When about seven years old, he was transferred to new owners in Baltimore, where his kind-hearted mistress, who did not know that in doing so she was breaking the law, taught him the alphabet. He thus got possession of the key which was to unlock his bonds, and, young as he was, he knew it. It did not matter that his master, when he learned what had been done, forbade his wife to give the boy further instructions. He had already tasted of the fruit of the tree of knowledge. The prohibition was useless. Neither threats nor stripes nor chains could hold the awakened soul in bondage.
With infinite pains and patience, and by stealth, he enlarged upon his knowledge of the alphabet. An old copy of “Webster’s Spelling Book,” cast aside by his young master, as his greatest treasure. With the aid of a few good-natured white boys, who sometimes played with him in the streets, he quickly mastered its contents. Then he cast about for further means to satisfy his mental craving. How difficult it was for the poor, despised slave to do this, we learn from his own pathetic words. “I have gathered,” he says, “scattered pages of the Bible from the filthy street gutters, and washed and dried them, that, in moments of leisure, I might get a word or two of wisdom from them.”
Think of that, boys and girls of the twentieth century, with your day schools and evening schools, libraries, colleges, and universities,—picking reading material from the gutter and mastering it by stealth! Yet this boy grew up to be the friend and co-worker of Garrison and Phillips, the eloquent spokesman of his race, the honored guest of distinguished peers and commoners of England, one of the noblest examples of a self-made man that the world has ever seen.
Under equal hardships he learned to write. The boy’s wits, sharpened instead of blunted by repression, saw opportunities where more favored children could see none. He gave himself his first writing lesson in his master’s shipyard, by copying from the various pieces of timber the letters with which they had been marked by the carpenters, to show the different parts of the ship for which they were intended. He copied from posters on fences, from old copy books, from anything and everything he could get hold of. He practiced his new art on pavements and rails, and entered into contests in letter making with white boys, in order to add to his knowledge. “With playmates for my teachers,” he says, “fences and pavements for my copy books, and chalk for my pen and ink, I learned to write.”
While being “broken in” to field labor under the lash of the overseer, chained and imprisoned for the crime of attempting to escape from slavery, the spirit of the youth never quailed. He believed in himself, in his God-given powers, and he was determined to use them in freeing himself and his race.