Frederick Douglass (1818-1895) was an escaped slave who became one of the most charismatic and forceful leaders of the American abolition movement. He spent the most productive 25 years of his life in Rochester, where he excelled as an orator and as the editor of the newspaper The North Star and other renowned anti-slavery publications.
He was born Frederick Bailey, his mother a slave, his father presumably a white plantation owner. Frederick learned to read in childhood. As a young man he briefly embraced Christianity but soon abandoned it, observing that the religion did so little to soften the behavior of slave owners. At the age of 20 he made his daring escape. (In later life, he would remark that “Praying for freedom never did me any good til I started praying with my feet.”) He adopted the colorful surname “Douglass” from a character in a book by Sir Walter Scott. He was soon a popular speaker at abolition meetings.
In 1847, Douglass came to Rochester. Amid a community rich with reform-minded people, he hoped to establish himself as a national figure in the anti-slavery movement. He succeeded. His newspaper The North Star was widely influential. The building where he published it – and sometimes hid fugitive slaves – still stands.
Douglass built warm friendships in Rochester’s abolitionist community, among them the radical Quakers Isaac and Amy Post (his hosts when he first came to the city) and the famed abolitionist and feminist activist Susan B. Anthony.
Douglass was also a close associate of millionaire abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who generously supported abolition activism and the Underground Railroad from his estate in Peterboro, New York. In the December 8, 1848 edition of The North Star, Douglass reserved the front page for these words by African American abolitionist Henry Highland Garnet: “There are yet two places where slaveholders cannot come, Heaven and Peterboro.” Douglass would later dedicate his second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), to Smith.
In July 1848, Douglass accompanied Amy Post to Seneca Falls, New York, where they attended the Woman’s Rights Convention that sparked the 19th century woman suffrage movement. The site of this historic convention has been restored and also houses an impressive museum, all operated by the National Park Service. In the museum, an assemblage of life-size statues of conference participants includes an excellent likeness of Douglass.
Angered by passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Douglass delivered his famous “Fifth of July” address on July 5, 1852, at Rochester’s Corinthian Hall. In thunderous language he condemned America’s July Fourth holiday as a hollow fraud because there was neither dignity nor freedom for Americans whose skin was black. He reserved some of his harshest language for pro-slavery Christian clergymen: "I would say welcome infidelity! welcome atheism! welcome anything! in preference to the gospel as preached by those divines! They convert the very name of religion into a barbarous cruelty." Many historians consider this the most important anti-slavery speech of the years leading up to the Civil War. Sadly, its site is now a city parking structure.
Douglass was a good friend of the agnostic orator Robert Green Ingersoll. Douglass once remarked that Ingersoll and Lincoln were the only white men in whose company "he could be without feeling he was regarded as inferior to them."
Douglass owned two homes in Rochester – one close to downtown, its site unmarked, the other outside the city limits (though well inside them today). The latter site contains a highly informative historical marker. During and after the Civil War Douglass became a figure of international stature and spent much of his time in Washington, D.C. In 1872, he and his family moved permanently to the nation’s capital after a suspicious fire destroyed their home in rural Rochester.
Douglass died in Washington on February 10, 1895. Following funeral and memorial services there, his remains were brought to Rochester where on February 10 a large memorial service was held at the city’s Central Church. A large delegation accompanied his body to Mount Hope Cemetery, where his gravesite is now a principal attraction. A statue of Douglass by sculptor Sidney W. Edwards was installed before the city’s train station in 1899; in 1941 it was moved to a location overlooking the Highland Park Bowl, where it still stands today.
Douglass’s credentials, not only as an opponent of slavery but as a freethinker, are robust. To add but one further example, consider this 1870 open letter to the Philadelphia Press: “During forty years of moral effort to overthrow slavery in this country, this system with all its hell-black horrors and crimes, found no more secure shelter anywhere than amid the popular religious cant of the day. One honest Abolitionist was a greater terror to slaveholders than whole acres of camp-meeting preachers shouting glory to God.” If slavery were to be destroyed, Douglass believed, human beings would have to do it for themselves. And so they did.