Friday, March 24, 2023

Like Frederick Douglass, Our Freedom Stories Start With Education

September 3rd isn’t really recognized by anyone as a day to celebrate freedom, but it is for me. 

For the last few months, I’ve been blessed to work on a project that’s been personally and professionally meaningful: Creating a place where people like me who believe in limited government and the rights and responsibilities granted by the Constitution can talk about improving our public education system and inspire people to engage in their own schools and communities. This is Project Forever Free.

The name was inspired by a quote widely attributed to Frederick Douglass, the daring slave who learned to read and freed himself. He said, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” 

Whether he said those exact words or not, the sentiment of learning to read, and learning in general as a catalyst for freedom, is well documented.

In 1835, the day before Easter, Frederick Douglass made his first attempt to escape slavery. He had forged protection papers for himself and three other slaves, but the slave owners discovered their plan before Douglass and his friends even left. Someone had betrayed them. Once caught, they were “literally dragged” by horses for 15 miles to the jail.

The next year, he tried and failed again. 

In 1837 he met and fell in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman who would later give him a sailor suit for a disguise and money from her savings for his travel costs when he made his third attempt. 

On September, 3, 1838, 181 years ago today, he boarded a train in Baltimore with identification papers and protection papers he’d gotten from a free black seaman. He continued by rail into Delaware, another slave state, boarded a steam boat along the Delaware River until arriving in the “Quaker City” of Phildelphia, an anti-slavery stronghold. Finally, less than 24 hours after beginning this perilous journey, he arrived at the house of David Ruggles, a well-known abolitionist, in New York City.

He was free.

But his freedom story didn’t start with those attempts to escape slavery. When he was about 12 years old, he heard his master’s wife reading the Bible and asked if she would teach him to read. She agreed. 

Soon he had learned to “put words of three or four letters together.” His teacher, excited by his progress, shared the news with her husband, not realizing how he would react. As Douglass explains it in his autobiography, “here arose the first dark cloud over my Baltimore experience.” While forbidding his wife to continue the lessons, Master Hugh taught Douglass a lesson that would change the course of his life. 

“Learning will spoil the best nigger in the world,” Hugh said. “If he learns to read the bible it will forever unfit him to be a slave… If you teach him to read, he’ll want to know how to write, and this accomplished, he’ll be running away with himself.”

Douglass said this was the first “decidedly antislavery lecture” he’d ever heard. “This was a new and special revelation, dispelling a painful mystery against which my youthful understanding had struggled, and struggled in vain, to wit, the white man’s power to perpetuate the enslavement of the black man… and from that moment on, I understood the direct pathway from slavery to freedom.”

Today, as we launch Project Forever Free, it’s a lesson for all of us. Freedom is more than a physical state. It’s more than a binary proposition of being either free or not. Freedom comes in degrees. And the more knowledge a child, or any person, for that matter, can acquire, the freer he or she will become.

Education is a key to growing that freedom. It unlocks the shackles that bind us to poverty, ignorance, and stagnation. It opens doors to opportunity, personal strength, and an increased ability to give back to others. It lifts the soul.

But too often, too many students are consigned to a school that just doesn’t work for them, or in some cases one that works against them. They move from grade to grade, learning little and getting increasingly discouraged about their prospects in life.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Every child has potential. And every one of us can speak up for our own children and for our neighbors. We can demand accountability from our school boards and engage them on the latest research and whether or not they should make a change.

So as you reflect on Frederick Douglass’s self-emancipation and the bondage of ignorance, I hope you’ll join us because this project to make our children free is just beginning.

Lane Wright
Lane Wright is a writer for Project Forever Free, and the director of partnerships at Education Post. He tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better, and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida's former Governor, Rick Scott. He specializes in breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand concepts. Lane and his wife life in Tallahassee, Florida with their three children, two of whom attend a public charter school.


  1. Thank you for this fine article. I shared information about F.D. with youngsters in the cohort I am assigned to in a public school, in So. Cal. I shared this particular quote about freedom because during the Black History Month I wish to impress upon the students the blessings of a free society and universal education, especially because people like Frederick Douglass devoted themselves to securing it. Reading of his journey even in this short story was very powerful. I want our young people to see that wherever they are, they can choose to disregard the naysayers and forge ahead to build lives for themselves worth having.Thank for setting up this website. I am currently filling a position (normally Sp.Ed.)newly created because of the pandemic to provide in person support for students that can not be at home, as they distance learn. We are not just babysitters though. We provide a variety of supports and enrichment as we are able to in the context of our district’s current situation. So thankful to be employed and getting to work in person with students. So while my colleagues and I might consider the guinea pigs or the canaries in the covid cave, it is a privilege to be assigned to these particular students. And on our watch, they are making strides. Looking forward to opening, soon?California is a trainwreck
    right now. On some days, like today, I enjoy the beautiful day(I live near Orange County), as I go about my tasks. On other days I feel like I am in Tolkein’s Gondor, and the Orcs. Trolls, and Goblins are trying to break through the gate. I feel under siege by the wholly corrupt entities in charge of our government. Who are oblivious to the suffering around them, and exist as it seem to pick the flesh off our bones. Hyperbolic perhaps but 2 weeks ago has was 70 cents cheaper , I see more homelessness inspite of the increase in my taxes to pay for that. And my school district still has not given us an opening date for when we return to in person. Even though pediatricians are screaming for us to open up school. Well anyway you are on the right track and I look forward to future writings from you. Many thanks. S. L.


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