Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Enhance understanding with a teaching guide for the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, which provides questions and activities for each chapter as well as a suggested bibliography for extended learning. This text is a great supplement for your Black History Month curriculum or when studying pre-Revolutionary America.
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Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

by Frederick Douglass


Frederick Douglass's slave narrative is readily accessible to high school students. It is short (slightly more than 120 pages), easy to read and understand, and filled with warmth and wisdom. In addition it presents a vivid picture of a horrifying period of American history that far too few students understand. Students may read about the institution of slavery in history textbooks, some of which attempt to show the cruel inhumanity of many slave owners, but no textbook allows students to see and feel the fear, pain, and hate. Douglass's narrative of his life as a slave lets readers feel the fear he has as a small child separated from his mother, allows us to experience with him the pain inflicted by undeserved whippings and weakness caused by too little food and too much physical exertion, and helps us understand not only the hate of the slave for the master but the sickness of hate that allowed human beings to keep other human beings as chattel.

Frederick Douglass not only provides students with an understanding of the horrors of slavery but also helps students understand how they can overcome adversity. Although a slave, Douglass's mind was never enslaved. He who was denied any formal education and deprived of books and paper writes eloquently about the importance of knowledge. He tells readers that the only way men can be enslaved is by remaining ignorant. He also writes that learning is "the pathway from slavery to freedom" (p. 49). Perhaps, it takes someone who was denied the right to learn to teach today's students the importance of the education they take for granted.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass is appropriate reading for many grade levels and subjects. Although it can be read and understood as early as middle school, the values examined in the book may be too mature for most middle school students. However, it is certainly appropriate to share parts of the book, perhaps reading it aloud, to students as early as seventh grade. By high school the majority of students will be able to read and understand the narrative. One of the wonderful elements of the work is that its content is mature, making it appropriate for the most able students, while its easy-reading level makes it accessible to students who have difficulty reading. In addition to the wide range of students for whom it is appropriate, it can be taught in many subject areas. In United States history it allows students to study a primary source. In English it can be studied as an autobiographical work. It is also appropriate in courses such as psychology, sociology, and anthropology. At the college level it can be analyzed in the above classes and also successfully used in education courses as well as general seminar courses in which students examine and discuss important issues.

Because this small book is appropriate in so many classes, this guide will attempt to show how it can be utilized in U.S. history, English, and education courses. When questions and activities are appropriate for other subject areas as well, these will be listed parenthetically. As with the other study guides in this series, prereading, during reading, and after reading questions and activities are suggested. Those questions and activities which are only appropriate for mature students are starred (*). In addition, a bibliography suggests how this narrative can be incorporated with other books in units on such topics as the Civil War, African Americans from slavery to the 20th century, and slavery and freedom.


Timeline of the Life of Frederick Douglass

(All dates are approximate since slaves were kept ignorant of the concept of time or dates.)

Frederick Bailey (Douglass) born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, Maryland. Mother – Harriet Bailey, a slave; father – a white man, perhaps the master. Separated from mother in infancy.

Harriet Bailey dies; seen only by son four or five times when she'd travel twelve miles by foot at night.

Lived on the "Great House Farm" plantation of Colonel Edward Lloyd; master was Captain Anthony, Colonel Lloyd's clerk.

Moved to Baltimore, Maryland, home of Mr. Hugh Auld, brother of Colonel Lloyd's son-in-law, Captain Thomas Auld.

Mrs. Sophia Auld, new mistress, begins to teach Frederick to read; Mr. Auld finds out and forbids it, calling it "unlawful" and "unsafe."

Lives with Aulds; continues to learn to read and write, often bribing the poor white children to help him.

Returns to Colonel Lloyd's plantation after death of Captain Anthony and his youngest son Richard so that property, including horses and slaves, can be divided between two surviving children, Mrs. Lucretia and Master Andrew; falls to the portion of Mrs. Lucretia and is returned to Baltimore.

Reads "The Columbian Orator," giving words to his feelings about slavery; learns the meaning of the word "abolition"; meets two kind Irishmen who advise him to run away to the north; "from that time on I resolved to run away" (p. 57).

(The following dates are more accurate since Frederick has learned
to read and understands dates.)

March, 1832
Mrs. Lucretia and Master Andrew have both died; Master Thomas Auld, Lucretia's husband, remarries and has a misunderstanding with Master Hugh. As punishment of Hugh, Frederick goes to live with Master Thomas in St. Michael's, Maryland. Master Thomas is not as good a master; he feeds his slaves very little.

Jan. 1, 1833
Sent to live with Mr. Covey who has the reputation "for breaking young slaves" (p. 70); Frederick is frequently whipped. He writes, "Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me. I was broken in body, soul, and spirit. My natural elasticity was crushed, my intellect languished, the disposition to read departed, the cheerful spark that lingered about my eye died; the dark night of slavery closed in upon me; and behold a man transformed into a brute!" (p. 75).

Aug. 1833
Frederick becomes ill in the fields; Mr. Covey whips him. Frederick runs away from Mr. Covey and files a complaint with Master Auld which is rejected. When Frederick returns to Mr. Covey's he vows to fight which he does; Mr. Covey's treatment toward him begins to change; Frederick vows that he never will be whipped again. "This battle with Mr. Covey. . . rekindled the few expiring embers of freedom, and revived within me a sense of my own manhood" (p. 82).

Jan. 1, 1834
Moved to home of Mr. William Freeland, three miles from St. Michael's. Mr. Freeland was "an educated southern gentleman" and much kinder to the slaves. Frederick begins a Sabbath school for slaves; if they were caught they would be whipped, but they wanted to learn to read and write.

Jan. 1835
Mr. Freeland again hires Frederick from his master. Frederick and several other slaves plot an escape but are discovered and sent to jail. For a reason unknown to Frederick, Master Thomas Auld decides to send him back to Baltimore to Hugh Auld.

Sent to learn the trade of caulking at a shipyard; severely injured in fight with white carpenters; Mr. Hugh Auld takes Frederick to work in shipyard where he is foreman; Frederick learns quickly and is soon earning wages which he must turn over to Master Hugh Auld.

Spring 1838
Frederick applies to Master Thomas to allow him to hire his time; Thomas refuses; however, later Hugh agrees making a deal which guarantees him more money. Frederick agrees to the plan since it is the only way he can earn money to escape. When Frederick goes out of the city on work without permission, Master Hugh tells him to "bring my tools and clothing home forthwith" (p. 109). This makes Frederick more committed to find a way to escape.

Sept. 3, 1838
Frederick escapes to New York; he does not reveal the means in his narrative, stating that it could embarrass some and keep others from escaping; he is helped by Mr. David Ruggles who houses Frederick in his boarding house and helps him get Anna Murray, a free black woman, to New York.

Sept. 15, 1838
Anna Murray and Frederick Johnson (name changed from Frederick Bailey) marry; this is particularly important since slaves were not permitted to marry; they leave for New Bedford. In New Bedford the couple is helped by Mr. and Mrs. Nathan Johnson. Frederick asks the Johnsons to help him pick a new name; Mr. Johnson who is reading "Lady of the Lake" selects Douglass.

Aug. 11, 1841
At the anti-slavery convention at Nantucket Mr. William C. Coffin urges Frederick Douglass to speak. Douglass writes, "It was a severe cross, and I took it up reluctantly. The truth was, I felt myself a slave, and the idea of speaking to white people weighed me down" (p. 119).


Be sure the students understand the terms nonfiction, autobiography, and narrative.

The narrative is basically chronological. However, he does digress in some chapters. Therefore, it might be helpful to duplicate the timeline above so students can refer to it as they read.

Throughout the narrative Douglass discusses many ironies. Discuss the meaning of the word irony and provide some examples.

Ask students to write about a time they were not allowed to do something and how it made them feel.

Have the students write in their journals their impressions about what life would be like as a slave.

Introduce and define the words: slavery, abolition, abolitionist, and chattel.

Read a fictional account of slavery such as Belinda Hurmence's A Girl Called Boy and Tancy or Barbara Smucker's Runaway to Freedom: A Story of the Underground Railroad or Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Read the first chapter aloud to the class. Discuss it.

Discuss the concept of "primary source." Read one or more secondary sources about slaves such as Virginia Hamilton's Anthony Burns: The Defeat and Triumph of a Fugitive Slave, Arna Bontemp's Great Slave Narratives, To Be a Slave by Julius Lester or Black Foremothers by Dorothy Sterling.

Place the narrative in its historical context or ask the students to do so. Discuss what was occurring in the U.S. between 1818, the birth of Douglass, and 1845, the publication of his narrative. It might be useful to place it on a timeline along with other historical events occurring at the same time.

Have the students write about and discuss how they would be different if they could not read or write.

Discuss the concept: "there can be no freedom without education."

Examine education during the colonial period prior to the Revolution. How did education differ by region in the colonies: New England, the middle Atlantic states, and the southern states?

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