Frederick Douglass’ story began like millions of other Americans, millions too many.

Douglass’ life is much the same as many enslaved people. As one of the great abolitionist women said, “animals, horses are treated better than enslaved people.”

That’s Beverly Morgan Welch, executive director of the Museum of African American History. Born in Maryland, Douglass was taken from his mother as an infant, and then from his grandmother as a young boy.

Eventually, between deaths and sales and abuse he finds himself really alone and enslaved and treated in a manner that is entirely inhuman.

Massachusetts was the first colony in the New World to legalize slavery, but it also played a pivotal role in the fight to end it here in America.

Amidst this horror, Douglass learned to read and write – an immeasurably empowering and extremely dangerous proposition for an enslaved man.

“If you’re not secret you can end up dead, or maimed in horrible ways,” says Welch.

In 1838, around the age of 20, Douglass liberated himself, escaping north, eventually settling in New Bedford. According to Welch, Massachusetts was a natural choice, by then an established hotbed of abolitionism.

The black community in New Bedford and here in Boston have become a network by this time. They’ve been working long and hard on building churches, on erecting schools and fighting for equal school rights, for voting privileges and certainly their major goal is to end slavery in the nation.

In 1841, white leaders of the Massachusetts Anti Slavery society heard Douglass speak at a church in New Bedford, and invited him to be a keynote speaker at a crucial, enormous, three-day anti-slavery convention on Nantucket.

They are not simply getting together to have a revival meeting if you know what I mean, this is not simply about their beliefs and their angst on this issue. This is strategic.

In his first autobiography, Douglass called his speech on Nantucket a “severe cross” that he “took up reluctantly.” He still felt himself a slave and was weighed down by the thought of speaking to a largely white audience. By all accounts, it didn’t show.

“There are moments when someone stands to speak and it changes the trajectory of their life,” says Welch.

We have no transcript of Douglass’ speech that day, but we know he spoke of his life - with great command, intellectual prowess and disarming wit.

But Welch says that it is here that Douglass rises up out of that moment as the shining light.

On the heels of the speech, Douglass was asked to be a paid speaker for the cause. He would spend the next five decades as perhaps the nation’s single-most influential advocate for abolition and equal rights – and become an advisor and something of a soul mate to Abraham Lincoln during one of the most pivotal eras in American history.

Lincoln inviting him to his inauguration party and when he is held outside, Lincoln saying no, no come in this is my friend Frederick Douglass.

While it’s easy to see Douglass’ life in two distinct, separate phases, Welch reminds us Douglass accomplishments were hard earned, despite carrying the unimaginable scars – physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual – wrought by slavery.

Douglass’ work to end slavery was certainly part of the therapy for the life that he had lived as an enslaved person.

Before his death in 1895, Douglass would pen three autobiographies, become the first black man to hold major positions in the federal government, and fight for women’s suffrage. Welch says calls him simply “one of the best men that America ever made.”

He was a womanist, he was an abolitionist, he was a social activist. And he was a diplomat. An author and one of the most powerful figures in the history of the world.

Frederick Douglass. Launched onto the public stage and an historic path when he stepped to the podium at the Nantucket Athenaeum to tell his powerful his story, 174 years ago this week.

And if you have a tale of forgotten Massachusetts history to share, or there’s something you’re just plain curious about, email Edgar at curiositydesk@wgbh.org. He might just look into it for you.