Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Frederick Douglass -- Respite
On the first of January, 1834, I left Mr. Covey, and went to live with Mr. William Freeland, who lived about three miles from St. Michael’s.  I soon found Mr. Freeland a very different man from Mr. Covey.  Though not rich, he was what would be called an educated southern gentleman.  … [He] seemed to possess some regard for honor, some reverence for justice, and some respect for humanity.  … [He] was open and frank, and we always knew where to find him.
… Mr. Freeland … gave us enough to eat; but, unlike Mr. Covey, he also gave us sufficient time to take our meals.  He worked us hard, but always between sunrise and sunset.  He required a good deal of work to be done, but gave us good tools with which to work.  His farm was large, but he employed hands enough to work it, and with ease, compared with many of his neighbors.  My treatment, while in his employment, was heavenly, compared with what I experienced at the hands of Mr. Edward Covey (Douglass 86, 88).
From the worn old fields of the Freeland farm, Frederick Bailey could look out across the Chesapeake Bay.  Once again, the beautiful expanse of water seemed to awaken something in him; indeed, here he was to have perhaps the most intense emotional experience of his life.  Living on the Freeland farm for something over a year, he achieved friendship.  “I had become large and strong,” he wrote, “and had begun to take pride in the fact.”  And now the seventeen-year-old found himself working with other young men as restless, as energetic, as he.
John and Henry Harris were brothers owned by the Freelands; the others, like Frederick, had been hired.  Handy Caldwell was a slave living nearby; Sandy Jenkins was the … black man who had given Frederick a root to protect him in his struggle with Edward Covey the year before.
The five made a kind of sport of their hard work, competing to see who could swing the widest scythe or hoist the heaviest heifer, but they “ were too wise to race with each other very long” lest Freeland, whose depleted soil needed a lot of working, learn just how much labor they were capable of. 
And there was excitement of another kind-other “mischief” to be done; “I had not been long at Freeland’s before I was up to my old tricks,” Frederick recalled.  The Harrises were “remarkably bright and intelligent, but neither of them could read,” so out came Webster’s speller and The Columbian Orator.  Frederick Bailey, teacher, was back at work that summer-on Sundays, under an oak tree-conducting school.  The “contagion spread.  I was not long in bringing around me twenty or thirty young men.”  His pupils were as eager as he: “It was surprising with what ease they provided themselves with spelling books.”  Perhaps these were the castoffs of their young masters; if not, the owners may have wondered, as their mothers switched them, how they had managed to misplace books they remembered carrying home from school. 
Douglass later claimed that he and his friends kept the school “as private as possible,” but in fact there was little possibility of maintaining privacy.  Three strapping young men might have managed, for a time at least, to find a hidden place for study, but not thirty.  They were aware that the good people of St. Michael’s would have preferred them to get drunk and wrestle away their Sundays instead of engaging in the subversive business of learning, and they cannot have believed that their masters did not know what they were up to.  But where they met was a mystery; writing about the school twenty years later, Douglass did not give the name of the free black man who let them meet in his house when cold drove them indoors, lest he be punished (McFeely 49-50).
The work of instructing my dear fellow-slaves was the sweetest engagement with which I was ever blessed.  We loved each other, and to leave them at the close of the Sabbath was a severe cross indeed.  … I kept up my school nearly the whole year I lived with Mr. Freeland; and, beside my Sabbath school, I devoted three evenings in the week, during the winter, to teaching the slaves at home.  And I have the happiness to know, that several of those who came to Sabbath school learned how to read; and that one, at least, is now free through my agency.
The year passed off smoothly.  It seemed only about half as long as the year which preceded it.  I went through it without receiving a single blow.  I will give Mr. Freeland the credit of being the best master I ever had, till I became my own master.  …[M]y fellow slaves … were noble souls; they not only possessed loving hearts, but brave ones.  We were linked and interlinked with each other.  I loved them with a love stronger than anything I have experienced since … and especially those with whom I lived at Mr. Freeland’s.  I believe we would have died for each other (Douglass 90-91).
At the beginning of 1835 Thomas Auld, Frederick’s owner, rented Frederick to William Freeland for a second year.  The contentment that Frederick had experienced no longer satisfied him.  He wanted to be much more than the recipient of fair treatment from a humane master.  The fact that he was a leader among a large number of his peers, many of whom were older than he, and that he had established binding friendships with several of them, was not enough to compensate for his state of existence, for his being a slave.
I was fast approaching manhood, and year after year had passed, and I was still a slave.  These thoughts roused me-I must do something.  I therefore resolved that 1835 should not pass without witnessing an attempt, on my part, to secure my liberty.  But I was not willing to cherish this determination alone.  My fellow-slaves were dear to me.  I was anxious to have them participate (Douglass 91).
Works cited:
Douglass, Frederick.  Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  New York, Penguin Books USA inc., 1968.  Print.
McFeely, William S.  Frederick Douglass.  New York, W. W. Norton & Company, 1991.  Print.