Frederick Douglass Life and Legacy in Rochester, NY

“The best defense of free American institutions is the hearts of the American people themselves” Frederick Douglass.

As relevant now as when he first said it in the 1800’s.  For Black History Month I wanted to look at Douglass’ life and legacy in my hometown of Rochester, NY.  His presence is felt throughout the city.  His name evoked at rallies and speeches and celebrated on numerous bridges, roads, and schools.  Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester, NY longer than anywhere else in his life, but, unlike Susan B. Anthony, there’s no house or museum to commemorate his work.  Continue reading for where you can catch glimpses of the noted abolitionist, writer, and orator Frederick Douglass around Rochester, NY.

Frederick Douglass Rochester, NY

Frederick Douglass statue overlooks the Highland Park Bowl in Rochester, NY

Douglass was born into slavery as Frederick Bailey in February 1818 on Maryland’s Lloyd Plantation.  Like many, he did not know his actual birthday, but often celebrated it on February 14.  Around age 6 he was moved to Wye Plantation, and saw his mother few times afterwards.  He escaped from slavery in 1838, changed his name to Douglass to conceal his identity until supporters purchased his freedom.  In 1847 Frederick Douglass arrived in Rochester, NY where he lived longer than any other place in his life.

Frederick Douglass Rochester, NY

Frederick Douglass street art in Rochester, NY

It was in Rochester where Frederick Douglass founded and published the North Star, his first anti-slavery newspaper that ran between 1847 to 1851.  Between 1851-1860 the name changed to the Frederick Douglass’ Paper.  The building where Frederick Douglass worked still stands in downtown Rochester at 25 E. Main Street, and is thought to also be a stop on the Underground Railroad.

Frederick Douglass Rochester, NY

Lobby of building where Frederick Douglass published his antislavery newspapers in Rochester, NY

Frederick Douglass Rochester, NY

Plaque on outside of building denotes the site where Frederick Douglass published his antislavery newspapers in Rochester, NY

Frederick Douglass Rochester, NY

Across the street from the nondescript building (behind bus shelter) where Frederick Douglass published his antislavery newspapers in Rochester, NY

Whereas Susan B. Anthony’s Rochester house was preserved and has an interpretive museum next door, Frederick Douglass’ homestead has not survived.  In 1852, Frederick Douglass moved with his family to a farm just outside the Rochester city limits (currently 999 South Avenue).  He lived here with his wife, Anna, and five children for 18 years – except for a year after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry when Douglass fled to Canada and England.  During this time many fugitive slaves stayed at the Douglass farm on their way to freedom and Canada.

Frederick Douglass Rochester, NY

Interpretive marker for the site of Frederick Douglass’ home in Rochester, NY.

By 1870, Frederick Douglass spent much of his time in Washington DC working to pass the 15th Amendment giving African-American Males (but not females to Susan B. Anthony’s displeasure) the right to vote.  In 1872, while Douglass was in DC, the farm that stood on this site was destroyed by fire.  Arson was suspected.  Frederick Douglass and his family left Rochester permanently for Washington DC.  He would never return until his death.  Currently on the site is Rochester Public School #12 for grades K-6, and in 2016, the community library was re-named for Frederick Douglass as part of the school campus.

Frederick Douglass Rochester, NY

Frederick Douglass Community Library on the former site of the Douglass Farm in Rochester, NY

February 10, 1895, Frederick Douglass died of a heart attack in his Cedar Hill home in Washington DC.  Following a memorial service in DC, his remains were transported back to Rochester where his body laid in state at City Hall prior to a funeral at the Central Church (currently Rochester’s Hochstein Music School).  Frederick Douglass is buried in Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery with his wife Anna who passed away in 1882.

Frederick Douglass Rochester, NY

Burial site of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, NY’s Mt. Hope Cemetery

Following the passing of Frederick Douglass, a statue was commissioned and created by sculptor Sidney W. Edwards.  The 8-foot tall likeness was unveiled in 1899 at the Rochester train station in a ceremony attended by New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt.  The Edwards’ statue is thought to be the first memorial to an African American anywhere in the United States.  The statue was moved to its current location in Highland Park in 1941, and the base contains numerous memorable quotes from Douglass’ speeches (like the one that started this post).

Frederick Douglass Rochester, NY

Frederick Douglass statue overlooks the Highland Park Bowl in Rochester, NY

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.