February 5, 2012

Douglass, Nell, and The North Star

With the publication of his autobiography about his own escape from enslavement, Frederick Douglass dedicated himself to speaking out against slavery. He also established an abolitionist newspaper in New York called The North Star in December 1847. Soon after, however, his lecture duties took him to Massachusetts and he left his newspaper in the capable hands of William Cooper Nell (who was born free in Boston). In a letter to Nell dated February 5, 1848 (also meant for publication in The North Star), Douglass apologized for his absence:

I very much regret the necessity which just at this time requires me to be absent from my editorial duties: for though the North Star should grow brighter as the night grows older and darker, I deem it of considerable importance that it appear bright at its very dawn. At this time more than at any other period of our enterprise, the Star will be subject to unfriendly as well as friendly criticism. I however feel confident that with the friendly aid which surrounds you, the paper will lack nothing of interest during my unavoidable absence.

The newspaper was then only about a month old and Douglass took the opportunity to add subscribers during his travels. He particularly hoped to "interest and enlist the energies of our colored fellow countrymen" to sustain the newspaper for their "improvement and elevation." As editor and publisher, he was particularly proud to note that The North Star was "the only permanently established periodical in the hands of the oppressed and enslaved of this land." Even so, Douglass noted, white subscribers outnumbered blacks five to one. "Though this fact indicates a most gratifying interest in our enterprise by our white friends," he wrote, "it reveals a palpable deficiency of interest on the part of our colored friends."

One black supporter was Henry Highland Garnet, a man born enslaved in Maryland. In his letter to Nell, Douglass notes that Garnet attended one of his lectures and expressed an interest in their newspaper. Garnet particularly praised the publication's lack of affiliations; most newspapers at the time were connected either to political parties or religious sects. The North Star, however, was separate from both "slaveholding government" and "slaveholding church."

Douglass's anti-slavery lecture tour took him from Springfield to Lynn to Fall River in Massachusetts. He was disappointed by his varying amounts of success. Even so, he looked forward to his upcoming stop in New Bedford. There, he noted, was "the only town in which I have felt myself really at home since I left the South." New Bedford was where Douglass settled after freeing his enslavers and he proudly and fondly recalled it as the place of his first freedom and where he earned his first dollar. It also is where he assumed his name "Douglass."

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