The legacy of Frederick Douglass validates the importance of defining ourselves and expanding our potential, despite how our birth situates us or how others define us. Under the most severe conditions, Douglass refused to allow anyone to define him as less than a man or as property; that was his strength and his enduring message today. Douglass declared: “the soul that is within me no man can degrade.”

Douglass was born into slavery in the Chesapeake Bay in 1817. During his youth, he was beaten, taken from his mother, and repeatedly told that he was simply a possession without human rights. The slave masters abused him to break his spirit, but from the depth of his suffering, he rose in defiance. Rather than submit, he fought back and embarked on the perilous journey to flee his tormentors and find freedom. Overcoming severe trauma, he persevered to save himself and the people left behind. He raised international awareness about the evils of American slavery. What Douglass accomplished exemplifies one person’s power to recognize his or her true nature and worth, despite a lifetime of pressure to concede.

How many of us today can say that we define who we are and refuse to take a stance on an issue simply because it is popular amongst our peers? Frederick Douglass did just that, and in his three autobiographies, he explains how his innate consciousness of his worth and right to self-determination led him to becoming the most influential civil rights and human rights leader of the 19th century. 

… His innate consciousness of his worth and right to self-determination led him to becoming the most influential civil rights and human rights leader of the 19th century.

He faced his circumstances with extreme courage. He knew that an unsuccessful attempt to run away from slavery would bring severe punishment. After one attempt to escape, Douglass was betrayed and captured. He was subsequently sent to work in the shipyards. Although backbreaking and torturous, this experience would later affirm his resolve to seek freedom.

His triumphant journey to freedom began in September 1838 when Douglass, posing as a free sailor, fled Baltimore in disguise. He boarded a train from Baltimore with fake identification and headed towards Philadelphia and New York City. Ultimately, he was joined by his future wife, Anna Murray Douglass. They married and continued their trip to Massachusetts. 

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was Douglass’s slave name. This name did not suit his vision of himself, and therefore he changed his name to Douglass and lived as a free man and leader in the abolitionist movement. He traveled to Great Britain for fear of being recaptured; there, he rallied European nations against the evil practice of slavery. Douglass was an effective orator, using his significant reserves of charisma and humor to expose the cruelty of slavery and shock his audiences. Douglass also sought financial support for the abolitionist cause in Ireland. Upon his return to the United States, he advocated for black soldiers to join the Union Army in the Civil War and became an advisor to President Lincoln as well as an ambassador to the Dominican Republic.

Frederick Douglass was born a slave, and, by the slave owners’ definition, he was inferior by my definition he is a hero. He was not supposed to be intelligent or be able to read. Yet, he wrote three autobiographies — one of which is still read widely in American classrooms — influenced audiences in Europe with his eloquence, rallied opposition to slavery, and fundraised to support his work.

READ MORE — Why the Union League Legacy Foundation is honoring the great patriot, abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass with a new portrait

Our hero’s life story is a reminder that education is power. As a School Psychologist, it is my job to help children grow into the best version of themselves by providing recommendations for academic, behavioral, and social support. I approach my profession with a strength-based model, knowing that every student has the ability to succeed and deserves the opportunity to live free of trauma and obstacles to growth.

Douglass left an inspiring legacy for generations to come. He was born into an evil and oppressive condition, with a strong sense of self at odds with the cruelty society inflicted on him. Douglass defied the oppressors of the 19th century because he knew his worth and his innate rights as a human being.

In an address to the Congressional Church delivered on the twenty-first anniversary of the Emancipation Declaration in Washington D.C. on April 16, 1883, Frederick Douglass reminded his audience, “Let us not forget that our destiny is largely in our hands.” Douglass set the bar very high, yet we are called to meet it in addressing the current challenges we face as a nation. At the forefront of today’s political thought and action is The Union League Legacy Foundation of Philadelphia. Founded in 1862 as a patriotic society supporting the views of Abraham Lincoln, the Union League Legacy Foundation embraces, supports, and shares the legacy of Fredrick Douglass. It is truly fitting to see Douglass’s new portrait at the Union League, whose unveiling I was proud to attend, and in American classrooms, where students still read Douglass’s testimony to literacy every year.

Douglass’s life story has taught me never to allow another to define me. No one can define me but myself.

Aleida Silva-Garcia, M.S., Ed.S., is a Nationally Certified School Psychologist and Advanced Doctoral Extern. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) in Psychology from Temple University, a Master of Science (M.S.) in School Psychology, and an Educational Specialist Degree (Ed.S.) in School Psychology. Aleida is an Octavius V. Catto Fellow.

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