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Americans Celebrate Black History Month with Tributes to Leader and Statesman Frederick Douglass


February is African-American History Month in the United States. It's a time people recall and celebrate the positive accomplishments and contributions made by people of African descent. This month, tributes have been paid to former slave, author, abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass. VOA's Chris Simkins reports on the man who dedicated his life to abolishing slavery in America.

Frederick Douglass was one of America's most outspoken black leaders in the 19th century. He was born a slave in the eastern U.S. State of Maryland in 1818.

Margaret Hutto, Exhibits Manager at the Reginald Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History in Baltimore, says Douglass was one of the state's most famous people.

"Mr. Douglass is a perfect example of an individual who has had a long history with the State of Maryland, from being a slave at the Wye Plantation as well as escaping from his plantation, working in the shipping yards in Baltimore and Annapolis. He then also eventually went on to get his own freedom papers at a later point after buying his freedom."

As a freed black man Douglass traveled to New York and taught himself to read and write. In 1841, he began lecturing against slavery and campaigning for the rights of freed blacks. He traveled around the country delivering his anti-slavery message. In 1845, fearing he might lose his freedom he left the U.S. He traveled to Britain and Scotland where he spent two years giving speeches to enthusiastic crowds.

Greg Carr, a professor of African-American Studies at Howard University in Washington, D.C., says Douglass dedicated his life to fighting racial injustice.

"I think Frederick Douglass helped strengthen the fabric of the U.S. nation primarily by fighting for the idea that all human beings should have equal rights regardless of where they are in the world. He saw the United States as a great experiment for that proposition.

Greg Carr says Douglass gained worldwide attention after writing three autobiographies, which detailed the realities of slavery. In 1847 he also began publishing a weekly newspaper called The North Star in which he wrote scathing editorials on a variety of topics including the evils of slavery.

"It is important to understand he was one of only a hand full of black folks who were writing with any regularity, so as a consequence he really became the representative voice of the black community, which is a heavy burden."

By the early 1860s Douglass' leadership role was having an impact. After the Civil War began Douglass began to promote black participation in the war. He believed the conflict was a battle to abolish slavery and that blacks must be allowed to join in the fight for their freedom.

He met with President Abraham Lincoln to press his call for the establishment of black regiments in the Union army. He later got his wish and during the last two years of the war some 200,000 blacks were serving in Army units. Frederick Douglass went on to become an advisor to three other U.S. presidents and served as the U.S. ambassador to Haiti.

Now on the 188th anniversary of his birth, Frederick Douglass is remembered in musical tributes and speeches at the site of his former home in Washington, DC. Douglass and his family lived here from 1877 to his death in 1895. Now visitors, especially young people, can tour his home and get an idea of how he lived.

On a tour, the guide explained, "Mr. Douglass' oldest daughter Rosetta played the piano and Mr. Douglass was a self-taught violinist and if you or I were visiting the home and we did not play an instrument they would give us a tambourine."

The National Park Service is just one organization committed to keeping the legacy of Frederick Douglass alive. Other groups are also making sure this leader, who fought so hard against racial injustice, will hold a prominent place in American history.

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