Sophia Auld Teaches Douglass to Read

It was here, under the instruction of Mrs.

Auld that young Frederick first learned the alphabet. However it did not last long, for when Mr. Auld discovered these lessons he strictly forbade it in words that left a profound impression on young Frederick; that while knowledge and learning of the world around him could bring him great unhappiness, it could also give him great power over his enslavers who preferred their chattel to remain ignorant and unthinking. "He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right;"--Ch. 10, ibid. Frederick earnestly set forth a plan to continue to learn to read and write on the sly, aided by the white children he met on the streets and among the shipyards and docks. A book that especially left an impression on him was Caleb Bingham's The Columbian Orator (1797) which contains a poignant conversation between a master and his slave, who successfully argues for his freedom. In the city Frederick witnessed a kinder, gentler slave owner, averse to the public, severe, and humiliating treatments of slaves he had so often witnessed on the plantations.

When Douglass was about twelve, Hugh Auld's wife Sophia started teaching him the alphabet. She was breaking the law against teaching slaves to read. When Hugh Auld discovered this, he strongly disapproved, saying that if a slave learned to read, he would become dissatisfied with his condition and desire freedom. Douglass later referred to this statement as the first anti-abolitionist speech he had ever heard. As detailed in his autobiography Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845), Douglass succeeded in learning to read from white children in the neighborhood and by observing the writings of men with whom he worked.