Eleventh day, Tuesday March 30th
It’s a beautiful, clear sunny day, and the chill of the morning gives way to a balmy afternoon. I drive about an hour east and slightly to the south, through the lovely Finger Lakes region of New York to Seneca Falls.
I’m here to visit what’s now the Women’s Rights National Historical Park, which is headquartered at 136 Fall Street in Seneca Falls. I begin with the reconstructed Wesleyan Church next door at Fall and Mynderse Streets, the site of that momentous occasion which brings me here. I’ve long wanted to visit this place and had hoped to do so during my history of ideas travel series about Elizabeth Cady Stanton, but didn’t have enough time during that trip to make the journey, about a five hour drive from New York City one-way. But here I am at long last.
On July 19th and 20th of 1848, Frederick Douglass attended the Women’s Rights Convention here, the first women’s rights convention in the United States. This convention grew out of the abolitionist cause, directly and indirectly, to which Douglass had dedicated his life.
Directly, Stanton and her fellow abolitionist Lucretia Mott were incensed that they were forced to sit in a segregated balcony at the 1840 World Anti-Slavery Convention in London, along with all of the other female attendees. To make matters worse, women were not allowed to speak during the proceedings at all. Stanton and Mott planned to do something about the injustice that pervaded even this supposed haven of enlightened humanity. At Seneca Falls, they did, though Stanton’s activist efforts had been delayed, as would continue to be the case for many years, by frequent childbearing and resulting family responsibilities, to Susan B. Anthony’s dismay.
Indirectly, the women’s rights movement had, for many, come to be identified with the abolitionist movement, as many realized that many of the same and similar arguments for the liberation of black people applied to the liberation of women. If all human beings were equal in that they shared the same basic human nature and dignity (which according to many, was bestowed by God), they were entitled to the same political rights as any other person and had the same moral claim to just and kind treatment by their fellow human beings. If this were true for black people and for people of other races, how could this not be true for women? Women’s consciousness of their subjugated status had been growing for a long time, but it was the reform era of Stanton and Douglass that saw the first serious efforts to enact more substantial, comprehensive laws to protect and establish the political and social rights of women.
It was here that Douglass met Stanton in 1848, and they became lifelong friends, though their relationship was deeply strained at times by the same disagreements and racist rhetoric over the 14th and 15th Amendments that had marred his friendship with Susan B. Anthony. (You may remember the story of Stanton’s bad behavior in my earlier account of visiting other New York sites.) I like to imagine the tiny 5′ 3″ Stanton and the over 6′ tall Douglass, both indomitable, both intellectually gifted, sometimes deep in conversation, and sometimes delivering speeches in their very different yet forceful and convincing rhetorical styles. Douglass was the only black person in attendance at the Convention, and not only was he the only man who stood in favor of Stanton’s initial motion for a resolution calling for women’s suffrage, he was the only one to do so at first. It was initially too controversial even for most of the attendees, who were calling for better property and child custody rights. He delivered one of his trademark eloquent speeches in favor of Stanton’s motion, and it was so convincing that it passed by a narrow majority, though unfortunately, the resulting storm of media criticism caused many to withdraw their names afterwards.
Douglass’ feminism was inspired by gratitude as well as his sense of justice and intellectual commitment to logical consistency. As he wrote in his Life and Times ‘Observing woman’s agency, devotion, and efficacy in pleading the cause of the slave, gratitude for this high service early moved me to give favorable attention to the subject of what is called “woman’s rights” and caused me to be denominated a women’s-rights man. I am glad to say I have never been ashamed to be thus designated. Recognizing …moral intelligence and the ability to discern right from wrong, good from evil, and the power to choose between them, as the true basis of republican government, to which all are alike subject and all bound alike to obey, I was not long in reaching the conclusion that there was no foundation in reason or justice for woman’s exclusion from the right of choice in the selection of the persons who should frame the laws…’ (Autobiographies 906-07).
Among the varied and fascinating exhibits I see at the museum, I find two of Sojourner Truth: one a statue with a plaque telling of her momentous ‘Ain’t I a Woman?’ speech, and another a quilt, which warms my heart because as you may already know, I’m a quilter myself. Douglass referred to Sojourner Truth as his ‘good old friend’ and like Douglass, though she hoped for a peaceful end to slavery, she came to believe that war would be necessary. In an instance that he relates in his Life and Times, Truth asked him: ‘Frederick, is God dead?’ He answered: ‘No, and because God is not dead slavery can only end in blood.’ Douglass’ answer reflects sentiments found in Thomas Jefferson’s remark on slavery ‘I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just’ and in Abraham Lincoln’s words from his Second Inaugural Address: ‘Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue …until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, ….so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’.
An interesting fact I learned at the Seneca Falls museum: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Gerit Smith, Douglass’ great friend, mentor, and political ally, were cousins, and she met her future husband at Smith’s house. Smith was a philanthropist, radical politician, reformer, and activist, and a profound influence on Douglass, whose shift in views on the role of politics in reform and the correct interpretation of the Constitution brought them in closely in line with Smith’s own. Smith provided financial and moral support for Douglass’ North Star and rallied his friends to do the same, and Douglass threw his support behind Smith’s successful run for Congress in 1852, though not his unsuccessful run as a Radical Abolitionist presidential candidate against Republican Abraham Lincoln in 1860. Douglass’ pragmatism ruled in this instance, and he supported the candidacy of the latter.
Smith was also a supporter of John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, a story which we’ll return to in my next travel account.
After a thorough tour of the exhibits, I continue to Stanton’s house. Though it’s on the other side of the river, it’s officially part of the park, which includes other locations of significance in the women’s rights movement here in Seneca Falls and one in neighboring Waterloo. It appears now a very simple clapboard affair, though I learn from the Park Service historical sign that it had been about twice the size that it is now and the Stantons had a lot of work done to make it a comfortable and lovely home, naming it ‘Grassmere’ after poet William Wordsworth’s place. But Stanton was restless here, missing the busy social life she had enjoyed in Boston and bored with full-time housekeeping and child-rearing. The convention revived her spirits, as did traveling to speak at subsequent women’s rights conventions in Rochester and elsewhere, and her collaboration with Anthony, which lasted for the rest of her life. They met here in Seneca Falls three years after the 1848 convention, introduced to each other by Amelia Bloomer, for whom the early-feminist long-puffy-pants were named and which Stanton and Anthony could not be persuaded to adopt. They wanted to be taken seriously and felt the strange pants would distract from the message of their cause. They were right.
I continue my travels east toward my next destination via Canandaigua, a town which had come up in my discussion with Douglass scholar David Anderson and my visit to the Susan B. Anthony House in Rochester.
I find myself first at the Ontario County Courthouse on Main St at Ontario, where Susan B. Anthony was put on trial for voting in 1873. As I speculated in the account of my second day in Rochester, Douglass must have been proud.
Douglass was a keynote speaker at the August 4th, 1857 celebration here, of the West Indies Emancipation of August 1st, 1834, when the approxomately 750,000 slaves of the British West Indies were freed, at least formally. Douglass addressed his remarks to ‘Mr. President’, by whom he meant Austin Steward. Steward was a friend and important influence on Douglass, and according to David Anderson, the Douglass scholar I talked with yesterday, he asked, if Britain can separate from slavery, why not the United States?
Steward fled slavery and gained his freedom in 1813. He become a successful Rochester businessman, a writer of one of the great slavery narratives Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman, and was President of the Board of Managers for the Wilberforce colony in Canada, founded as a haven for black people fleeing oppressive laws in Ohio.
I haven’t been able to uncover the exact location where Douglass gave his famed speech here, the speech that yielded one of his most famous quotes: ‘If there is no struggle, there is no progress’. According to the sources I do find, there were parades. I’m guessing they would have happened on Main Street, perhaps beginning or ending at City Hall as many public celebrations of civic events do.
Austin Steward is buried in here in Canandaigua. I’m rapidly running out of time for the day and I still have several places to visit and many miles to drive, so I press on and don’t seek his burial site today, as much as I wish to. But if you have the chance to visit, he was buried at West Avenue Cemetery in 1860. Please pay my respects for me until and if I have the opportunity to do so myself.
I continue east, a lovely drive of one hour on Highway 20A to where it turns into West Main St in Honeoye. My destination is the Pitts mansion, located just west of Church St which t-bones northward off W. Main. On the north side of the street, there’s a two-story white house with a pointy roofed little front door porch, and a prominent historical marker out front.
Near the end of January in 1884, the newly married widower Douglass and his wife Helen Pitts Douglass traveled to Honeoye to visit her father and his old acquaintance and fellow abolitionist, Gideon Pitts. They had known each other since the 1840’s, and Helen may even have met Douglass when she was a child. Despite his abolitionist beliefs and old ties to Douglass, Pitts did not allow Douglass to enter the house. Pitts was far from the only one of Douglass’ friends and colleagues to disapprove of their marriage; interracial marriage was widely seen as a step too far even by many of the most committed abolitionists. But some stood by him, as you may remember from my earlier accounts. This was Stanton’s opportunity to stand by him as he had stood by her 36 years ago at Seneca Falls, and she did so by writing him a letter of congratulations, which was kept out of the press only at the urging of Susan B. Anthony, always on the defense against anything that might hurt the women’s suffrage cause. Stanton had become more radical and nonconformist by this time, and had discarded the racist rhetoric and attitudes she had adopted in the fight over the 14th and 15th Amendments.
I return to Rochester by continuing east on 20A, then the 390 north, to the easterly outskirts of town near the airport where the Anthony family land and farmhouse used to be. The house stood on a rise not far from Brooks Ave, somewhere between Genessee Park Blvd and Thurston Rd, on an elevation south of Brooks. Susan B. Anthony lived here until 1862; she moved into the house I visited on my second day in Rochester in 1865, with her sister Mary and her mother Lucy.
Douglass was a regular visitor at this house around 1850, where friends and fellow reformers would gather. Anthony ran the farm at this time while her father was away working in Syracuse, and took care of her ailing mother; the next year, she would meet Stanton and they would begin their lifetime partnership as women’s rights activists, which took her away from home for long periods. Daniel and Lucy Anthony, Susan’s parents, were progressive Hicksite Quakers like Douglass’ close friends Amy and Isaac Post, and like the Posts, were proponents of women’s rights and ardent abolitionists. Their farmhouse here, then in the town of Gates, and Susan’s cousin Asa’s house not far away at 446 Post Ave (I don’t make it to this house today), were stops on the Underground Railroad. Douglass told of one occasion around this time of a warning that they received about a slave catcher pursuing three escapees, one of whom was sheltering at the Douglasses’, one at Asa Anthony’s farm, and another in Farmington 18 miles away. The Rochester abolitionists helped spirit the men away to freedom in Canada via Lake Ontario, as they helped so many others escaping through here.
My last destination of the day, and the last Douglass site I’ll visit in Rochester, is Mt Hope Cemetery just a couple miles west of here off Mt Hope Avenue. It’s lovely, warm, gently breezy, and just a little cloudy when I arrive at the cemetery. I park in front of the administrative offices at the Mt Hope entrance, which is the southernmost entrance on Mt Hope Ave north of Elmwood Ave, between Stewart and Langslow Streets. Heading east into the cemetery, I take the first little road to the right, called Fifth Ave, passing two crossroads and a pond to the left. I come to a little gravel path on my right marked with a historical marker, and take that path to a tall obelisk gravestone on the left (the kind that looks like the Washington Monument). There’s another little gravel path at that corner that turns left, helpfully marked with a pointer sign. The path ends at the Douglass family plot. When I arrive, I’m alone, and it’s peaceful.
Douglass’ own large central gravestone is prominently marked with brass letters and two rosettes that have weathered to a bright pale green. The taller stone monument behind reads, on the front: ‘To the Memory of Frederick Douglass, 1817 – 1895, erected by his sons Lewis H. and Charles R….’. These are the two sons that fought with the Union Army which their father was so instrumental in integrating. Douglass’ other son, Frederick Jr, had died about two and a half years before Douglass, on August 4th, 1892. On the left side, the monument reads: ‘Anna, Wife of Frederick Douglass, Died 1882’ and on the right, ‘Annie Douglass, Daughter, Died 1860′. She died nine days before her 11th birthday, while Douglass was in Glasgow following his flight from possible arrest in connection with the John Brown case. Douglass hurriedly returned, and he and Anna grieved together.
The return of Anna’s remains to Rochester to be buried next to Annie and her husband is a fascinating story which is generally left out or told incorrectly in Douglass biographies; to hear the story, please listen to my interview with Douglass scholar Leigh Fought.
His second wife, Helen Pitts Douglass, is buried to his left. On her stone, under her name, is engraved ‘…Widow of orator and statesman Frederick Douglass. Through her vision his greatness was memorialized at Cedar Hill in Washington D.C., Mrs. Douglass was the founder of the Frederick Douglass Historical and Memorial Association.’ For the next eight years of her life, following Douglass’ death on February 20th of 1895, she made it her life’s work to preserve and promote his memory and those of his family.
I linger here awhile, to reflect and to rest, I don’t know for how long. After some time, I rouse myself: the cemetery is only open for a little while longer and I have a little more seeking to do.
His friend Susan B Anthony is also buried here. I return to the main path and wind my way up north and to the left. The path continues to curve around, going up to a rise above a chapel-like structure. A little ways down, just past a tall stone monument on the right crowned with a figure of a young woman holding two tablets propped on her lap, there’s another historical marker and a pointer sign directing you down a gravel path that soon turns right. I follow it where it leads back down parallel to the way I came. A little ways before you see another tall obelisk to the left, there’s a modest little white gravestone on the same side of the path with a rounded top. It’s engraved, simply, ‘Susan B. Anthony, February 15, 1820, March 13, 1906’. Next to her stone is that of her sister Mary, who lived with her in the Rochester house I visited yesterday on Madison St. She was a teacher and in many other ways a wonderful and fascinating woman in her own right. For example, she insisted on equal pay to accept a school principle’s job and stood her ground, refusing to take the job until they agreed, making her the first female teacher to receive a salary equal to a man’s in the state of New York. The Anthony sisters are buried next to their parents, Daniel and Lucy, who instilled the Quaker belief in their daughters that women and men are equal in moral worth and insisted on their receiving the full education generally only given to men. Many other members of the Anthony family are buried here too.
While walking back toward the front gate in hopes of finding one last burial place, the security officer driving by tells me it’s just past six, and the cemetery is closed. The time had flown so fast! He’s kind and lets me stay a little longer, since there’s a car broken down in the cemetery waiting for a tow anyway and he has to wait to close up. So I hurry on. I return to the split road entrance to the cemetery from the parking lot at the Mt. Hope entrance, and this time, take it left for just a bit, then take the first right turn onto Evergreen. I pass Second Ave and go about halfway down the next plot to my left. I wander a little and get a little lost, but I’ll skip that part and tell you where I find the easy route: looking to the left from (south of) Evergreen into area 2, you can see a very tall pillar topped with a robed figure pointing to the sky, and just beyond that, what looks like a little stone house. Head straight between the two into the rows of stones, and pretty much directly east of the little stone house, you’ll find a taller, older stone marked just ‘Post’ and one row to the east of that, two stones side by side reading ‘Isaac Post, 1800-1872’ and ‘Amy Kirby Post, 1803-1889’. As you may remember from my account of my first day in Rochester, Douglass and progressive reformers Amy and Isaac Post were very close friends, from the mid 1840’s until their deaths. I was touched the other day when I read this quote from a letter Douglass wrote in April of 1846, posted on the wall of the Hochstein school at the former site of the Posts’ home: ‘Amy your family was always dear — very dear to me, you loved me and treated me as a brother before the world knew me as it now does’. It is a rare and precious thing to find such friends.
The cemetery is closed, and I must leave. But my journey is not over…
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Sources and inspiration:
‘Austin Steward‘. Find a Grave website
Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Bondage and My Freedom, and Life and Times). With notes by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Volume compilation by Literary Classics of the United States. New York: Penguin Books, 1994.
Douglass, Frederick. ‘Two Speeches, one on the West India Emancipation, the other on the Dred Scott Decision.‘, published in 1857 by C.P. Dewey, Rochester NY, digitized by the Central Library of Rochester
DuBois, Ellen. ‘Reconstruction and the Battle for Woman Suffrage‘. The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website
‘Elizabeth Cady Stanton‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Fought, Leigh. ‘Honeoye, Part 2‘. Frederick Douglass’s Women: in Progress blog
The Frederick Douglass Encyclopedia, ed Julius E. Thompson, James L. Conyers Jr., Nancy J. Dawson. Greenwood Press.
‘Frederick Douglass Project Writings: West India Emancipation.’ From the University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Project, River Campus Libraries website
‘Gerrit Smith‘. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
‘Heritage Documentation Programs: Wesleyan Chapel‘. National Park Service website
Jaschik, Sue. ‘Lucy Read Anthony and Daniel Anthony‘. Epitaph, by the Friends of the Mount Hope Cemetery, Vol 26 No. 1, Winter 2006, found the University of Rochester website
Lewis, David. ‘Steward, Austin (1793-1869)‘. Blackpast.org
Morry, Emily. ‘Susan B. Anthony’s Rural Roots‘. Local History Rocs! blog by Rochester’s Public Library Local History and Genealogy Division
Muller, John. ‘Death Knocked on the Door of the Frederick Douglass Family Too Often…’ Frederick Douglass in Washington, D.C.: The Lion of Anacostia blog
Pierce, Preston E. ‘Main Street Guided History Walk: Special Walking Tour of Lower North Main Street Cannadaigua.’ Ontario County website
‘Pitts Mansion – Honeoye, NY‘. Waymarking.com
Schmitt, Victoria Sandwick. ‘Rochester’s Frederick Douglass Part One‘ and ‘Rochester’s Frederick Douglass Part Two‘. Rochester History journal, Vol. LXVII Summer 2005 No. 3 and Vol. LXVII Fall 2005 No. 4. McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
‘Seneca Falls Convention‘. In The Encyclopedia of New York State (from selected entries published online)
Truth, Sojourner. ‘Ain’t I A Woman?’ Delivered 1851, Women’s Rights Convention, Akron, Ohio. National Park Service website
Wellman, Judith. ‘The Seneca Falls Convention: Setting the National Stage for Women’s Suffrage.’ The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History website
‘The West Indian Colonies and Emancipation‘. From the Living Heritage: Parliament and Empire series, at Parliament.uk
‘The Trial of Susan B. Anthony: A Short Narrative‘. History of the Federal Judiciary, Federal Judicial Center website
Women’s Rights National Historical Park website, National Park Service