Frederick Douglass: How He Became a Man

Frederick Douglass, courtesy, National Park Service

In 1834, on January 1st, Frederick made his way to the home of the man who was supposed to “break” him.  Edward Covey was a small man who believed in harsh treatment, as a way of making sure enslaved people would be, forever, obedient.  

Frederick Douglass had recently gotten back from a forced stay in Baltimore where he was able to teach himself how to read and write.  He got back to St. Michael’s (along Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay) and began to try to help others learn to read and write.  He also did various things to try to find food, because he was often hungry.  All of this led Thomas Auld, his owner, to send him to a man named Edward Covey for Frederick to be broken.

Almost immediately Frederick Douglass began to receive beatings from Covey—Douglass was only about 17 years old at the time.  

Edward Covey believed in harsh violence as a way of making the enslaved people, who were sent to him, obedient.

Frederick was subjected to violent attacks for a long period of time, while he was with Covey.

During the first six months he was beaten so often, worked so hard and was downtrodden to such an extent that he was just about a broken man.

On one hot August day, he was working in the “treading yard” with the other men as the horses trod out the wheat from the straw with their feet.  Douglass’s job was to bring the wheat to the fan, while the other men performed the tasks needed to complete the treading.  Covey promised the men they could have an hour added to their night’s rest, if they finished the job an hour before sundown.

Douglass, and the other men, worked extra hard to finish the day’s work, but at about three o’clock Frederick became very ill...his head began to hurt, he began to feel dizzy, and he collapsed on the ground.  Covey noticed the stoppage in work and came out to see what was happening.  One of the other men explained that Frederick was no longer able to carry the wheat to the fan and since each person had a specific role to fulfill, in order to complete the job, the work had come to a halt. 

Covey found Frederick over on the side and, after hearing his story, he kicked him in the side and told him to “Get up!”  Frederick was so “well-trained” that he tried to comply, even though he felt physically unable to stand.  He tried to get up, but fell back down again.  Covey kicked him again and told him to stand.  He was then able to get up, but when he tried to bend down to pick up the tub he was using to carry the wheat, he fell to the ground, again.

Covey, then, picked up a slab of hickory (piece of wood) and smacked Frederick right over the head with it, saying, “If you have got the headache, I’ll cure you.”  The blood began to run down Frederick’s face and he was again commanded to, “Get up!”  Covey then saw that Frederick was not able to stand, so he left him and went back to oversee the work.

The bleeding, strangely, made Frederick’s head feel better and he was able to regain some of his strength.  What should he do?  Should he go back to working or should he go to St. Michael’s to tell Thomas Auld about the treatment he was receiving at Covey’s place?

Douglass decided to go to Thomas Auld to tell him what was going on—thinking that he might get some kind of sympathy.  He walked seven miles to St. Michael’s...tired, still bleeding, and sore from the blows he received.  Once he got there, he walked into Thomas Auld’s store...his hair matted with blood; his feet torn by thorns, and the back of his shirt soaked in blood.  Auld listened to all that Frederick had to say, contemplated it, and decided that, “He had no doubt that (he) deserved the flogging.”  If Edward Covey beat him, it was for a good reason.  Auld told Frederick he was not really sick, he was just trying to get out of work and that his “dizziness was laziness.”

He allowed Frederick to stay the rest of the night, but told him to return to Covey first thing in the morning; then gave him some epsom salt to drink.

In the morning Frederick left.  He reached Covey’s farm at about nine o’clock that morning.  Before he made it to the house (he was still in the field area), Covey jumped out and attacked Frederick.  He had been waiting for him.  Covey had a whip, made out of cowskin, and a rope, which he intended to use to tie Frederick up.  Frederick was quick enough, though, to dodge Covey and he dashed back into the woods, through the cornfield, to hide.

Covey was upset because he could not find Frederick, so he went back to his house to wait him out.  Frederick was alone in the woods and stuck in a very dangerous situation.  He determined, “Here was a good place to pray...”  He decided to pray for deliverance, but doubted the effectiveness of prayer, since people like Covey and Auld prayed to the same God and because he had neglected praying for so long.

He could stay there and starve, because he hadn’t had much to eat since the day before, or he could go home and face the lashes Covey was sure to give him.  This was a difficult decision because he knew he would be “beaten to a pulp.”  

He stayed there, all day, and into the night.  He reasoned that Covey was waiting for hunger to drive him home.  Suddenly, he heard steps coming toward him in the woods.  He could do nothing because he had no strength, but suddenly he noticed that the person was someone he knew and liked.”  Sandy, a slave hired out to a man named Mr. Kemp, was on his way to visit his free wife who lived nearby.

 St. Michael's, near the store and home of Thomas Auld.

St. Michael's, near the store and home of Thomas Auld.

He was overjoyed to see a friendly face, instead of Covey coming to torture him.  Sandy decided to take Frederick with him to his wife’s home.  

Sandy’s wife gave him something to eat and he was able to regain his strength.  Sandy also gave him something else.  Sandy was born in Africa and still held on to some of his traditional beliefs.  He told Frederick that he could help him; that there was an herb in the woods, that if worn on his right side, would protect him...with that root on him, “no white man could whip him.”

Frederick thought this was “ridiculous” and didn’t think that a root could protect him.  Frederick was one of the few (if not, the only) enslaved persons in the area who could read and write.  Sandy told him, that all of his “book learning had not kept Covey” from beating him, so what did he have to lose?  Frederick thought maybe he had a point, how could he be sure that the hand of the Lord wasn't in it, and that he didn't want to offend Sandy…so, he took the herb.

Sandy encouraged him to then go back to Covey’s farm, bravely, as though nothing had happened.  

It was Sunday morning.  As Frederick entered the yard, he met Covey and his wife.  They were on their way to church and Covey said to him, “...that the pigs had got into the lot, and he wished (Frederick) to drive them out.”  He then asked Frederick how he was doing.  This astonished Frederick; Covey had never spoken to him in that manner before.  He was not sure if this kindness would last, but he got his answer in the morning.  

Well before the sun came up, Frederick was told to go care for, and feed, the horses in the stable.  While climbing up into the loft, Covey snuck into the stable and grabbed Frederick by his leg.  He was carrying a rope and tried to tie a knot around Frederick’s legs.  Frederick forgot all about the root he was carrying and remembered only an earlier pledge he made to himself—to stand up in his own defense.

He did not let Covey tie him up, but Covey was still able to get him on the ground.

“Whence came the daring spirit necessary to grapple with a man who, eight-and-forty hours before, could, with his slightest word have made me tremble like a leaf in a storm, I do not know; at any rate, I was resolved to fight, and what was better still, I was actually hard at it. strong fingers firmly attached to the throat of my cowardly tormentor; as heedless of consequences, at the moment, as though we stood as equals before the law.”

Keep in mind that Frederick was only about sixteen or seventeen, himself, at this time.  Frederick felt Covey’s blood around his fingernails...not actually hitting him, but not allowing Covey to break free, either.  Covey asked, “Are you going to resist, you scoundrel?” 

To which Frederick replied, “Yes sir.”  Covey began to yell for help.  Covey’s cousin, who was staying with him, heard his cry and came to help.

The young man tried to tie Frederick’s right hand, while Frederick still had a hold of Covey with his left.  Frederick kicked him, which sent the young man off running away in pain.  Covey again asked if Frederick was going to resist him and Frederick firmly communicated that the torture he received during the previous months was barbaric and that he would “stand it no longer!”

The two wrestled out of the stable and into the cow yard.  Bill, one of the enslaved men who was hired to work on Covey’s farm, came by and noticed the scuffle.  Covey called to Bill for help.  Bill pretended as if he didn’t understand, but eventually told Covey, “My (owner) hired me here, to work, and not to help you whip Frederick.”  Frederick added to the conversation by saying, “Bill, don’t you put your hands on me.”  

Bill replied, “My GOD! Frederick, I ain’t…,” then Bill left.

Now it was just Frederick and Covey alone, again.  Suddenly, Caroline, Covey’s slave came down to the cow yard to milk.  She was a strong woman and could’ve given Frederick “a run for his money.”  Covey ordered her to help him subdue Frederick but she, just like Bill, refused to help him.  Covey hit her several times, but still had Frederick to contend with.  They struggled for over two hours.

After a long while, Covey let go of his hold and told Frederick, “Now, you scoundrel, go to your work; I would not have whipped you half so much as I have had you not resisted.”

Covey had not “whipped” Frederick and had not drawn any blood from Frederick, but he felt he had to “save face.”  

Frederick, on the other hand, felt he was victorious because his only goal was not to be whipped by Covey that day--and he was not.

“...this battle...was the turning point in my life....  It rekindled in my breast the smouldering embers of liberty; it brought up my Baltimore dreams, and revived a sense of my manhood.  I was a changed being after that fight.  I was nothing before; I WAS A MAN NOW.”

Frederick remained with Covey for another several months after that fight and, although there were threats, Covey never actually put his hands on Douglass…ever again.

© 2017, Red and Black Ink, LLC.  Check out our book, Stories about Black History: Vol. 3, available on Amazon.

“A man, without force, is without the essential dignity of humanity.”  - Frederick Douglass.

© 2017, Red and Black Ink, LLC.

Check out our book, Stories about Black History: Vol. 3, available on Amazon.


Smith, Danita. We Were Heroes.  Red and Black Ink, LLC. 2015.

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

Danita Smith