He really IS doing good work! Every time I visit schools, as I will tomorrow with 4th and 6th graders at Capitol Hill Day School, I tell the story Douglass writes in the Narrative of his life about the wife of his master who, when he was an enslaved boy of about 8, taught him to read. When he found out what she had done, her husband berated her saying, “If you teach this boy to read, he will not be fit to be a slave!” He then added that the child would become “unmanageable.” Overhearing this, Douglass dedicated himself to becoming unfit for the degradation of slavery. He learned to read.
Here is what Douglass wrote about the Sabbath school where he, surreptitiously shared this knowledge with other slaves:
I succeeded in creating in them a strong desire to learn how to read. This desire soon sprang up in the others also. They very soon mustered up some old spelling-books, and nothing would do but that I must keep a Sabbath school. I agreed to do so, and accordingly devoted my Sundays to teaching these my loved fellow-slaves how to read. Neither of them knew his letters when I went there. Some of the slaves of the neighboring farms found what was going on, and also availed themselves of this little opportunity to learn to read. It was understood, among all who came, that there must be as little display about it as possible. It was necessary to keep our religious masters at St. Michael’s unacquainted with the fact, that, instead of spending the Sabbath in wrestling, boxing, and drinking whisky, we were trying to learn how to read the will of God; for they had much rather see us engaged in those degrading sports, than to see us behaving like intellectual, moral, and accountable beings. My blood boils as I think of the bloody manner in which Messrs. Wright Fairbanks and Garrison West, both class-leaders, in connection with many others, rushed in upon us with sticks and stones, and broke up our virtuous little Sabbath school, at St. Michael’s—all calling themselves Christians! humble followers of the Lord Jesus Christ! But I am again digressing.
I held my Sabbath school at the house of a free colored man, whose name I deem it imprudent to mention; for should it be known, it might embarrass him greatly, though the crime of holding the school was committed ten years ago. I had at one time over forty scholars, and those of the right sort, ardently desiring to learn. They were of all ages, though mostly men and women. I look back to those Sundays with an amount of pleasure not to be expressed. They were great days to my soul. 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. When I think that these precious souls are to-day shut up in the prison-house of slavery, my feelings overcome me, and I am almost ready to ask, “Does a righteous God govern the universe? and for what does he hold the thunders in his right hand, if not to smite the oppressor, and deliver the spoiled out of the hand of the spoiler?” These dear souls came not to Sabbath school because it was popular to do so, nor did I teach them because it was reputable to be thus engaged. Every moment they spent in that school, they were liable to be taken up, and given thirty-nine lashes. They came because they wished to learn. Their minds had been starved by their cruel masters. They had been shut up in mental darkness. I taught them, because it was the delight of my soul to be doing something that looked like bettering the condition of my race. 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.
I found this photo on line, identified as the child Frederick Douglass. I am a bit skeptical — Douglass was born in 1818 so this picture would have been taken in the late 1820s or early 1830s. Did photography even exist then? Would an enslaved child have had his picture taken? Could it be one of Frederick Douglass’s own children? It does look like Douglass. And it does look like someone with the determination that would allow him to escape from slavery and become a prominent as an abolitionist speaker and journalist.