D.H. Dilbeck: The Night Frederick Douglass Resolved to Learn How to Read

Frederick Douglass by D.H. DilbeckContinuing our celebration of African American History month, today we welcome a guest post from D.H. Dilbeck, author of Frederick Douglass:  America’s Prophet, which has it’s official publication today.

From his enslavement to freedom, Frederick Douglass was one of America’s most extraordinary champions of liberty and equality. Throughout his long life, Douglass was also a man of profound religious conviction. In this concise and original biography, D. H. Dilbeck offers a provocative interpretation of Douglass’s life through the lens of his faith. In an era when the role of religion in public life is as contentious as ever, Dilbeck provides essential new perspective on Douglass’s place in American history.

Frederick Douglass:  America’s Prophet is available now in both print and ebook editions.


The Night Frederick Douglass Resolved to Learn How to Read

Frederick Douglass loved words. He believed a well-used word—either spoken or written—had immense power. They could be used to proclaim truth to a world too often gone awry. After escaping from slavery, Douglass made a living dealing in words, as an author, orator, and editor. Of the many pivotal moments in his long life, few mattered more, in the end, than the night young Frederick first resolved to learn how to read.

Frederick had been born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1818. He spent much of his young life on the vast plantation estate of the elite Lloyd family, where Frederick’s master worked as the chief overseer. But as an eight-year-old, Frederick was sent to Baltimore to live with a Hugh and Sophia Auld. It was here, in the Auld Family home in Baltimore, that Frederick traced his earliest desire to learn to read.

One Sunday evening, after Frederick had fallen asleep under a table in Auld home, he awoke to the sound of Sophia reading aloud from the Bible. By chance, she happened that evening to be reading from the Book of Job. Frederick heard these words:

There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was perfect and upright, and one that feared God, and eschewed evil … And there came a messenger unto Job, and said, The oxen were plowing, and the asses feeding beside them: And the Sabeans fell upon them, and took them away … While he was yet speaking, there came also another, and said, Thy sons and thy daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house: And, behold, there came a great wind from the wilderness, and smote the four corners of the house, and it fell upon the young men, and they are dead … Then Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped, And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Job, though blameless, lost his family and his livelihood. Frederick saw in Job’s anguish something of his own. Why had he been separated from his beloved mother and grandmother, just as Job had lost his children? Why do the righteous suffer and the evil prosper? This was a question Frederick had asked as a slave child who had witnessed the horrors of slavery and could not understand why he was fated to a life in bondage. Frederick had heard stories of slaves murdered in cold blood for the slightest acts of disobedience. He had even witnessed another young enslaved woman stripped naked and brutally beaten. He forever carried these memories in his heart and mind. The tragic fates of countless slaves forced Frederick as a young boy to confront the perplexing problem of evil—to try to make some sense of the world’s wickedness and human suffering.

And one night, half-awake under the Auld family table, Frederick heard of a man named Job who suffered and asked God the same questions that young Frederick had asked on the Eastern Shore. Even more remarkably, Job offered up a blessing to God in the midst of his unimaginable suffering. Frederick decided he had to know more about this man Job. He reckoned it would require learning to read.


D. H. Dilbeck is a historian living in New Haven, Connecticut, and author of A More Civil War.  You can read his previous UNC Press blog post here.