The Richardson family help free Frederick Douglass

Event date(s)

1 October 1846 to 31 December 1846

Description/importance

On December 5th 1846 a remarkable set of papers were filed in Baltimore County (Maryland, USA). The papers themselves gave the abolitionist and escaped slave Frederick Douglass freedom from his American owner Thomas Auld. These documents actually began life far from Baltimore and were the result of the activities of a committed group of Quaker abolitionists from Newcastle.

After fleeing from slavery in 1838 Frederick Douglass became a preacher and anti-slavery activist in Massachusetts and an ally of William Lloyd Garrison (another visitor to Tyneside in the period). With the publication of his memoir Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave in 1845 Douglass gained international prominence and embarked on a tour of Britain to drum up support for the abolition of slavery in the US. It was during this tour that Douglass met Ellen, Anna and Henry Richardson, a group of North-East Quakers who had been involved in anti-slavery activism for a number of years.

The international fame which his Narrative and anti-slavery activism brought led to concerns for Douglass and his acquaintances that Auld would attempt to re-enslave him as soon as he returned to the US. In response Anna and Ellen announced to a meeting of activists in Edinburgh on 29th October 1846 that they planned to raise the money to legally free Douglass. By drawing on their religious and reforming networks the two Tyneside women were able to raise the funds incredibly quickly and by the 20th November national newspapers were already reporting on the success of the venture. Later in the same month the Richardson’s’ contacted a group of Bostonian abolitionist lawyers to complete the transaction on their behalf and on the 5th December Auld received £150 in exchange for the manumission of Douglass. 

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Further reading

David B. Cheesebrough, Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery (Westport Conn, London: Greenwood Press, 1998); L. Diane Barnes, Frederick Douglass: Reformer and Statesman (New York,  London: Routledge, 2013); Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (Newcastle Upon Tyne: Macliver and Cathrall, 1846); Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (2014 repr. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014); Frederick Douglass, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Written by Himself (Hartford Conn: Park Publishing Co. 1881).

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