After he escaped from slavery in Baltimore in early September 1838, Frederick Bailey was broke, homeless, and scared. As he huddled among barrels in New York City’s Chambers Street dock, the man who later became known as Frederick Douglass worried about slave catchers and rats. Suddenly a large black man wearing a stove pipe hat, spectacles, and a formal jacket and pants emerged and invited Douglass to his home at 36 Lispenard Street, just a few blocks away.
Douglass’ savior was none other than David Ruggles, a free black man who was the secretary and general organizer of the New York Committee of Vigilance or NYCV, an abolitionist organization that battled slave catchers, kidnappers, and slave traders—and offered succor to hundreds of self-liberated people.
David Ruggles was arguably the first full-time black activist in the United States. He operated New York’s first library and bookstore for black people, edited and sold newspapers and magazines, and founded a black high school and a literary society. An innovator, he combined his activism with commerce by operating a grocery that only sold products made without enslaved labor. Over the course of his life, Ruggles was a true 19th-century Renaissance Man, a visionary political leader, a savvy street fighter, and a healer. He didn’t share Frederick Douglass’ fame or good fortune, but he was an indelible influence on the younger man—crucial to forging the legend that Douglass was to become.
In his 1845 narrative and in subsequent writings, Douglass used capital letters when he credited Ruggles with saving his freedom. He wasn’t being hyperbolic. Having fled from slavery in Maryland, Douglass was highly vulnerable to slave catchers or “black birds” who preyed upon northern African Americans, seizing them to exchange for cash and shipment into perpetual bondage in the South. During Douglass’ first 10 days out of enslavement, it was Ruggles’ home he stayed in as he launched his life as a free man. There Douglass married his fiancé, Anna Murray, in a ceremony at Ruggles’ house officiated by Reverend James W. C. Pennington, who escaped from slavery himself in 1828 and now served as pastor of the First Congregational Church of Hartford, Connecticut.
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