When Douglas was a young boy, he was sent to live and work for his owner's relatives in Baltimore. Mrs. Sophia Auld, his new master's wife, was a newlywed who did not yet know the expected norms of slave society. She was kind to Douglass and began to teach him to read. However, when her husband found out, he quickly put a stop to the lessons, saying it would "unfit" Douglass for slavery. When Douglass overheard what Mr. Auld said, he was all the more determined to read, as he already knew he did not want to be a slave.
Douglass noted that he had far more freedom in Baltimore than on the plantation. In general, he said, slaves were better treated in a city because of the proximity of neighbors: fear of social censure from their neighbors made whites less willing to abuse their slaves. The young Douglass was often sent on errands around the city, which gave him a chance to meet and interact with whites. He took a book with him and would ask white boys to help him read. Often these were poor or working class lads who were hungry and would help him in exchange for bread, of which he had supplies from Mrs. Auld's kitchen.
Douglass, in short, was able to learn to read, first through the kindness of Mrs. Auld (who soon enough, he said, was transformed by her husband and others into a hard-hearted owner), then through his own determination and ingenuity in seeking out help, and finally through the good fortune of living in a city, where he had a chance to interact with others.