COLLECTED ARTICLES OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS - AUTHOR OF MANY WORKS
COLLECTED ARTICLES OF FREDERICK DOUGLASS - AUTHOR OF MANY WORKS
ON THE ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY AROUND THE TIME OF THE CIVIL WAR.
Douglass Frederick. "My Escape from Slavery."
The Century Illustrated Magazine 23 n.s. 1 (Nov. 1881): 125-131.
MY ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY
In the first narrative of my experience in slavery written nearly
forty years ago and in various writings since I have given
the public what I considered very good reasons for withholding
the manner of my escape. In substance these reasons were first
that such publication at any time during the existence of slavery
might be used by the master against the slave and prevent
the future escape of any who might adopt the same means that I did.
The second reason was if possible still more binding to silence:
the publication of details would certainly have put in peril
the persons and property of those who assisted. Murder itself was
not more sternly and certainly punished in the State of Maryland
than that of aiding and abetting the escape of a slave.
Many colored men for no other crime than that of giving aid to
a fugitive slave have like Charles T. Torrey perished in prison.
The abolition of slavery in my native State and throughout the country
and the lapse of time render the caution hitherto observed
no longer necessary. But even since the abolition of slavery
I have sometimes thought it well enough to baffle curiosity
by saying that while slavery existed there were good reasons
for not telling the manner of my escape and since slavery
had ceased to exist there was no reason for telling it.
I shall now however cease to avail myself of this formula and
as far as I can endeavor to satisfy this very natural curiosity.
I should perhaps have yielded to that feeling sooner had there been
anything very heroic or thrilling in the incidents connected with
my escape for I am sorry to say I have nothing of that sort to
tell; and yet the courage that could risk betrayal and the bravery
which was ready to encounter death if need be in pursuit of
freedom were essential features in the undertaking. My success
was due to address rather than courage to good luck rather than
bravery. My means of escape were provided for me by the very men
who were making laws to hold and bind me more securely in slavery.
It was the custom in the State of Maryland to require the free
colored people to have what were called free papers.
These instruments they were required to renew very often
and by charging a fee for this writing considerable sums from
time to time were collected by the State. In these papers the name
age color height and form of the freeman were described
together with any scars or other marks upon his person which
could assist in his identification. This device in some measure
defeated itself--since more than one man could be found to answer
the same general description. Hence many slaves could escape
by personating the owner of one set of papers; and this was often done
as follows: A slave nearly or sufficiently answering the description
set forth in the papers would borrow or hire them till by means of them
he could escape to a free State and then by mail or otherwise
would return them to the owner. The operation was a hazardous one for
the lender as well as for the borrower. A failure on the part of
the fugitive to send back the papers would imperil his benefactor
and the discovery of the papers in possession of the wrong man
would imperil both the fugitive and his friend. It was therefore
an act of supreme trust on the part of a freeman of color thus to
put in jeopardy his own liberty that another might be free. It was
however not unfrequently bravely done and was seldom discovered.
I was not so fortunate as to resemble any of my free acquaintances
sufficiently to answer the description of their papers.
But I had a friend--a sailor--who owned a sailor's protection
which answered somewhat the purpose of free papers--describing his person
and certifying to the fact that he was a free American sailor.
The instrument had at its head the American eagle which gave
it the appearance at once of an authorized document.
This protection when in my hands did not describe
its bearer very accurately. Indeed it called for a man
much darker than myself and close examination of it would
have caused my arrest at the start.
In order to avoid this fatal scrutiny on the part of railroad
officials I arranged with Isaac Rolls a Baltimore hackman
to bring my baggage to the Philadelphia train just on the moment
of starting and jumped upon the car myself when the train was in motion.
Had I gone into the station and offered to purchase a ticket
I should have been instantly and carefully examined and undoubtedly arrested.
In choosing this plan I considered the jostle of the train and the natural
haste of the conductor in a train crowded with passengers and relied upon
my skill and address in playing the sailor as described in my protection
to do the rest. One element in my favor was the kind feeling which prevailed
in Baltimore and other sea-ports at the time toward "those who go down
to the sea in ships." "Free trade and sailors' rights" just then expressed
the sentiment of the country. In my clothing I was rigged out in sailor style.
I had on a red shirt and a tarpaulin hat and a black cravat tied
in sailor fashion carelessly and loosely about my neck. My knowledge
of ships and sailor's talk came much to my assistance for I knew a ship
from stem to stern and from keelson to cross-trees and could talk sailor
like an "old salt." I was well on the way to Havre de Grace before
the conductor came into the negro car to collect tickets and examine
the papers of his black passengers. This was a critical moment in the drama.
My whole future depended upon the decision of this conductor.
Agitated though I was while this ceremony was proceeding still
externally at least I was apparently calm and self-possessed.
He went on with his duty--examining several colored passengers
before reaching me. He was somewhat harsh in tome and peremptory
in manner until he reached me when strange enough and to my surprise
and relief his whole manner changed. Seeing that I did not readily
produce my free papers as the other colored persons in the car had done
he said to me in friendly contrast with his bearing toward the others:
"I suppose you have your free papers?"
To which I answered:
"No sir; I never carry my free papers to sea with me."
"But you have something to show that you are a freeman haven't you?"
"Yes sir" I answered; "I have a paper with the American Eagle on it
and that will carry me around the world."
With this I drew from my deep sailor's pocket my seaman's protection
as before described. The merest glance at the paper satisfied him
and he took my fare and went on about his business. This moment
of time was one of the most anxious I ever experienced.
Had the conductor looked closely at the paper he could not
have failed to discover that it called for a very different-looking
person from myself and in that case it would have been his duty
to arrest me on the instant and send me back to Baltimore
from the first station. When he left me with the assurance
that I was all right though much relieved I realized that
I was still in great danger: I was still in Maryland
and subject to arrest at any moment. I saw on the train
several persons who would have known me in any other clothes
and I feared they might recognize me even in my sailor "rig"
and report me to the conductor who would then subject me
to a closer examination which I knew well would be fatal to me.
Though I was not a murderer fleeing from justice I felt perhaps
quite as miserable as such a criminal. The train was moving
at a very high rate of speed for that epoch of railroad travel
but to my anxious mind it was moving far too slowly. Minutes were hours
and hours were days during this part of my flight. After Maryland
I was to pass through Delaware--another slave State where slave-catchers
generally awaited their prey for it was not in the interior of the State
but on its borders that these human hounds were most vigilant and active.
The border lines between slavery and freedom were the dangerous ones
for the fugitives. The heart of no fox or deer with hungry hounds
on his trail in full chase could have beaten more anxiously or noisily
than did mine from the time I left Baltimore till I reached Philadelphia.
The passage of the Susquehanna River at Havre de Grace was at that time
made by ferry-boat on board of which I met a young colored man by the name
of Nichols who came very near betraying me. He was a "hand" on the boat
but instead of minding his business he insisted upon knowing me
and asking me dangerous questions as to where I was going
when I was coming back etc. I got away from my old and inconvenient
acquaintance as soon as I could decently do so and went to another part
of the boat. Once across the river I encountered a new danger.
Only a few days before I had been at work on a revenue cutter
in Mr. Price's ship-yard in Baltimore under the care of Captain McGowan.
On the meeting at this point of the two trains the one going
south stopped on the track just opposite to the one going north
and it so happened that this Captain McGowan sat at a window where
he could see me very distinctly and would certainly have recognized
me had he looked at me but for a second. Fortunately in the hurry
of the moment he did not see me; and the trains soon passed each
other on their respective ways. But this was not my only hair-
breadth escape. A German blacksmith whom I knew well was on the
train with me and looked at me very intently as if he thought
he had seen me somewhere before in his travels. I really
believe he knew me but had no heart to betray me. At any rate
he saw me escaping and held his peace.
The last point of imminent danger and the one I dreaded most
was Wilmington. Here we left the train and took the steam-boat
for Philadelphia. In making the change here I again apprehended arrest
but no one disturbed me and I was soon on the broad and beautiful Delaware
speeding away to the Quaker City. On reaching Philadelphia in the afternoon
I inquired of a colored man how I could get on to New York. He directed me
to the William-street depot and thither I went taking the train that night.
I reached New York Tuesday morning having completed the journey in less
than twenty-four hours.
My free life began on the third of September 1838. On the morning
of the fourth of that month after an anxious and most perilous but safe
journey I found myself in the big city of New York a FREE MAN--
one more added to the mighty throng which like the confused waves
of the troubled sea surged to and fro between the lofty walls of Broadway.
Though dazzled with the wonders which met me on every hand my thoughts
could not be much withdrawn from my strange situation. For the moment
the dreams of my youth and the hopes of my manhood were completely fulfilled.
The bonds that had held me to "old master" were broken. No man now
had a right to call me his slave or assert mastery over me. I was
in the rough and tumble of an outdoor world to take my chance with
the rest of its busy number. I have often been asked how I felt
when first I found myself on free soil. There is scarcely anything
in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer.
A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath and the
"quick round of blood" I lived more in that one day than in a year
of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words
can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after
reaching New York I said: "I felt as one might feel upon escape
from a den of hungry lions." Anguish and grief like darkness and rain
may be depicted; but gladness and joy like the rainbow defy the skill
of pen or pencil. During ten or fifteen years I had been as it were
dragging a heavy chain which no strength of mine could break;
I was not only a slave but a slave for life. I might become a husband
a father an aged man but through all from birth to death from the cradle
to the grave I had felt myself doomed. All efforts I had previously made
to secure my freedom had not only failed but had seemed only to rivet
my fetters the more firmly and to render my escape more difficult.
Baffled entangled and discouraged I had at times asked myself
the question May not my condition after all be God's work
and ordered for a wise purpose and if so Is not submission my duty?
A contest had in fact been going on in my mind for a long time
between the clear consciousness of right and the plausible make-
shifts of theology and superstition. The one held me an abject
slave--a prisoner for life punished for some transgression in
which I had no lot nor part; and the other counseled me to manly
endeavor to secure my freedom. This contest was now ended; my
chains were broken and the victory brought me unspeakable joy.
But my gladness was short-lived for I was not yet out of the reach
and power of the slave-holders. I soon found that New York was not quite
so free or so safe a refuge as I had supposed and a sense of loneliness
and insecurity again oppressed me most sadly. I chanced to meet on the street
a few hours after my landing a fugitive slave whom I had once known well
in slavery. The information received from him alarmed me. The fugitive
in question was known in Baltimore as "Allender's Jake" but in New York
he wore the more respectable name of "William Dixon." Jake in law
was the property of Doctor Allender and Tolly Allender the son
of the doctor had once made an effort to recapture MR. DIXON
but had failed for want of evidence to support his claim.
Jake told me the circumstances of this attempt and how narrowly
he escaped being sent back to slavery and torture. He told me that New York
was then full of Southerners returning from the Northern watering-places;
that the colored people of New York were not to be trusted; that there were
hired men of my own color who would betray me for a few dollars;
that there were hired men ever on the lookout for fugitives;
that I must trust no man with my secret; that I must not think
of going either upon the wharves or into any colored boarding-house
for all such places were closely watched; that he was himself unable
to help me; and in fact he seemed while speaking to me to fear lest
I myself might be a spy and a betrayer. Under this apprehension
as I suppose he showed signs of wishing to be rid of me
and with whitewash brush in hand in search of work he soon disappeared.
This picture given by poor "Jake" of New York was a damper
to my enthusiasm. My little store of money would soon be exhausted
and since it would be unsafe for me to go on the wharves for work
and I had no introductions elsewhere the prospect for me was far from
cheerful. I saw the wisdom of keeping away from the ship-yards
for if pursued as I felt certain I should be Mr. Auld my "master"