Frederick Douglass

First African American Marshal
Frederick Doulglass. Courtesy of the National Archives.

Frederick Douglass was born in 1818 in Maryland, the son of a slave mother and a white father.  As a child, he was spared many of the worst horrors of slave life, but realized at a young age that the life he led was not normal. Around age eight he was sent to live with the Auld Family in Baltimore as a house slave. Mrs. Auld took compassion on Frederick and began teaching him to read and write. When Mr. Auld found out he was furious, and demanded the lessons stop immediately. But a thirst for knowledge had been awakened in young Frederick, and he continued to study on his own, or sometimes traded food or other tidbits to neighborhood boys in return for help and time with their school books. 

Around age 15, his life took a dramatic turn for the worse when he was sent to work as field hand. Here, he experienced some of the most horrifying conditions of slavery. He was eventually returned to the Auld home in Baltimore. After a first failed attempt to run away, he successfully escaped by disguising himself as a sailor and acquiring forged papers provided by a free black seaman. He fled to New York, where he married his first wife Anna Murray, a free black woman he had met in Baltimore. The couple settled in New Bedford, MA.

In 1841, around age 23, Douglass attended his first anti-slavery meetings, and soon was a regular speaker. In 1845, a narrative of his life was published. The book, and his name, spread like wildfire. Since he was still a slave, the popularity forced Frederick and Anna to move to Europe for two years. While there, his supporters helped him raise the money to purchase his freedom and return to the United States. Upon returning, he launched his own anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, and continued to advocate freedom for slaves. During the Civil War he served as an advisor to President Abraham Lincoln, and played a crucial role in recruiting men for the all black 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

Douglass' law enforcement career began in 1877, when he was appointed as police commissioner for the District of Columbia. Later that year, he was appointed U.S. Marshal for the District by President Rutherford B. Hayes, the first African American selected for that office. In an article published in the Marshals Monitor, Dave Turk, Historian for the U.S. Marshals Service, wrote, “His place in society had come full circle. Runaway slaves-as he once was-were routinely chased down by U.S. Marshals, and here he was serving the government as that very same emblem of the law.” 1 Douglass served as Marshal from 1877-1881.

After leaving the Marshals office, Douglass served in various other government positions. He was the Recorder of Deeds for the District of Columbia, the American consul general in Haiti, and the charge d’affaires in the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo. He retired from government service in 1891, and settled into life with his second wife, Helen Pitts, a white woman Douglass married after the death of his first wife in 1882. Frederick Douglass died at Cedar Hill, in his home in Washington, D.C., on February 20, 1895. Cedar Hill is now a property of the National Park Service and is one of the only restored homes of a U.S. Marshal open to the public.


1 Turk, David. “First Black U.S. Marshal left an American Legacy: Frederick Douglass’ powerful stature, character served him well in all circles,” Marshals Monitor (January-February 2002): p 4-5.