Archive for Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass and the Freedom of Newcastle

Posted in History with tags , , on February 2, 2016 by telescoper

You can learn a lot by looking at Google, even if you don’t use it to search for anything.

I found out – via the Twitter feed of Bonnie Greer – that yesterday’s Google Doodle was this:


The picture is a representation of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), whose name was quite new to me until yesterday but whose remarkable life story turns out to have a strong connection with my home town of Newcastle upon Tyne.

Douglass was a prominent social reformer and campaigner against slavery, and for other forms of social justice, including equal rights for women. The most famous expression of his political philosophy is the following quote:

I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.

Once a slave himself, Douglass escaped from bondage in 1838 and, while on the run, wrote his first autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave which quickly became a best seller on both sides of the Atlantic. He eventually made his way to England, where he went on a speaking tour,  impressing audiences around the country with the power of his oratory, his obvious intellect, and the conviction with which he held his political beliefs.

Slavery was unlawful under English common law at that time so technically Douglass was a free man from the moment he set foot in England, but the same would not be true if he returned to America. His English supporters wanted him to remain here, but he had a wife and three children in the United States and wanted to return and continue the campaign against slavery there. But as soon as he set foot back in America he was likely to be seized and returned to his “owner”.

Then, in a remarkably generous gesture, the people of Newcastle upon Tyne solved his problem. They collected enough money to pay his “owner”, Thomas Auld, for his freedom. He returned to America in 1847, a free man, where he remained true to his beliefs and spent the next 48 years continuing his various campaigns. He died of a stroke in 1895, aged 77.

Frederick Douglass was undoubtedly a remarkable man, passionate and courageous with a great gift for public speaking. A Google Doodle is a small honour for such a hero but I’m sure it has at least led to many others besides myself finding out just a little bit more about him.

And if you’ll forgive me for saying so, it also gives me yet another reason to be proud to be a Geordie.  Perhaps it’s true that the people of Newcastle upon Tyne are the most generous in the UK

P.S. Newcastle upon Tyne is not in the Midlands.