12 February 2018 Blogs, Academic, Community College, Faculty, Librarian, Student/Researcher

Frederick Douglass: Pioneer of the Labor Movement

Discover how his experiences as a hired-slave prompted Douglass to become a champion of the working class.

As a labor activist, Fredrick Douglass – escaped slave, abolitionist, prolific orator and self-taught writer – had a unique perspective on the value of work.

In Baltimore, where he was kept as a “hired slave,” Douglass was afforded certain freedoms that were particular to this urban setting: “a city slave is almost a free man compared with a slave on the plantation,” he wrote in The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.[1]

In the article, “African-American Baltimore in the Era of Fredrick Douglass,”[2] Frank Towers described a divided, non-competitive labor market with white artisan craftsmen on one side, and slaves and free Blacks working in unskilled trades on the other. But times were changing between 1830 and 1860. Large-scale manufacturing “eclipsed artisan production in craft workshops” and an influx of free Blacks and European immigrants created more competition for the jobs that were available in newly-built factories.

“Douglass’s experience in the 1830s showed how slaves could loosen their bonds in the city,” Towers wrote. “He traveled around the city, lived apart from his master, earned admittedly meager wages, and participated in Black institutions like churches and schools.” 

This situation was unique to the urban practice of “slave hiring,” which Towers said, “opened cracks in the discipline of slavery that educated Douglass in the possibilities of freedom and the injustice of slavery.”

What is slave-hiring?

Urban slave-owners often leased out their slaves to a third-party. This practice, known as slave-hiring, made slave-owning more compatible with the changing economy. It also brought in an income for people like widows and retirees who had no profitable work of their own for slaves.

In Douglass’s case, he was earning a wage as a slave apprentice, with the promise of manumission, or liberation, on his 25th birthday.

Douglass described in his Narrative[3] the increasing frustration and the dehumanization of this arrangement. He was teased by a taste of freedom and knew the monetary value of his labors, yet each day he was compelled to surrender both to his master:

Besides, I was now getting— as I have said— a dollar and fifty cents per day. I contracted for it, worked for it, earned it, collected it; it was paid to me, and it was rightfully my own; and yet, upon every returning Saturday night, this money— my own hard earnings, every cent of it— was demanded of me, and taken from me by Master Hugh. He did not earn it; he had no hand in earning it; why, then, should he have it? I owed him nothing. He had given me no schooling, and I had received from him only my food and raiment; and for these, my services were supposed to pay, from the first. The right to take my earnings, was the right of the robber.

Douglass on the definition of slavery

During the 1840s, Douglass toured the United States and Great Britain speaking on the meaning of slavery, according to Nicolas Buccola in his book, The Political Thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty.[4] Misuse, and overuse, of the term troubled Douglass because it weakened the significance of the concept. As the possession of another person, a slave is denied any sense of selfhood, a situation without comparison, and one that is quite different than being a “slave” to a passion or addiction.

“According to Douglass,” Buccola said, “the relationship between master and slave knows no law higher than the will of the master.” This meant, beyond compelling the slave to work, the master owned both the flesh and mind of the slave. Here he quoted a lecture Douglass gave in Rochester, New York: “The law gives the master absolute power over the slave. He may work him, flog him, hire him out, sell him, and, in certain contingencies, kill him, with perfect impunity.”

This also meant the master had control over a slave’s family relationships, education and religion. Buccola pointed out that “although the acceptability of baptism and religious instruction for slaves underwent some liberalization over the course of history,” the slave was not ultimately in control of pursuing these avenues. The master always had final say.

A champion of workers’ rights

Douglass also recognized that the greed and hunger for power that manifested in the institution of slavery also lead to other forms of exploitation. After the Civil War, Douglass continued to identify ways greed and selfishness led to the abuse and manipulation of others. Not only was Douglass a fierce opponent of slavery, but he became a champion for the rights of women, immigrants and all members of the working class.

“Douglass made case that it was the ‘selfishness” of economic elites rather than an inherent defect in the market-based economy, that caused the vast disparity between rich and poor in ‘our industrial civilization,’” Buccola wrote, and quoted from an 1882 speech in which Douglass said: “I have no sympathy for the narrow, selfish notion of economy which assumes that every crumb of bread which goes into the mouths of one class is so much taken from the mouths of another class.”

At this time, labor organizers were leveraging collective power of the working class but groups like the Nation Labor Union were generally silent on issues of discrimination, when they admitted Black delegates at all. So, in 1869, the Colored National Labor Union (CNLU) was formed to advocate for equal representation of African Americans in the workplace. In 1872, the organization elected Frederick Douglass as its president.

The state had an obligation to promote fair labor practices and protect the people from discrimination, Douglass insisted. Buccola shared an excerpt from an 1888 address called “In Law Free; In Fact, a Slave,” in which Douglass declared:

The true object for which governments are ordained among men is to protect the weak against the encroachments of the strong, to hold its strong arm of justice over all the civil relations of its citizens and to see that all have an equal chance in the race of life.

The staunch commitment of Douglass and founders of the CNLU paved the way for other pioneers of the Black Labor Movement, including the organization of the Knight of Labor in the 1880s and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters in 1925.

For further research:

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From Ebook Central:

Chesnutt, C. (2002). Frederick Douglass

Douglass, F. (2000). Life and Times of Frederick Douglass

Douglass, F. (2014). My Bondage and My Freedom

Ellis, C., & Ginsburg, R. (Eds.). (2017). Slavery in the City: Architecture and Landscapes of Urban Slavery in North America.

Frymer, P. (2007). Black and Blue: African Americans, the Labor Movement, and the Decline of the Democratic Party.

Whitman, T. S. (2015). Price of Freedom: Slavery and Manumission in Baltimore and Early National Maryland.

Read letters, speeches, articles and more from Frederick Douglass in Black Abolitionist Papers, 1830-1865.

ProQuest History Vault collections and modules:

Civil Rights and the Black Freedom Struggle offers all levels of researchers the opportunity to study the most well-known and also unheralded events of the Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century from the perspective of the men, women, and sometimes even children who waged one of the most inspiring social movements in American history.

American Politics and Society: The FBI Confidential Files and Radical Politics in the U.S., 1945-1972 module consists of records of the FBI and the Subversive Activities Control Board from 1945-1972 under director J. Edgar Hoover who led vigorous investigation and surveillance programs on Communist groups, Communist-front groups and other radical organizations in the U.S.

Southern Life, Slavery, and the Civil War features petitions that vividly portray the contrasts, contradictions, ironies and ambiguities of Southern history. Testimonies by a wide range of Southerners – Black and white, slave and free, male and female – reveal not just what people were saying, but what they were doing. Evidence of complex political, economic, legal and social conditions provide a research framework for exploring the topical, geographical and chronological breadth and penetrating depth of this subject matter.

Confederate Military Manuscripts and Records of Union Generals and the Union Army module named CHOICE Outstanding Academic Title, 2017

Alexander Street videos:

Burns, K. (Producer). (1990). The Cause [Video file] from Ken Burns's The Civil War, Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Available in Academic Video Online #AcademicVideoOnline 

Haffner, C. (Director), & Paddor, S. (Producer). (1994). Underground Railroad [Video file]. A&E Television Networks. Available in Academic Video Online #AcademicVideoOnline 

Kunhardt, P. W., Kunhardt, P. B., & Steiner, N. (Directors), & Kunhardt, P. W., Kunhardt, P. B., & Steiner, N. (Producers). (2003). A Fatal Contradiction [Video file] in Freedom: A History of US, Episode 5. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). Available in Academic Video Online #AcademicVideoOnline 


  1. Douglass, F. (2014). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Other Works. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
  2. Towers, F. (1995). African-American Baltimore in the Era of Frederick Douglass. Retrieved from https://www.proquest.com/docview/1302468274?accountid=131239
  3. Douglass, F. (2014). Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and Other Works. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com
  4. Buccola, N. (2012). The political thought of Frederick Douglass: In Pursuit of American Liberty. Retrieved from https://ebookcentral.proquest.com