Children taught Frederick Douglass to read.

“If you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him.”

These are the words of one of Frederick Douglass' slave masters. He was speaking to his wife, the mistress of the house, whom he had just discovered teaching the alphabet to the young Frederick (~age 10). Years later in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, the then free Frederick Douglass shared in full what his once master said that day:

If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell [former measurement of about a yard]. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master — to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now if you teach that nigger how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.

Douglass later relates that before this incident the mistress had "kindly commenced to teach me the A, B, C. ... [and] assisted me in learning to spell words of three or four letters.” Sadly, however, after the warning her “tender heart became stone” and she stopped all teachings.

But the young Frederick had gotten a taste of knowledge, and so was now determined to read. “Mistress, in teaching me the alphabet, had given me the inch, and no precaution could prevent me from taking the ell.”

And this is where children come into his story:

The plan which I adopted, and the one by which I was most successful, was that of making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers. With their kindly aid, obtained at different times and in different places, I finally succeeded in learning to read. When I was sent of errands, I always took my book with me, and by going one part of my errand quickly, I found time to get a lesson before my return. I used also to carry bread with me, enough of which was always in the house, and to which I was always welcome; for I was much better off in this regard than many of the poor white children in our neighborhood. This bread I used to bestow upon the hungry little urchins, who, in return, would give me that more valuable bread of knowledge.

At a time when so many adults were barbaric to the young Frederick, he turned to the aid of his peers: children. And from them he not only received practical guidance on his path to literacy, but also moral support in his struggle for liberty.

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I used to talk this matter of slavery over with [the little boys]. I would sometimes say to them, I wished I could be as free as they would be when they got to be men. “You will be free as soon as you are twenty-one, but I am a slave for life! Have not I as good a right to be free as you have?” These words used to trouble them; they would express for me the liveliest sympathy, and console me with the hope that something would occur by which I might be free.

About a decade later, Frederick Douglass heroically escaped his bondage, eventually becoming one of the most upright, learned statesmen in history — despite literally having first learned to read from little boys in the streets.

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At times we can underestimate the goodness of children, but the story of Frederick Douglass' unconventional early education is a reminder of their potential to help lift us up to great heights as adults.


*Frederick Douglass died on February 20, 1895. Though Douglass never knew for certain his birthday, it is said he chose to celebrate it on February 14, in memory of the last time he ever saw his mother, who on that day had walked twelve miles to bring him a "sweet cake ... in the shape of a heart".