Born in Talbott County, Maryland, Frederick Douglass (c. 1818 to 1895) was treated harshly by slave owners, yet managed to learn to read. After repeated attempts to escape to freedom, he successfully ran away in 1838 to become an eloquent platform orator and newspaper editor for abolition. He worked with President Lincoln during the Civil War to raise African American regiments to fight against the slave South. After the War, he became a prominent Republican politician and also served as Consul General to the Republic of Haiti.
From Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: His Early Life as a Slave, His Escape From Bondage, and His Complete History (rev ed., New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1892), pp. 50-53, 65-67:
Why am I a slave? Why are some people slaves and others masters? These were perplexing questions and very troublesome to my childhood. I was very early told by some one that “God up in the sky” had made all things, and had made black people to be slaves and white people to be masters. I was told too that God was good, and that He knew what was best for everybody. This was, however, less satisfactory than the first statement. It came point blank against all my notions of goodness. The case of Aunt Esther was in my mind. Besides, I could not tell how anybody could know that God made black people to be slaves. Then I found, too, that there were puzzling exceptions to this theory of slavery, in the fact that all black people were not slaves, and all white people were not masters.
An incident occurred about this time that made a deep impression on my mind. My Aunt Jennie and one of the men slaves of Captain Anthony ran away. A great noise was made about it. Old master was furious. He said he would follow them and catch them and bring them back, but he never did, and somebody told me that Uncle Noah and Aunt Jennie had gone to the free states and were free. Besides this occurrence, which brought much light to my mind on the subject, there were several slaves on Mr. Lloyd’s place who remembered being brought from Africa. There were others who told me that their fathers and mothers were stolen from Africa. This to me was important knowledge, but not such as to make me feel very easy in my slave condition. The success of Aunt Jennie and Uncle Noah in getting away from slavery was, I think, the first fact that made me seriously think of escape for myself. I could not have been more than seven or eight years old at the time of this occurrence, but young as I was, I was already, in spirit and purpose, a fugitive from slavery.
Up to the time of the brutal treatment of my Aunt Esther, already narrated, and the shocking plight in which I had seen my cousin from Tuckahoe, my attention had not been especially directed to the grosser and more revolting features of slavery. I had, of course, heard of whippings and savage mutilations of slaves by brutal overseers, but happily for me I had always been out of the way of such occurrences. My play time was spent outside of the corn and tobacco fields, where the overseers and slaves were brought together and in conflict. But after the case of my Aunt Esther I saw others of the same disgusting and shocking nature. The one of these which agitated and distressed me most was the whipping of a woman, not belonging to my old master, but to Col. Lloyd. The charge against her was very common and very indefinite, namely, “impudence.” This crime could be committed by a slave in a hundred different ways, and depended much upon the temper and caprice of the overseer as to whether it was committed at all. He could create the offense whenever it pleased him. A look, a word, a gesture, accidental or intentional, never failed to be taken as impudence when he was in the right mood for such an offense. In this case there were all the necessary conditions for the commission of the crime charged. The offender was nearly white, to begin with; she was the wife of a favorite hand on board of Mr. Lloyd’s sloop, and was, besides, the mother of five sprightly children. Vigorous and spirited woman that she was, a wife and a mother, with a predominating share of the blood of the master running in her veins, Nellie (for that was her name) had all the qualities essential to impudence to a slave overseer. My attention was called to the scene of the castigation by the loud screams and curses that proceeded from the direction of it. When I came near the parties engaged in the struggle the overseer had hold of Nellie, endeavoring with his whole strength to drag her to a tree against her resistance. Both his and her faces were bleeding, for the woman was doing her best. Three of her children were present, and though quite small, (from seven to ten years old, I should think), they gallantly took the side of their mother against the overseer, and pelted him well with stones and epithets. Amid the screams of the children, “Let my mammy go! Let my mammy go!” the hoarse voice of the maddened overseer was heard in terrible oaths that he would teach her how to give a white man impudence. The blood on his face and on hers attested her skill in the use of her nails, and his dogged determination to conquer. His purpose was to tie her up to a tree and give her, in slaveholding parlance, a “genteel flogging,” and he evidently had not expected the stern and protracted resistance he was meeting, or the strength and skill needed to its execution. There were times when she seemed likely to get the better of the brute, but he finally overpowered her and succeeded in getting her arms firmly tied to the tree towards which he had been dragging her. The victim was now at the mercy of his merciless lash. What followed I need not here describe. The cries of the now helpless woman, while undergoing the terrible infliction, were mingled with the hoarse curses of the overseer and the wild cries of her distracted children. When the poor woman was untied her back was covered with blood. She was whipped, terribly whipped, but she was not subdued, and continued to denounce the overseer and to pour upon him every vile epithet of which she could think.
Such floggings are seldom repeated on the same persons by overseers. They prefer to whip those who are the most easily whipped. The doctrine that submission to violence is the best cure for violence did not hold good as between slaves and overseers. He was whipped oftener who was whipped easiest. That slave who had the courage to stand up for himself against the overseer, although he might have many hard stripes at first, became while legally a slave virtually a freeman. “You can shoot me,” said a slave to Rigby Hopkins, “but you can’t whip me,” and the result was he was neither whipped nor shot. I do not know that Mr. Sevier ever attempted to whip Nellie again. He probably never did, for he was taken sick not long after and died. It was commonly said that his deathbed was a wretched one, and that, the ruling passion being strong in death, he died flourishing the slave whip and with horrid oaths upon his lips. This deathbed scene may only be the imagining of the slaves. One thing is certain, that when he was in health his profanity was enough to chill the blood of an ordinary man. Nature, or habit, had given to his face an expression of uncommon savageness. Tobacco and rage had ground his teeth short, and nearly every sentence that he uttered was commenced or completed with an oath. Hated for his cruelty, despised for his cowardice, he went to his grave lamented by nobody on the place outside of his own house, if, indeed, he was even lamented there.
In Mr. James Hopkins, the succeeding overseer, we had a different and a better man, as good perhaps as any man could be in the position of a slave overseer. Though he sometimes wielded the lash, it was evident that he took no pleasure in it and did it with much reluctance. He stayed but a short time here, and his removal from the position was much regretted by the slaves generally. Of the successor of Mr. Hopkins I shall have something to say at another time and in another place. . . .
The comparatively moderate rule of Mr. Hopkins as overseer on Col. Lloyd’s plantation was succeeded by that of another, whose name was Austin Gore. I hardly know how to bring this man fitly before the reader, for under him there was more suffering from violence and bloodshed than had, according to the older slaves, ever been experienced before at this place. He was an overseer, and possessed the peculiar characteristics of his class; yet to call him merely an overseer would not give one a fair conception of the man. I speak of overseers as a class, for they were such. They were as distinct from the slaveholding gentry of the South as are the fish-women of Paris and the coal-heavers of London distinct from other grades of society. They constituted, at the South, a separate fraternity. They were arranged and classified by that great law of attraction which determines the sphere and affinities of men and which ordains that men whose malign and brutal propensities preponderate over their moral and intellectual endowments shall naturally fall into the employments which promise the largest gratification to their predominating instincts or propensities. The office of overseer took this raw material of vulgarity and brutality and stamped it as a distinct class in southern life. But in this class, as in all other classes, there were sometimes persons of marked individuality, yet with a general resemblance to the mass. Mr. Gore was one of those to whom a general characterization would do no manner of justice. He was an overseer, but he was something more. With the malign and tyrannical qualities of an overseer he combined something of the lawful master. He had the artfulness and mean ambition of his class, without its disgusting swagger and noisy bravado. There was an easy air of independence about him, a calm self-possession, and at the same time a sternness of glance which well might daunt less timid hearts that those of poor slaves accustomed from childhood to cower before a driver’s lash. He was one of those overseers who could torture the slightest word or look into impudence, and he had the nerve not only to resent, but to punish promptly and severely. There could be no answering back. Guilty or not guilty, to be accused was to be sure of a flogging. His very presence was fearful, and I shunned him as I would have shunned a rattlesnake. His piercing black eyes and sharp, shrill voice ever awakened sensations of dread. Other overseers, how brutal soever they might be, would sometimes seek to gain favor with the slaves by indulging in a little pleasantry, but Gore never said a funny thing or perpetrated a joke. He was always cold, distant, and unapproachable–the overseer on Col. Edward Lloyd’s plantation-and needed no higher pleasure than the performance of the duties of his office. When he used the lash, it was from a sense of duty, without fear of consequences. There was a stem will, an iron-like reality about him, which would easily have made him chief of a band of pirates, had his environments been favorable to such a sphere.
Among many other deeds of shocking cruelty committed by him was the murder of a young colored man named Bill Denby. He was a powerful fellow, full of animal spirits, and one of the most valuable of Col. Lloyd’s slaves. In some way, I know not what, he offended this Mr. Austin Gore, and, in accordance with the usual custom, the latter undertook to flog him. He had given him but a few stripes when Denby broke away from him, plunged into the creek, and, standing there with the water up to his neck, refused to come out; whereupon, for this refusal, Goreshot him dead! It was said that Gore gave Denby three calls to come out, telling him that if he did not obey the last call he should shoot him. When the last call was given Denby still stood his ground, and Gore, without further parley or making any further effort to induce obedience, raised his gun deliberately to his face, took deadly aim at his standing victim, and with one click of the gun the mangled body sank out of sight, and only his warm red blood marked the place where he had stood.
This fiendish murder produced, as it could not help doing, a tremendous sensation. The slaves were panic-stricken, and howled with alarm. The atrocity roused my old master, and he spoke out in reprobation of it. Both he and Col. Lloyd arraigned Gore for his cruelty, but the latter, calm and collected as though nothing unusual had happened, declared that Denby had become unmanageable, that he set a dangerous example to the other slaves, and that unless some such prompt measure was resorted to there would be an end of all rule and order on the plantation. That convenient covert for all manner of villainy and outrage, that cowardly alarm-cry that the slaves would “take the place,” was pleaded, just as it had before been in thousands of similar cases. Gore’s defense was evidently considered satisfactory, for he was continued in his office without being subjected to a judicial investigation. The murder was committed in the presence of slaves only, and they, being slaves, could neither institute a suit nor testify against the murderer. Mr. Gore lived in St. Michaels, Talbot County, Maryland, and I have no reason to doubt, from what I know to have been the moral sentiment of the place, that he was as highly esteemed and as much respected as though his guilty soul had not been stained with innocent blood.
I speak advisedly when I say that in Talbot County, Maryland, killing a slave, or any colored person, was not treated as a crime, either by the courts or the community. Mr. Thomas Lanman, ship carpenter of St. Michaels, killed two slaves, one of whom he butchered with a hatchet by knocking out his brains. He used to boast of having committed the awful and bloody deed. I have heard him do so laughingly, declaring himself a benefactor of his country and that “when others would do as much as he had done, they would be rid of the d—-d niggers.”