“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:
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:
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.
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.
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".