Written January 12, 2024, MLK weekend, at Alma, Colorado.

I had heard of him, but I knew little about him. He was born a slave, escaped and became an abolitionist, finally he became a revered national figure. In my ignorance Frederick Douglass was a shadow who lacked substance. That has changed. More on this in a moment.

LibriVox (LibriVox | free public domain audiobooks) is an online resource for those who enjoy audiobooks. Its distinguishing feature is that the books are all in the public domain, the copyrights having expired. The books are read by volunteers. Many of the readings are excellent, even approaching professional quality. LibriVox has an excellent iOS app that facilitates searching the catalogue and allows for downloading to smartphones and similar devices so that one can “read” off-line. I understand that there is a Google Play app, but I am not familiar with it.

The LibriVox catalogue consists of over 40,000 books and continues to grow. The great majority of the selections are read in English, but a sizable number are in German, French, Italian, and a host of other languages.

Most readers are familiar with H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, to name just two authors. Most readers recognize their most popular works such as “War of the Worlds, “The Invisible Man”, “The Time Machine”, “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”, “Journey to the Center of the Earth”, and “Around the World in 80 Days”. However, on LibriVox there are 71 titles by Wells, and 81 by Verne, all free to read.

The quality of the readings can be variable. I have found a number of narrators that are exceptional. Among them are:

Mark Smith whose readings include: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, The Call of the Wild, Great Expectations, Robinson Crusoe, and Swiss Family Robinson.

Karen Savage whose readings include: the Anne of Green Gables series, The Scarlet Pimpernel series, and Jane Austen’s books.

Ruth Golding whose readings include: Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte, and Women in Love by D.H. Lawrence.

There are others.

I came upon a strong recommendation to read The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, an autobiography, narration by Lee Smalley.

Frederick Douglass seen as a young man.

Born into slavery in 1816, (or 17, or 18, slaves were not usually allowed to know their birth history) in secret he taught himself to read and write. He details his life as a slave, his escape to freedom, and his subsequent ascension in the ranks of abolitionists. He became an international celebrity while fearing for his life and possible recapture. He associated with such luminaries as John Brown, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Presidents Abraham Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hays, and Garfield, to name just a few. To consider him a genius may be an understatement. Having no formal education, his prose is that of the most highly educated person. His commentary is straightforward and striking. His voice reaches from the 19th Century, across the 20th, and speaks today with an eloquence that is decidedly relevant in our fractured society and politics.

To name just a few of the modern controversies that he directly addressed nearly 150 years ago: The efforts to negotiate an avoidance to war, whether there was any benefit to the enslaved by virtue of their servitude, and identification of the issues that resulted in the Civil War. He didn’t speculate, he was central to and lived the times.

Frederick Douglass aged in his 50’s

This is his third autobiography, the previous two having been written before the Civil War. In those first efforts he could not fully tell the story of his escape to freedom without endangering the lives of those who had helped him. This third effort covers the scope of his life from birth, his early years in bondage, his escape to freedom, through his growing activism and celebrity, the Civil War and post-Civil War reconstruction, and his Presidential appointments as the United States Marshall of the District of Columbia and as U. S. Minister to Haiti.

This is an exceptional read, and my recommendation is all the more appropriate on this holiday weekend that honors the life of Martin Luther King.

Peace Everyone. Pete
Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick’s wife of 44 years.
Frederick Douglass with his second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass (right) and her sister, Eva Pitts (center).

6 thoughts on “Frederick Douglass from Slave to the Friend of Presidents

  1. Thanks for the intro to LibraVox. I will check it out. It sounds as if it would be a nice addition to the long hours on overseas flights. Your write with such clarity!

  2. A remarkable man, indeed! Whenever I read or hear of men or women who achieve great things even the midst of circumstances that make this so improbable, it inspires me to know to determine that I should allow myself no excuse for achieving what I need to achieve.

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