On Tuesday, August 10, 1841, Frederick Douglass, three years a fugitive from slavery, paced the top deck of the ferry that was taking him from New Bedford to the island of Nantucket.
At twenty-three, he stood above the six-foot mark and, having labored in shipyards in Maryland and Massachusetts, was both broad and muscular. His skin was golden brown. His wide forehead and prominent cheekbones framed dark and penetrating eyes, a broad nose, and a generous mouth. His hands were tough and leathery.
With Douglass on the little steamer was a large and sometimes boisterous crowd of passengers, most of them white, some of them black. All but a few were abolitionists -- men and women speaking out against the cruelties of slavery in the South and prejudice and racial violence in the North. Most were firm believers in nonviolence. Earlier that morning, in a strong but peaceful demonstration in New Bedford, Massachusetts, the white majority had gained for their black friends the right to travel with them on the upper deck and in the cabin of the steamer.
Douglass was physically imposing, yet, because he was a runaway, there was something tentative in his manner. He nurtured a vain hope that in such a gathering, he might be inconspicuous. He spoke only when spoken to and, standing on the fringes of the crowd, listened to debates on slavery and abolition, one of which was between a slaveholder from New Orleans and a Massachusetts minister.
Douglass left the crowd, leaned on the rail, and watched several low-lying coastal islands rise up, then disappear in the translucent summer mist. He stared down at the steamer's wake as it fanned out, thinned, and dissolved in the dark waters of Nantucket Sound. As he had in his childhood on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, he paid close attention to the white sails passing -- canvas giving life and purpose to the tall ships and the fleets of fishing boats.
Nantucket first appears as a thin violet haze, floating just above the far horizon. The island, an outpost of a windswept coast, is covered in wild rose and pine and twisted oak. In the nineteenth century, a brightly painted lightship warned the captains of the sailing ships and steamers not to wander from a course well north of Nantucket Shoals, where lay the skeletons of vessels lost in hurricanes and winter storms.
Douglass and the other passengers watched as the ferry made its way between two parallel breakwaters and approached a spindly wharf, where linesmen waited to secure the steamer and where islanders were waving at arriving passengers. Houses and public buildings covered a low ridge above the waterfront. Most of them were shingled structures rendered gray by salt and sun. Some were pink brick with slate roofs and white-painted doors and trim. On the horizon, bright against a dark-blue sky, stood a row of widely separated steeples and windmills.
Douglass had come to Nantucket to attend an abolitionist convention, but did not intend to speak or to reveal his slave name or his history. For three years, he had toiled night and day, and he hoped that his first visit to Nantucket might serve as a short vacation.
As he stepped down the gangplank, he was painfully aware that -- under a federal law passed in 1793 -- he might be captured and returned to slavery. True, in recent years the law had seldom been enforced in New England, but pressure had begun to build for passage of a stronger law. Douglass later summed up his predicament: "In the northern states, a fugitive slave [was] liable to be hunted at any moment, like a felon, and to be hurled into the terrible jaws of slavery." Indeed, for Douglass, a return to Maryland would almost certainly be followed by banishment to the deep South, from which escape would be almost impossible.
He walked with other members of the party to New Guinea, a neighborhood occupied by free black Americans, Portuguese from the Azores, and Kanakas from the Sandwich Islands -- now the islands of Hawaii. These were people who had settled in Nantucket when the whaling industry was at its peak, in the century before. Douglass probably stayed with a family in New Guinea, but in any case, on the night of his arrival and for two days after that, he attended antislavery meetings in an undistinguished building called "the big shop," which served as a meeting place until completion of the Atheneum, six years later.
There he listened to the routine business of the meetings and to vociferous attacks on slavery as practiced in America: the sale and purchase of black people, the breaking up of families, the whippings and related cruelties that were part and parcel of an institution seen by Douglass as degrading to slaveholders, as well as to their human property, an evil that had undermined and was threatening to destroy democracy.
Most white people present, some of them from privileged families, knew black people only as inferiors -- as servants, laborers, and craftsmen. More important, they had never witnessed slavery. They were men and women of good will, but most of them took a condescending or at best paternalistic view of both slaves and free black Americans.
It was on the evening of the second day that Douglass suddenly, almost rudely, found himself in the limelight. Unknown to him, there was someone in the auditorium who had heard him speak not long before. Years later, he recalled, "Mr. William C. Coffin, a prominent abolitionist in those days of trial, had heard me speaking to my colored friends, in the little school-house on Second Street in New Bedford, where we worshiped."
At the convention in Nantucket, Coffin sought Douglass out and invited him to make a few remarks. Douglass agreed, but not yet a seasoned speaker, he was terrified at the prospect of addressing such a large and distinguished audience: "I trembled in every limb....It was with the utmost difficulty that I could stand erect, or that I could command and articulate two words without hesitation and stammering."
Even as a little boy, Douglass had been noticed as possessing keen intelligence; but it was not his wit that made him stand out that day in Nantucket, it was his emotion bursting forth out of a clear memory of the life that he had led as a young slave in his native Maryland.
Nobody took notes on his speech, and Douglass remembered nothing of its content. But it was clear that his excitement and confusion were contagious. When he stepped down from the platform, the audience broke into wild applause. Stunned, then elated, Douglass went back to his seat.
No sooner had he settled down than a small, pale, balding man in his mid-thirties, wearing wire-rimmed glasses stood up and moved swiftly down the aisle toward the podium. As the man began to speak, tears glistened in his eyes. This, Douglass knew, was William Lloyd Garrison, the most conspicuous of New England abolitionists, publisher of a weekly paper called The Liberator. Douglass had heard Garrison address an antislavery gathering in New Bedford. He had read The Liberator and had marveled at its editorials, some of which attacked the United States Constitution and called into question the morality of commerce in both the North and the South. "The paper," he wrote later, "became my meat and my drink." It set his soul "all on fire." Its attacks on intolerance and slavery "sent a thrill of joy through my soul, such as I had never felt before!"
The short speech Douglass made that Wednesday evening has been lost, but Garrison, who had spent most of his adult life fighting slavery, said of Douglass's demonstration of emotion, "I think I never hated slavery so intensely as at that moment."
Douglass remembered, "Mr. Garrison followed me, taking me as his text." Even those who knew Garrison and had heard him often "were astonished." His speech, Douglass thought, "was an effort of unequaled power, sweeping down, like a very tornado, every opposing barrier."
Garrison raised emotion in the hall to a high pitch. At first, speaking quietly, he asked, "Have we been listening to a thing, a piece of property, or a man?
"A man! A man!"
Garrison raised his voice as he asked, "And should such a man be held a slave in a republican and Christian land?"
Almost in a single voice, the audience shouted, "Never!"
Douglass hadn't mentioned his slave name or the names of people he had known in Maryland, but it was clear that in speaking as he had, he had risked being jailed in Massachusetts and returned to slavery. Garrison spoke of this risk, spoke of Douglass as a man of strength and talent; then, in an insistent voice, he asked, "Shall such a man be sent back to slavery from the soil of old Massachusetts?"
The people in the crowded hall gave voice to their outrage. "Never!"
Douglass saw that he had had a powerful effect on Garrison, and Garrison knew that Douglass could be useful to his cause. "It was at once deeply impressed upon my mind, that, if Mr. Douglass could be persuaded to consecrate his time and talents to the...anti-slavery enterprise, a powerful impetus would be given to it, and a stunning blow at the same time inflicted on northern prejudice against a colored complexion."
Douglass's halting speech, his deep embarrassment, his eloquence -- all duly noted by the veteran Garrison and by others in the hall -- marked a momentous turning point in the life of the young fugitive. Later, Douglass said, "Here opened upon me a new life -- a life for which I had had no preparation."
Douglass may have had no formal preparation for his new life, but his years in bondage were to give him an advantage over white crusaders and most of their free black counterparts. This advantage would, in time, make some of them jealous.
Text copyright © 2003 by Peter Burchard