Douglass, Frederick, 1817?-1895. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave
Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library

I

   I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and
about twelve miles from Easton, in Talbot county,
Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age,
never having seen any authentic record containing it.
By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of
their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish
of most masters within my knowledge to keep their
slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever
met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They
seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-
time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want
of information concerning my own was a source of
unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white
children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I
ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was
not allowed to make any inquiries of my master con-
cerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part
of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence
of a restless spirit. The nearest estimate I can give
makes me now between twenty-seven and twenty-
eight years of age. I come to this, from hearing my
master say, some time during 1835, I was about
seventeen years old.

   My mother was named Harriet Bailey. She was
the daughter of Isaac and Betsey Bailey, both col-
ored, and quite dark. My mother was of a darker
complexion than either my grandmother or grand-
father.

   My father was a white man. He was admitted to
be such by all I ever heard speak of my parentage.




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The opinion was also whispered that my master was
my father; but of the correctness of this opinion, I
know nothing; the means of knowing was withheld
from me. My mother and I were separated when I
was but an infant -- before I knew her as my mother.
It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland
from which I ran away, to part children from their
mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the
child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is
taken from it, and hired out on some farm a con-
siderable distance off, and the child is placed under
the care of an old woman, too old for field labor.
For what this separation is done, I do not know,
unless it be to hinder the development of the child's
affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy
the natural affection of the mother for the child.
This is the inevitable result.

   I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more
than four or five times in my life; and each of these
times was very short in duration, and at night. She
was hired by a Mr. Stewart, who lived about twelve
miles from my home. She made her journeys to see
me in the night, travelling the whole distance on
foot, after the performance of her day's work. She
was a field hand, and a whipping is the penalty of
not being in the field at sunrise, unless a slave has
special permission from his or her master to the con-
trary -- a permission which they seldom get, and one
that gives to him that gives it the proud name of
being a kind master. I do not recollect of ever seeing
my mother by the light of day. She was with me in
the night. She would lie down with me, and get me
to sleep, but long before I waked she was gone. Very
little communication ever took place between us.
Death soon ended what little we could have while
she lived, and with it her hardships and suffering.
She died when I was about seven years old, on one




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of my master's farms, near Lee's Mill. I was not al-
lowed to be present during her illness, at her death,
or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing
about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable
extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watch-
ful care, I received the tidings of her death with
much the same emotions I should have probably
felt at the death of a stranger.

   Called thus suddenly away, she left me without
the slightest intimation of who my father was. The
whisper that my master was my father, may or may
not be true; and, true or false, it is of but little con-
sequence to my purpose whilst the fact remains,
in all its glaring odiousness, that slaveholders have
ordained, and by law established, that the children
of slave women shall in all cases follow the condi-
tion of their mothers; and this is done too obviously
to administer to their own lusts, and make a grati-
fication of their wicked desires profitable as well as
pleasurable; for by this cunning arrangement, the
slaveholder, in cases not a few, sustains to his slaves
the double relation of master and father.

   I know of such cases; and it is worthy of remark
that such slaves invariably suffer greater hardships,
and have more to contend with, than others. They
are, in the first place, a constant offence to their
mistress. She is ever disposed to find fault with them;
they can seldom do any thing to please her; she is
never better pleased than when she sees them under
the lash, especially when she suspects her husband
of showing to his mulatto children favors which he
withholds from his black slaves. The master is fre-
quently compelled to sell this class of his slaves, out
of deference to the feelings of his white wife; and,
cruel as the deed may strike any one to be, for a
man to sell his own children to human flesh-mongers,
it is often the dictate of humanity for him to do so;




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for, unless he does this, he must not only whip them
himself, but must stand by and see one white son
tie up his brother, of but few shades darker com-
plexion than himself, and ply the gory lash to his
naked back; and if he lisp one word of disapproval,
it is set down to his parental partiality, and only
makes a bad matter worse, both for himself and the
slave whom he would protect and defend.

   Every year brings with it multitudes of this class
of slaves. It was doubtless in consequence of a knowl-
edge of this fact, that one great statesman of the
south predicted the downfall of slavery by the in-
evitable laws of population. Whether this prophecy
is ever fulfilled or not, it is nevertheless plain that a
very different-looking class of people are springing up
at the south, and are now held in slavery, from those
originally brought to this country from Africa; and
if their increase do no other good, it will do
away the force of the argument, that God cursed
Ham, and therefore American slavery is right. If the
lineal descendants of Ham are alone to be scriptur-
ally enslaved, it is certain that slavery at the south
must soon become unscriptural; for thousands are
ushered into the world, annually, who, like myself,
owe their existence to white fathers, and those fa-
thers most frequently their own masters.

   I have had two masters. My first master's name
was Anthony. I do not remember his first name.
He was generally called Captain Anthony -- a title
which, I presume, he acquired by sailing a craft on
the Chesapeake Bay. He was not considered a rich
slaveholder. He owned two or three farms, and about
thirty slaves. His farms and slaves were under the
care of an overseer. The overseer's name was
Plummer. Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard,
a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always
went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I




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have known him to cut and slash the women's heads
so horribly, that even master would be enraged at
his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he
did not mind himself. Master, however, was not a
humane slaveholder. It required extraordinary bar-
barity on the part of an overseer to affect him. He
was a cruel man, hardened by a long life of slave-
holding. He would at times seem to take great pleas-
ure in whipping a slave. I have often been awakened
at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks
of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up
to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she
was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears,
no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move
his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder
she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where
the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He
would whip her to make her scream, and whip her
to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue,
would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.
I remember the first time I ever witnessed this hor-
rible exhibition. I was quite a child, but I well re-
member it. I never shall forget it whilst I remember
any thing. It was the first of a long series of such out-
rages, of which I was doomed to be a witness and a
participant. It struck me with awful force. It was
the blood-stained gate, the entrance to the hell of
slavery, through which I was about to pass. It was
a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to
paper the feelings with which I beheld it.

   This occurrence took place very soon after I went
to live with my old master, and under the following
circumstances. Aunt Hester went out one night, --
where or for what I do not know, -- and happened to
be absent when my master desired her presence. He
had ordered her not to go out evenings, and warned
her that she must never let him catch her in com-




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pany with a young man, who was paying attention
to her belonging to Colonel Lloyd. The young man's
name was Ned Roberts, generally called Lloyd's
Ned. Why master was so careful of her, may be
safely left to conjecture. She was a woman of noble
form, and of graceful proportions, having very few
equals, and fewer superiors, in personal appearance,
among the colored or white women of our neighbor-
hood.

   Aunt Hester had not only disobeyed his orders in
going out, but had been found in company with
Lloyd's Ned; which circumstance, I found, from
what he said while whipping her, was the chief of-
fence. Had he been a man of pure morals himself,
he might have been thought interested in protecting
the innocence of my aunt; but those who knew him
will not suspect him of any such virtue. Before
he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her
into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist,
leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely
naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling
her at the same time a d -- -d b -- -h. After crossing
her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led
her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put
in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool,
and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair
for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched
up at their full length, so that she stood upon the
ends of her toes. He then said to her, "Now, you
d -- -d b -- -h, I'll learn you how to disobey my
orders!" and after rolling up his sleeves, he com-
menced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the
warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from
her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to
the floor. I was so terrified and horror-stricken at the
sight, that I hid myself in a closet, and dared not
venture out till long after the bloody transaction was




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over. I expected it would be my turn next. It was
all new to me. I had never seen any thing like it
before. I had always lived with my grandmother on
the outskirts of the plantation, where she was put to
raise the children of the younger women. I had there-
fore been, until now, out of the way of the bloody
scenes that often occurred on the plantation.




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