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Douglass is born a slave on Colonel Lloyd's plantation in Maryland.
As he recounts his childhood in the first few chapters, his memories range from the just kind of bad to the really bad.
When his mother dies, he isn't allowed to go to her funeral. Then again, he's only met her a handful of times.
He is traumatized by seeing his Aunt Hester beaten badly by her master.
When he's slightly older, a really bad overseer, Mr. Severe, is replaced by a kind of bad overseer, Mr. Hopkins.
But then Mr. Hopkins is replaced by a really, really bad overseer, Mr. Gore.
One day Douglass watches Mr. Gore shoot a slave in the face.
When Douglass is about seven, something good finally happens: he is sent to Baltimore to work for a new master, Mr. Auld.
In Baltimore, Mrs. Auld starts to teach him to read, but when Mr. Auld makes her stop, Douglass learns an invaluable lesson: education must be a powerful thing!
He continues to learn to read when his master isn't around, mostly by making friends with white children who haven't yet learned to treat him badly.
When Colonel Lloyd dies, Douglass has to return to the plantation in Maryland, while the lawyers decide how the inheritance will be divided up.
This is a traumatic event for everyone involved. Families are separated and many slaves are sent away from the only home they've ever known.
All of his grandmother's children are taken away from her, and since she is quite old, she is sent off into the woods to die.
Douglass is one of the lucky ones; he gets sent back to Baltimore. But he doesn't get to stay there long before he is sent back to work for Master Thomas in the countryside.
Master Thomas is a terrible master, who doesn't feed his slaves nearly enough. Douglass wishes he had taken the opportunity to escape while he was still in Baltimore.
When Douglass argues with Master Thomas, Thomas gets fed up and sends him to work for a year for a farmer named Covey.
At first Douglass is optimistic and thinks he might finally get enough to eat. But Covey has a reputation as a slave-breaker, and he immediately sets to work "breaking" Douglass.
After six months of regular beatings and back-breaking work as a field hand, Douglass tells us that his spirit is broken.
He has an epiphany while watching some ships sailing on the Chesapeake Bay. He sees the ships sailing free and delivers a big emotional speech about freedom.
One day, Douglass decides he has nothing to lose, and when Covey tries to whip him, he fights back. After a long confrontation, Covey retreats and never whips him again. Douglass then makes a vow that he will sooner die than be whipped again.
After his year at Covey's farm is over, Douglass gets hired out to a new master, Mr. Freeland.
Mr. Freeland is a much better master than Covey, but when Douglass starts teaching other slaves to read, a group of the local slave masters bursts into their little schoolroom and chases them out with sticks and clubs.
Even though Mr. Freeland is a relatively good master, Douglass has decided he wants to live in a real "free land."
When Douglass gets together with a bunch of other slaves to figure out how to escape, one of the slaves tells the masters and they all get caught.
Douglass is blamed for the escape attempt and sent back to work for Mr. Auld.
For some reason, Mr. Auld sends Douglass to Baltimore, renting him out to a ship-builder, from whom he begins to learn a trade.
Douglass works side by side with white workers on the docks but eventually gets in a fight when the white carpenters try to beat him up.
Douglass escapes from slavery! He doesn't give us any details; he just tells us that he made his way to New York.
He gets married.
He decides that New York is unsafe for him, so he and his wife move to New Bedford, Massachusetts.
He subscribes to an abolitionist magazine and starts becoming involved with the cause.
The book ends with Douglass speaking about his experiences at an anti-slavery convention.