Ninth day, Monday Mar 28th
On a cold, gray, and blustery spring morning, I drive from Syracuse to Rochester NY, and head straight for a certain house very near Susan B. Anthony Square. As I suspect might be the case, the house is closed to the public today so I’ll return tomorrow; I head here first anyway to scope things out in person because, as it turns out, I have more free time to explore Rochester this morning than I thought I would. Hooray!
For the moment, I leave my car in the Madison St parking lot adjacent to the house and head to the square just around the corner, going east through Yack Alley, not the only or even necessarily the shortest way but I choose it because the name makes me smile. Susan B. Anthony Square, at 39 King St, is a little park crisscrossed with meandering paths and dotted with benches and neatly trimmed shrubbery, in the center of pretty blocks of well-maintained early 19th century houses. The square is dominated by a life-size sculpture of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony by Pepsy Kettavong, called ‘Let’s Have Tea’, installed in 2001.
The sculpture presents an idealized picture of Douglass’ and Anthony’s friendship, a view I had long held myself and never really questioned, I suppose because I admire them both and wish it were true! As my research for this series reveals, however, the real relationship between Douglass and Anthony was a long, complicated, often troubled one over the years. (I should have known something was up given that Douglass doesn’t write about her in his autobiographies except for a brief mention of her as one of the authors of History of Woman Suffrage.) Sometimes they were real friends, such as when they first met; at other times, they were estranged co-activists in a shared cause, presenting a united front solely for practical, political reasons. For all her admirable work in promoting women’s and black rights over her long career as a social reformer, Anthony, as you may remember from my Albany account, resorted to using racist language in her campaign against the 15th Amendment’s granting voting rights only to men, regardless of race, and also sadly, she was among those spreading rumors that Douglass’ friendship with North Star colleague Julia Griffiths might be …ahem, less than respectable. (For more about the troubles in Anthony’s and Douglass’ relationship, listen to the second part of my interview with Douglass scholar Leigh Fought, starting at about 9:30).
Douglass began the move to Rochester near the end of 1847, and brought the rest of his family here in February of 1848. Douglass said the move was ‘for motives of peace’. He wanted to start his own newspaper independently of the Garrisonians, who were centered in Boston (Lynn, where Douglass was living, is very close to Boston) and who disapproved strongly of his new pro-Union, pro-Constitution political views and newfound independence of thought and decision-making. Besides the fact that his good friends Amy and Isaac Post lived here, that it was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and that it was a center for the feminist movement where the Post’s and his (then) friend Susan B. Anthony lived, Douglass listed all manner of other reasons for his move to Rochester in his autobiography Life and Times. ‘[Rochester] …is the center of a virtuous, intelligent, enterprising, liberal, and growing population… It is on the line of the New York Central railroad – a line that, with its connections, spans the whole country. Its people were (were? I wonder why he wrote this, in 1881, in the past tense) industrious and in comfortable circumstances – not so rich as to be indifferent to the claims of humanity, and not so poor as to be unable to help any good cause which commanded the approval of their judgment’.
I drive east on Main St and turn north on Plymouth Ave N, where there’s a historical marker for the site of Amy and Isaac Post’s home, just under a mile from Susan B. Anthony Square. It’s in front of the handsome brick buildings which now house the Hochstein Music School.
A gray sky and freezing gusty wind follows the milder temperature, scattered clouds, little rainbursts, and blue sky of the morning. The fine raindrops pepper my face like icy Lilliputian buckshot as I take photos of the front of the historical marker and the school. I can hardly hold my camera still between the wind and the shivering of my hands, fingers stiffened with cold. Ah, early spring in northern New York!
Amy and Isaac Post were long-time friends of Douglass. He met them while passing through Rochester in 1842 or 1843 (depending on the source) on a marathon antislavery speaking tour early in his career. He described them in his Life and Times as ‘two people of all-abounding benevolence, the truest and best’. They were members of the Hicksite Quaker sect, the more progressive branch of the Society of Friends which emphasized the importance of the ‘inner light‘, which God places in all individuals for spiritual guidance. This, in turn, led to an emphasis on the moral, and hence to some, the social and political equality of all human beings. The Posts were emblematic of the brand of Quakerism that inspired so many activists in the abolitionist, women’s rights, temperance, and other human rights and social reform movements of the time. Yet even this brand of Quakerism was ultimately too conservative for the socially conscious Posts, who eventually became Spiritualists.
Hochstein not only stands on (or near, according to the Freethought Trail website, though I don’t think they’ve necessarily got it right: the house was at number 36 Sophia St, which was what Plymouth used to be named north of Main, which in turn was originally named Buffalo St, and the numbering may have changed along with the street name) the site of the old Post house. It’s also partly composed of the former Central Presbyterian Church where Douglass’ 1895 (his second, the first was held in Washington DC) and Anthony’s 1906 funeral services were held.
I enter the front door and am assisted by a helpful lady in the front office to the right. In response to my inquiries, she gives me permission to go inside and photograph the sanctuary of the old church building, now the school’s main performance hall. The man at the front desk takes me inside, and finds himself interested in the history of the old church too. ‘I’ve worked here five months,’ he says, ‘and I’ve never looked at these before!’ He’s referring to the plaques on the walls, with their photos and history of the building and of the school’s founder.
After admiring and photographing the theater, and learning what I can from these plaques and photos, I head east on Main again, a third of a mile closer to the Genessee River, to the site of the old Corinthian Hall, which, according to a couple of sources, was near the end of Corinthian Street behind the Reynolds Arcade, where the parking garage is now. Originally called The Athenaeum, as were so many public halls of the time, it was renamed Corinthian Hall after the style of the classical columns on its stage, and the building was widely famed for its beauty. Corinthian Street was also renamed, and most internet sources I find say it was originally named Exchange Place. However, I discover that these two pieces of received internet wisdom appear to be a bit off. Poring over old maps in Rochester Library’s online images database, I find one published in 1851, two years after the hall was built in 1849. For one, I find that while the street was named Exchange Place before it was named Corinthian, it was named Work Street at the time the hall was built. Secondly, I find that it was not actually under the parking garage at the end of the street. It was actually directly across from the back entrance of the Reynolds Arcade, where a parking lot and a glassy midcentury office building now stand. The 1851 map was a little behind the times: Corinthian Hall and Exchange Place had already received their new names in 1850, but the map retains their original designations.
Douglass spoke frequently at what he referred to as ‘the beautiful Corinthian Hall’ in the 1850’s. In fact, he ‘lectured [there] every Sunday evening during an entire winter’ as he wrote in his Life and Times. He delivered a speech here on Aug 21, 1852 at the Fugitive Slave Convention, in opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act. Then in July 1853, Douglass presided over the National Convention of Colored Men in Rochester, which became a center for the antislavery movement; his biographer Philip S. Foner called this convention ‘the most important’. This is where the pressing problem of lack of unification between various factions of the antislavery movement were identified and discussed, as well as the relative lack of black leadership. Though this Rochester convention still failed to bring about a unified black political movement, like the previous one in Troy discussed in an earlier account, it sent a powerful message that all black Americans had a powerful champion in Douglass.
But the single most important Douglass moment in this hall happened on July 5, 1852, when he delivered his powerful ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?‘ speech for the first time. He delivered it on the 5th instead of the 4th, he said, because the latter was a day of mourning, for himself and his people. This speech was Douglass’ Gettysburg Address, his Second Inaugural, his ‘To Be or Not to Be?’, where his powers of oratory and his eloquence were in full force. The speech is long, opening with a reflection on the history of the United States’ founding and its promise of renewed freedom for all. Then he pours out his lament:
‘I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. — The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn….
What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer: a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciations of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade, and solemnity, are, to him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy — a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices, more shocking and bloody, than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.’
If what he had to say that day didn’t make people ashamed to celebrate liberty for themselves while denying it to others, no words could.
So the first issue of Douglass’ first very own newspaper the North Star came out on Dec 3rd, 1847. Rosa O’Keefe, on page 29 of her 2013 book Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York, writes that the first edition was printed in the basement of the A.M.E. Zion church (a site we’ll return to in my next account); however, the first edition lists the Talman building address as its place of publication on the upper left-hand corner. Perhaps the Talman office was all lined up as the North Star‘s permanent home but still needed to have its press moved in. After all, it’s no joke hoisting a mid-nineteenth century printing press up to the second floor.
As described above, William Lloyd Garrison and the Boston abolitionists tried to dissuade Douglass from leaving the Boston area and starting his own paper. They wanted him to continue on in his role as one of their most famous lecturers, and warned that his lack of experience and formal education would likely lead to the paper’s ultimate failure, talented as they knew him to be. But he had reached a new level of confidence after his successful British Isles lecture tour and was determined to strike out on his own. He ascribed to himself ‘motives of peace’ in the wish to avoid competition with Boston’s The Liberator, but as the people who knew him longest observed, Douglass was always strong of personality, self-willed, and enjoyed taking charge. Many friends and supporters donated money to fund the paper, including $4,000 donated by British supporters of his cause (British friends had also purchased his freedom), and subscribed, encouraged others to do the same, and in many other ways supported his endeavor.
And no other single person did more to make the North Star a personal and financial success than Julia Griffiths, an English abolitionist he had met in December 1846 in Newcastle upon Tyne. They hit it off right away, and stayed good friends for the rest of their lives. When she heard he had founded his newspaper only to have it run into financial and editorial difficulties, this energetic woman came to Douglass’ rescue in the spring of 1849. She quickly took over some of the editing and most of the bookkeeping and finances, and within a year, doubled the number of subscribers and lifted the paper, and Douglass with it, out of debt. At first, she lived with the Douglass family; later on, she moved to her own place, as the rumor mill never stopped grinding out malicious gossip, much to the ever-respectable, ever-private Anna Douglass’ dismay.
I head further east, over the Genessee to Alexander St, a little north of Tracy St and on the same side, by the old Genessee Hospital. There’s a vacant lot here, with a distinctive tree and a bench, near where there used to be a New York historical marker for the site of the old Seward Seminary.
I know I’m at the right place by the map coordinates, and it’s easy to recognize the bench, tree, and buildings on the background in the photos of this location I found online posted just a few years ago. But the sign is now gone, stolen, or being repaired or repainted, who knows? I hope it will be reinstalled, because it marks the site of an important social movement in the United States that Douglass took part in way back before it was really a thing.
In 1848, Douglass enrolled his daughter Rosetta in Seward Seminary, the fashionable girls school which stood here. Likely having accepted Rosetta in the first place because her father was a well-known man, the school’s principal Lucilia Tracy, in deference to the school’s trustees, made Rosetta learn her lessons in a separate room from the other students. Rosetta, no surprise, was the only black student enrolled. When Rosetta tearfully told her father of this, Douglass was enraged. He confronted Tracy, who tried to evade responsibility by putting it to a student vote: who would object if Rosetta would sit next to them? One after the other, every student in the room said they were not only willing, but many requested that Rosetta be placed next to then. As is so often the case, these children proved themselves more fair-minded and far more progressive than even most of the adult citizens in Rochester, where racism was still rife. Yet in response to the notes that Tracy sent home with the students reporting the situation, every parent voted in tandem with their children, except one, the editor of the Rochester Courier. As he had with train car segregation in New England, Douglass took this battle to the public, castigating this H.G. Warner in the North Star and other papers, and all those like him in front of the the School Board of Education.
In his vigorous expose of the injustice and harm in such undignified treatment of children, Douglass’ campaign to integrate the public schools in Rochester was ultimately successful: the public schools were integrated in 1857. This was a century before Brown vs. Board of Education! Though Douglass’ campaign here was successful, the principle that all children should receive fair and equal treatment in America’s schools was not to be enshrined in law in most of the United States for over a century. Hate can certainly be intransigent.
Just a little farther north at 297 Alexander St, close enough for little Rosetta to have walked to Seward Seminary without breaking a sweat, there’s now a parking lot next to a restaurant simply called ‘Mex’. There’s nothing indicating this as the site where the Douglass family moved into their first house here in Rochester in April 1848, at what was then 4 Alexander St. It took some time for the Douglasses to find a house to buy in Rochester; Douglass’ family had followed him here in February and boarded until a local abolitionist sold them the 9 room brick house that once stood on this spot. By 1850, Douglass had became the leader of Rochester’s Underground Railroad, which was among the work he was most proud of, and this house became one of the most important stops. Rochester was one of the last way stations on the way to Canada. Since the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, even the northern states had become too dangerous for escaped slaves to remain in, so many chose to press farther north in their quest for freedom.
But it wasn’t all work and no play for Frederick Douglass, even with all his writing, speaking, campaigning for justice for his children, and aiding fugitives from slavery. This house was accumulating a large library for the literary Douglass, and as you may remember, he loved to play the violin. At least one occasion in 1850, he played an impromptu concert for the neighborhood children here in this house. Anna had encouraged him to take up the violin in the early days of their relationship in Fell’s Point, and he never stopped playing. In his Life and Times, he devotes a whole page to the moving experience of seeing Niccolò Paganini’s violin on display in a museum in Genoa, Italy in 1886. Music was very important to the Douglasses: Rosetta would accompany her father on the piano, and Douglass’ love of the violin would continue on in his progeny, which we’ll return to in a later account.
Thus ends my first day in Rochester New York, but I’ll be here in this area following Douglass’ life and ideas for awhile longer and having many more exciting historical adventures. Stay tuned!
*Listen to the podcast version here or subscribe on iTunes
~ With special thanks to Paige Sloan, who heads and teaches a writing program for international students at the University of Rochester and, like me, is a big Fredrick Douglass fan! She provided me with an additional source for my Corinthian Hall research and a photo I neglected to take.
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Sources and Inspiration
‘27. Frederick Douglass Newspaper Office‘, The Freethought Trail website
‘30. Post Home / Western New York Anti-Slavery Society‘, The Freethought Trail website
‘33. Corinthian Hall / Academy of Music‘, The Freethought Trail website
‘Colored National Convention (1853 : Rochester, NY), “Proceedings of the Colored National Convention, Held in Rochester, July 6th, 7th, and 8th, 1853.,” ColoredConventions.org.
‘Corinthian Hall (venue)‘, under ‘Charter Inductees’, Rochester Music Hall of Fame website
Cornell, Silas, ‘Map of the City of Rochester‘, 1863. From Rochester Library Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.
‘Death of Frederick Douglass‘. Feb. 21, 1895 obituary, reprinted in the New York Times: On This Day
Douglass, Frederick. Autobiographies (includes Narrative…, My Freedom and my Bondage, 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. “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”, July 5, 1852. Teaching American History (website)
‘The Era of Academies in Monroe County‘, From Rochester Library Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.
First National Bank of Rochester-Old Monroe County Savings Bank Building. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
Foner, Philip S. The Life and Writings of Frederick Douglass, Vol. 1-4. New York: International Publishers, 1950.
Fought, Lee. ‘The Musical Douglasses: Rosetta‘. Frederick Douglass’s Women: In Progress blog,
‘“Let’s Have Tea” by Pepsy M. Kettavong‘, Rochester Public Art Catalog (website)
McFeely, William. Frederick Douglass. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991.
McKelvey, Blake. ‘Historic Antecedents from the Crossroads Project‘. From the Rochester History Journal, Oct 1864, Vol. 26, No. 4.
‘Many Roads to Freedom: The Underground Railroad in Rochester and Vicinity‘. Article, Rochester Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.
Morry, Emily. ‘Frederick Douglass Home on Alexander Street’ and ‘Talman Building‘, Democrat & Chronicle: Retrofitting Rochester series
‘The North Star: Abolitionist Newspaper Founded By Frederick Douglass‘, Maryland State Archives (website)
O’Keefe, Rose. Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York: Their Home Was Open to All.
Charleston: The History Press, 2013.
‘Post House‘, New York Historic website
‘Quaker Influence‘, National Historical Park New York page of the National Park Service website
‘Seward Seminary‘ – New York Historical Markers on Waymarking.com
Smith, Marcus. ‘Plan of the City of Rochester, N.Y. [Southwest Quadrant]‘ and ‘Southeast Quadrant‘, 1851. From Rochester Digital Collections, Monroe County Library System website.
‘Southwest Quadrant – Susan B. Anthony‘, article from the City of Rochester website