Frederick Douglass, ‘fugitive slave’ visited Belfast in the 1840s

On both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, Frederick Douglass was one of the most important personalities in the campaign for the abolition of slavery. He visited Belfast as a ‘fugitive slave’ in 1845 and again in 1846.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born c.1817 on a Maryland plantation. He had an African slave mother and a white father, possibly his overseer, Aaron Anthony. He was bright and taught himself to read and write, in secret as learning was forbidden. The first book he bought included accounts of the suffering of Irish Catholics under the Penal Laws. He eventually managed to escape from slavery and as a fugitive and under a new surname he began to speak at abolition meetings in the US.

He arrived in Belfast on 5th December 1845 in very snowy weather. That evening, his first talk was in the Independent Chapel on Donegall Street, and we stand in front of the church that replaced it. This talk was a great success, and his book sold out. He stayed at the Victoria Hotel, which stood at the York Street junction. He observed that “Everyone I meet here seems full of religion, drinks wine, and prays.”

Douglass was enthusiastically received at seven meetings in Belfast. He wrote in a letter on 1st January 1946, the day he left for Scotland – “Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle. I breathe, and lo! the chattel becomes a man.” and also “I meet nothing to remind me of my complexion. I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people.”

If you want to hear more about Douglass in Belfast, book the ANTI SLAVERY BELFAST TOUR!

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