Frederick Douglass: An African-American Patriarch of Public Relations

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Jamaal R. Bell, MCM, APR
FrazierHeiby, Director of Strategic Communication

Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, is one of the most influential black leaders of the 19th century. He was born a slave and became a renowned writer and speaker. While enslaved in Baltimore, Sophia Auld was teaching a young Douglass to read until her husband and slaveowner Thomas Auld caught her. As a punishment, Douglass was sent to the notorious “slave-breaker” Edward Covey for reeducation.

Covey owned a small slave breeding farm that additionally offered obedience training for young or unruly slaves. Covey and his training team used strategies such as 24-hour surprise beatings, sexual abuse, isolation, surveillance, mutilation, food deprivation, and brainwashing. Covey’s employees used these torture techniques to increase obedience, productivity, and submissive behavior. In his autobiography, Douglass said he was “broken in body, soul, and spirit”— until one day, he bravely stood up to Covey, and they fought physically. Subsequently, Covey no longer whipped Douglass, and Douglass recovered his sense of self.

Covey sent Douglass back to the Aulds. He escaped and settled with his wife in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where there was a thriving community of free blacks, and started a family.

Frederick Douglass’s Impact on Communications

In 1848 after returning from the United Kingdom, British supporters bought his freedom and helped him launch his abolitionist weekly newspaper “The North Star.” He also became a sought-after speaker against slavery.  In the same year, he was the only black male to speak and participate in the first Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls, New York. Victoria Woodhull and Elizabeth Cady Stanton hosted the event. In 1872, Woodhull ran for US President for the Equal Rights Party with Douglass as her vice-presidential running mate. Their campaign was two years after the 15th Amendment and 48 years before the 19th Amendment!

Douglass used his abilities to deliver a clear message through a variety of mediums and audiences. Further became an advisor for President Lincoln and Johnson. Although Douglass is before the Ivy Lee and Edward Bernays Era of public relations, he intentionally communicated and advocated for abolition and fighting against Jim Crow laws. Before the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) was established, Douglass upheld the ethical values of PRSA:

  • Advocacy
  • Honesty
  • Loyalty
  • Expertise
  • Independence
  • Fairness

Douglass’s impact on the power of the spoken and written word to move people into action is in the same company as Socrates, Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, Jr., Emmeline Pankhurst, and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Please take 10 minutes to explore the links and celebrate and reflect on Douglass’s contributions to our nation and our profession.


About the Author: Jamaal Bell, MCM, APR is a strategic communicator, content creator, and filmmaker, bringing more than 14 years of experience to his role as Director of Strategic Communication at FrazierHeiby. He is the director of the award-winning documentary, “Free To Ride.” Free To Ride is the story of the relentless spirit of community leaders from across Dayton, Ohio who overcame a suburban contingent fearfully opposed to the expansion of public transit along a commercial corridor, and the system of checks and balances that allowed justice and reason to prevail. Stay connected via LinkedIn @JamaalBell by email at jamaal@fhcommunicate.com.