Frederick Douglass's Mother: Harriet

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in Talbot County, Maryland.  His mother’s name was Harriet and she was forced to leave her children, by the man who owned them.  She was hired out to neighboring farms and her children would stay with her mother, until they were several years old.

Frederick Douglass was born in 1817 or 1818 and, as we have alluded to, he was cared for by his grandmother for the first few years of his life.

Talbot County, Maryland, near Frederick Douglass's childhood experiences.

Talbot County, Maryland, near Frederick Douglass's childhood experiences.

Isaac and Betsey Bailey were Frederick Douglass’s grandparents and they had several children (all girls): Jenny, Esther, Milly, Priscilla and Harriet (Frederick’s mother).

Captain Anthony was the man who owned Betsey Bailey, and therefore, ALL of her children were owned by Captain Anthony (despite the fact that Frederick Douglass’s grandfather, Issac, was free).

Captain Anthony made many of the children, who were born to people he owned, stay with Betsey Bailey, who would care for them for the first few years of their lives, as they were no use to him as workers when they were toddlers and infants.

In this way, Betsey Bailey was able to care for her own grandchildren as she and Issac had all girls and several of them had children, including Harriet.

Thus, Frederick Douglass stayed with his grandmother and grandfather for the first few years of his life, while his mother was forced to work as a field hand in an area farm some miles away.

Captain Anthony was an overseer on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation in Maryland—the Lloyds were a well-known family in Maryland…they were among the largest wheat growers and owners of people in the state of Maryland and Captain Anthony was one of their major overseers.

When the children, who were being cared for by Frederick Douglass’s grandmother, were about five or six years old, Captain Anthony would make her bring them to him where he worked because he lived in a little red house on Colonel Lloyd’s plantation.

Betsey had to take Frederick to this house, when he was about five or six, and turn him over to Captain Anthony, who would have him work around the farm and to be a helpmate for Colonel Lloyd’s son.

Frederick Douglass was on this new plantation without his mother, or his grandparents, and with siblings whom he barely knew.  Frederick’s mother, Harriet, knew where her children were and made every effort she could to get to see them.

Harriet was forced to work on a plantation about twelve miles away from where her children were.  She was not allowed, of course, to leave the plantation, but she did anyway.  She waited until after the sun went down and walked the twelve miles to the plantation where Frederick and her other children were staying and spent as much time as she could with her children.

Frederick remembered that it was not often that he saw his mother, but when he did see her those memories were seared into his brain.  She would sit with him, at times, until he fell asleep and when Frederick would wake up she would be gone.

She had to get back to the farm that she escaped from before the sun came up or it would be discovered that she had left and she would be severely beaten.

So Harriet, Frederick’s mom, would walk twelve miles after the sun went down to see her children, then turn around and travel back another twelve miles—all in the same night.

This was a mother’s love.

It was only a short time before his mother would pass away and Frederick did not even know it until after she had died.  But another remarkable discovery, about his mother, would impact him for the rest of his life—he found out that she could read!  This was an incredible achievement in the eyes of many of the people he knew, because she was the only person, who was enslaved, who was known to be able to read in that are of Tuckahoe, in Talbot County, Maryland.  He was fascinated by this information and credits this knowledge about his mother as the motivation he had that inspired his lifelong love of reading!


Copyright, Red and Black Ink, LLC, 2017.


Douglass, Frederick.  My Bondage and My Freedom.  1855.

Smith, Danita. We Were Heroes.  Red and Black Ink, LLC. 2014.


Frederick Douglass, courtesy of Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Talbot County, Maryland, Red and Black Ink, LLC.

Danita Smith