A wealth of details was recorded about the day Frederick Douglass died as a free man in Washington, D.C. It was February 20, 1895. Douglass’s movements in the hours before his death were laid out in the New York Times obituary published the following day: He spent the morning at the Congressional library, then traveled to Metzerott Hall for sessions of the National Council of Women of the United States, staying through the afternoon; in the early evening he returned home, had dinner with his wife, and was standing and talking to her about the Women’s Council when, suddenly, he had a heart attack and “dropped dead in the hallway” at 7 p.m.
Comparatively, little is known about the day Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland as Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. Douglass himself was never even able to pinpoint exactly which day it was. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, begins not with his birthday but with its aching absence:
I was born in Tuckahoe, near Hillsborough, and about 12 miles from Easton, in Talbot county, Maryland. I have no accurate knowledge of my age, never having seen any authentic record containing it. By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant. I do not remember to have ever met a slave who could tell of his birthday. They seldom come nearer to it than planting-time, harvest-time, cherry-time, spring-time, or fall-time. A want of information concerning my own was a source of unhappiness to me even during childhood. The white children could tell their ages. I could not tell why I ought to be deprived of the same privilege. I was not allowed to make any inquiries of my master concerning it. He deemed all such inquiries on the part of a slave improper and impertinent, and evidence of a restless spirit.
After Douglass escaped bondage and fled north in 1838, he took on a new surname and eventually, though the exact date continued to elude him, chose to celebrate his birthday annually on February 14. As the year of his birth was recorded as 1818, that means February 14, 2018 marked the 200th anniversary of his adopted birth date.