Douglass, Frederick. “My Escape from Slavery.”
The Century Illustrated Magazine 23, n. s. 1 (Nov. 1881): 125-131.
MY ESCAPE FROM SLAVERY
In the first narrative of my experience in slavery, written nearly
Forty years ago, and in various writings since, I have given
The public what I considered very good reasons for withholding
The manner of my escape. In substance these reasons were, first,
That such publication at any time during the existence of slavery
Might be used by the master against the slave, and prevent
The future escape of any who might adopt the same means that I did.
The second reason was, if possible, still more binding to silence:
The publication of details would certainly have put in peril
The persons and property of those who assisted. Murder itself was
Not more sternly and certainly punished in the State of Maryland
Than that of aiding and abetting the escape of a slave.
Many colored men, for no other crime than that of giving aid to
A fugitive slave, have, like Charles T. Torrey, perished in prison.
The abolition of slavery in my native State and throughout the country,
And the lapse of time, render the caution hitherto observed
No longer necessary. But even since the abolition of slavery,
I have sometimes thought it well enough to baffle curiosity
By saying that while slavery existed there were good reasons
For not telling the manner of my escape, and since slavery
Had ceased to exist, there was no reason for telling it.
I shall now, however, cease to avail myself of this formula, and,
As far as I can, endeavor to satisfy this very natural curiosity.
I should, perhaps, have yielded to that feeling sooner, had there been
Anything very heroic or thrilling in the incidents connected with
My escape, for I am sorry to say I have nothing of that sort to
Tell; and yet
the courage that could risk betrayal and the bravery
Which was ready to encounter death, if need be, in pursuit of
Freedom, were essential features in the undertaking. My success
Was due to address rather than courage, to good luck rather than
Bravery. My means of escape were provided for me by the very men
Who were making laws to hold and bind me more securely in slavery.
It was the custom in the State of Maryland to require the free
Colored people to have what were called free papers.
These instruments they were required to renew very often,
And by charging a fee for this writing, considerable sums from
Time to time were collected by the State. In these papers the name,
Age, color, height, and form of the freeman were described,
Together with any scars or other marks upon his person which
Could assist in his identification. This device in some measure
Defeated itself – since more than one man could be found to answer
The same general description. Hence many slaves could escape
By personating the owner of one set of papers; and this was often done
As follows: A slave, nearly or sufficiently answering the description
Set forth in the papers, would borrow or hire them till by means of them
He could escape to a free State, and then, by mail or otherwise,
Would return them to the owner. The operation was a hazardous one for
The lender as well as for the borrower. A failure on the part of
The fugitive to send back the papers would imperil his benefactor,
And the discovery of the papers in possession of the wrong man
Would imperil both the fugitive and his friend. It was, therefore,
An act of supreme trust on the part of a freeman of color thus to