsy
could commandeer for the day. Turning at
one crossroads town, they walked between great fields, blackened in heat, to
reach another, and soaked in perspiration kept resolutely on through the
Lloyds’ “Long Woods.” Finally, having
walked twelve miles, they came to Wye House.
A generous lawn’s-width short of the long, straight drive leading under
great trees to the main house was a parallel road that led to the slave
quarters. They took it; through the
trees between the narrow roads, Hillsboro
could catch sight of the great house. As
the two of them came past, they reached their master’s small, neat cottage and
the quarters where their relatives lived.
Looking off the other way across Long Green they saw the broad stretch
of the Frederick . Wye River
Suddenly, the long, hot trek was over. Curious children came out to look over the newcomer, and followed him and their grandmother into the kitchen, where the two got desperately needed drinks of water. Cautiously,
agreed to go back into the yard
with them, but he did not join in as they ran “laughing and yelling around me.”
Their exuberance would have been more intimidating if he had not known that his
grandmother was back in the house. But
soon she was not. Taking what she saw as
the least tormenting way to accomplish the parting she was resigned to, Betsy
quietly left to walk the long miles back to Tuckahoe. When one of the children, with “roughish
glee” shrieked at him, “Fed, Fed! Grandmammy gone!” he fled back to the kitchen
to find her. Frederick
But she was gone. He rushed out to the road; she was not in sight, and he could not run down its emptiness alone. He threw himself on the ground, and crying, pummeled the dry dust. When his older brother, Perry, tried to console him with a peach, he threw it away. He was carried in to bed and cried himself to sleep. And he never fully trusted anyone again (McFeely 10).
Frederick Bailey was born near the banks of the Tuckahoe, a quiet creek that cut through fields and woods of
Eastern Shore eventually to reach the Choptank
River, which, in turn, emptied itself
into Chesapeake Bay. He lived the first seven years of his life in
and about a solitary cabin in a wood on one of two adjacent farms owned by
Aaron Anthony, his slave master. The
cabin belonged to Isaac and Betsy Bailey, his grandparents.
Isaac, about whom
would write very little, was a free black man.
He worked as a sawyer, a tree and lot cutter. It was Betsy Bailey who was the dominant
parental influence of Frederick ’s
early life. Frederick
She was a tall, strong, copper-dark, intelligent woman who had been given, or assigned, the task of raising for the first seven years of their lives the offspring of her daughters, who labored in the fields nearby or distant for their master or for other white men who had rented their services. Betsy had belonged to Ann Catherine Skinner but had become Aaron Anthony’s property upon her mistress’s marriage to him. Because she was a slave, his slave, her children became his slaves as well.
’s mother, Harriet, was Betsey’s
second daughter. Frederick
Perhaps because of the task assigned to her, Betsy Bailey,
was allowed to live apart from Anthony’s other slaves and to abide by her own
rules. As a consequence, Frederick knew little of
the bondage and brutality of slavery while he lived with her and his young
cousins. He could watch and chase the
rabbits and deer that ventured into the fields from the woods. He could sit beside the turtles that sunned
themselves on logs in the Tuckahoe. He
could sink his toes in the clay bottoms of shallow pools and watch skater bugs
glide over them if he wished. Birds, in
great number, dominated the morning with their noise. At migrating time great flocks of ducks
settled on the marsh water below a mill dam.
recalled splashing into the creek without having to take off his clothes; he
wore only a shirt. He recalled mimicking
farm animals and being fed “corn-meal mush” with an oyster shell for a
spoon. As an adult he assessed the material
poverty of his early existence; as a youngster he was oblivious of it. Frederick
They subsisted independently. Isaac’s woodcutting, and more importantly, Betsy’s expert fishing and farming permitted their existence together. Betsey’s nets were in “great demand” in
Hillsboro and ,
nearby towns. Denton remembered her “in the water half
the day” gathering an abundance of shad and herring. In the spring she planted her own sweet
potatoes and then helped with the planting of her neighbors’ crop. At harvest time, she pierced the ground so
deftly with her fork that none of her crop was ever punctured or lost. Always she put aside good seed potatoes for
the next season’s planting. Frederick
The untroubled life that Frederick and his cousins enjoyed at the cabin had been purchased, of course, at a great cost. Before each was old enough to be taught the skills of fishing and farming to help her with her labors, Betsy was required to accompany each the twelve miles to the Wye House, where Aaron Anthony lived, where he managed the vast estate of Edward Lloyd, a former governor of the state and
senator. Here each child would begin
abruptly his or her own harsh life of slavery, bereft without warning of the
comfort of the only parenting he or she had known. United States
McFeely, William S. Frederick Douglass.
, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991. Print. New