The Magical Root That Helped To Keep Frederick Douglass Alive

frederick douglass photo
Briona Lamback
July 13, 2023

The gaping wound on Frederick Douglass' head was still fresh and soft to the touch. "Ouch!" he wailed, glancing down at the rope looping his ankle. His chest slammed to the ground, jolting him enough to remember what was in his right pocket.

Douglass spent months being brutalized by Covey, an enslaver temporarily "renting" him for the year. His body was growing weak, and his spirit was, too.

The night before, he ran into his friend Sandy Jenkins just as he contemplated returning to the plantation to be whipped or starving to death in the wilderness.  Douglass broke down, telling Sandy everything about the hell he was living.

Sandy listened, leading Douglass through the woods, searching for a root he insisted they find. Douglass followed along, believing only in the benevolence of his friend. 

Then they spotted it. High John the Conqueror, Sandy promised it would protect him from future whippings. Douglass wasn't convinced but couldn't ignore Sandy's certainty. He slipped the High John into his right pocket before returning to the plantation.

When Covey attempted to attack him, Douglass remembered the root, gripped him by the neck, and fought back. Convey never laid a finger on Douglass again.

Whether a root or prayer, belief in ourselves, can carry us through. Despite not believing in root magic, Frederick Douglass trusted his and Sandy's intuition to imagine a liberated future.

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