Frederick Douglass and Susan B Anthony Statue in Rochester
Upstate New York

Retracing the Footsteps of Frederick Douglass and the Underground Railroad in Rochester

When you think about who the most important people were that helped the Underground Railroad be successful, a few names come to mind. Harriet Tubman, of course. William Still. And Frederick Douglass. There’s no doubt that it took a village of covert, yet highly networked, individuals to help slaves get to freedom. But few names have lasted in our history books as predominantly as Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Not only did they advocate for women’s rights, but they were also important to making the Underground Railroad in Rochester a successful mission.

Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.

— Frederick Douglass

This article is part of a series about the Underground Railroad in New York State. Click the links below to read about other notable people and places across the state.
1: The John W. Jones Museum in Elmira Pays Tribute to His Legacy
2: Discover Starr Clark Tin Shop and the Underground Railroad in Mexico, NY
3: Harriet Tubman & the Sewards: A Friendship Made Along the Underground Railroad in Auburn

4: Uncover History at these Underground Railroad Sites in Syracuse

5: Retracing the Footsteps of Frederick Douglass and the Underground Railroad in Rochester

Who was Frederick Douglass?

Frederick Douglass Statue in Rochester

Douglass’s life started very similar to Harriet Tubman‘s – on a plantation in Maryland. He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey in February 1818 to his enslaved mother, Harriet. The plantation owner, Captain Aaron Anthony, moved Frederick twice to other plantations before he was even ten years old. At his third home, he was taught to read and write by the lady of the house. That is, until her husband for bid it. After that, Frederick continued to teach himself in private. He learned to read the newspaper and attended free African-American churches. He learned about the horrors of slavery and taught himself the skills of public speaking.

Knowledge makes a man unfit to be a slave.

— Frederick Douglass

As a teenager, Frederick returned to the eastern shore of Maryland where he was put to work as a field hand. It was there that he experienced the harshest punishments of slavery. After failed escape attempts and imprisonment, he unsuccessfully tried to buy his own freedom. Around the same time, he met Anna Murray, a free Black woman.

In 1838, Frederick finally escaped at the age of 20 and made his way to New York City. There, he was able to reunite with Anna and get married. The couple then made their way to Massachusetts where he attended anti-slavery meetings and attended his first convention on Nantucket Island. He became connected with fellow abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison and gave lectures on anti-slavery throughout the northeast.

Frederick Douglass in Rochester

In 1845, Douglass wrote his famous autobiography, The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself. The book was incredibly successful. It even became popular in Britain and was translated into several languages. But because he put his life into words, Douglass also put himself in danger from slave catchers. So, he escaped to Europe.

While lecturing his way through England, Ireland, and Scotland, friends stateside raised money to purchase his freedom. At the same time, he raised money from his lectures to start his own newspaper.

The white man’s happiness cannot be purchased by the black man’s misery.

— Frederick Douglass

In 1847, Douglass moved to Rochester, New York and published the first issue of the North Star newspaper on December 3rd. Douglass dedicated the rest of his life to abolition, women’s rights, and racial equality in Rochester and Central New York.

Frederick Douglass was very active on the Underground Railroad and was well-connected with other abolitionists across the state. He helped a great deal of fugitive slaves make their way to freedom in Canada. He spoke out about the Jerry Rescue in Syracuse. And he was not alone. His wife, Anna, was just as active as he was. Especially since Frederick was on the road a lot, most of the work fell to Anna. She was the one who maintained the family’s safe haven along the Underground Railroad.

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning.

— Frederick Douglass

If you’d like to learn even more about Frederick Douglass, I highly encourage you to check out Frederick Douglass’s Rochester, a year-long project by Open Mic Rochester and CITY newspaper.

Rochester Historical Figures Mural

Who was Susan B Anthony?

Susan B. Anthony was most predominantly known for her work advocating for women’s rights and women’s suffrage. But she was also very outspoken against slavery. The Anthony family held anti-slavery meetings in their farmhouse. Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison, and other abolitionist in the area regularly attended.

In the 1850s, Susan served as an agent for the American Anti-Slavery Society. She was an abolitionist who actively participated in anti-slavery activities.

Trust me that as I ignore all law to help the slave, so will I ignore it all to protect an enslaved woman.

— Susan B. Anthony

When Susan and Frederick were not allowed to hold anti-slavery speeches within churches, a house in Canandaigua came to their call. They built a balcony on the second floor of the home where Douglass and Anthony where able to speak to the public about abolishing slavery.

After the 13th Amendment passed, Susan turned her attention to women’s rights. Together with Elizabeth Cady Stanton (and the lesser-known Matlida Joslyn Gage), they led the fight for freedoms. Historians say that Elizabeth gave the words to the movement, and Susan gave them their legs. Elizabeth wrote. Susan spoke.

Susan B. Anthony and the 1872 Election

Shortly before the election of 1872, a local café in Rochester set up a voting booth for Susan. She was able to get the voting booth clerks to register several women in town in preparation for the election. When election day came, Susan and several women cast their votes. Shortly after, the women were arrested. Susan arranged for people to bring them food to the jail, and later got them pardoned.

Two weeks later, Susan was arrested herself.

Failure is impossible.

— Susan B. Anthony

Who was Rhoda DeGarmo?

Just like we’ve learned throughout the other Underground Railroad cities in New York, it truly took a village to make the path to freedom successful. And in those villages, there were hundreds of abolitionist names forgotten. One of those names in Rhoda DeGarmo.

Rhoda and her husband, Elias, owned a farm just outside of the city of Rochester. When they Anthony family moved to their farm, it was next door to the DeGarmos. Rhoda and Elias were very active on the Underground Railroad in Rochester. And while the Anthonys held meetings at their farmhouse, the DeGarmos hid runaways.

Rhoda was also active in the women’s suffrage movement and attended the Women’s Rights Convention in Seneca Falls.

The Underground Railroad in Rochester

Like most other waystations along the Underground Railroad, the actual buildings are hard to discover. Many have been destroyed over time, and others are hard to prove. But there are still several sites in Rochester tied to the Underground Railroad in a variety of ways.

Frederick Douglass Statues

The City of Rochester declared 2018 “The Year of Frederick Douglass” to honor the hero’s 200th birthday. During that year, artist Olivia Kim designed a statue of Douglass based on the longstanding one at the entrance to Highland Park. A group of over 200 people created 13 statues and placed them throughout the city, at sites significant to Douglass’s life.

Visit DouglassTour.com to see a map of the locations of the statues. Using the site, you can take yourself on a self-guided tour of Rochester and the history of Frederick Douglass’s life.

If you’d prefer to take a guided tour, there are several different Akwaaba Heritage tours of the historic sites. Or you can even customize which places you’d like to visit!

Did you know – Highland Park is home to the Rochester Lilac Festival every May?

Kelsey’s Landing

One of the statues of Douglass can be found at Kelsey’s Landing, perhaps Rochester’s most important site on the Underground Railroad. Why? It’s here that fugitive slaves made their way down to Genesee River. Then they would board steam ships on their way to Canada. Freedom!

Now, Kelsey’s Landing is home to Maplewood Park. There, visitors can walk down the trails to see the waterfall, or enjoy the beautiful rose garden. It’s also a popular site for weddings and outdoor events.

Frederick Douglass Murals in Rochester

The city of Rochester is proud of the people who made history there. They honor the likes of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony all throughout town. Buildings and parks are named after them. The Rochester airport was renamed earlier this year as the “Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport” in his honor.

But my favorite part? The murals! And one of my favorite street artists does an incredible job of highlighting Frederick Douglass. Shawn Dunwoody, a local Rochester artist, has created dozens of murals throughout the city. His art echoes the importance of equality and justice, many of the works featuring Douglass himself. It’s impossible to visit Rochester without being struck by the vibrant colors of his murals and the importance of their messages.

Shawn has an infectious enthusiasm for public art, and encourages everyone to embrace their inner passions.

I consider myself a multi-disciplinary creative force for change.

— Shawn Dunwoody

According to his TEDx Talk in 2014, Shawn had already painted 75 different murals over the span of 20 years in Rochester. Follow him on Instagram to stay up-to-date with his works!

Susan B. Anthony’s House

What is now known as the Susan B Anthony House & Museum is located at 17 Madison Street, in the heart of a Rochester neighborhood. But Susan never actually owned either house on the property. Her sister Hannah owned the house on the right. Her sister Mary owned the one on the left. Susan and her mother lived with Mary in that house. But Susan never officially owned it, for fear that she would sell the house for the cause.

Visit the Museum

After the Anthony sisters lived in the house, it passed through several other owners before becoming a museum in 1945. The home was declared a National Historical Landmark in 1966. Now, visitors can walk through the rooms where Susan lived her life in Rochester. Much of the original furniture remains in place, and necessary renovations have been done to restore the building to its original grandeur. The front parlor (pictured below) is the same room where Susan was arrested for voting in the 1872 election.

The visitor center in the building to the right houses the gift shop and a timeline of Susan’s life. It’s not to be missed!

Guided tours of the home are offered on Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. Visitors are required to make reservations in advance online. Tours are $15 for adults, $10 for military and seniors, and $5 for students.

“Let’s Have Tea” Sculpture of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony

Just around the corner from Susan’s house is a park named in her honor. And right at the heart of Susan B. Anthony Square is the famous “Let’s Have Tea” statue. The sculpture depicts the relationship that the two activists had and honors the importance they had on the history of Rochester.

Frederick Douglass and Susan B Anthony Statue in Rochester

The the Rochester Museum and Science Center

The Rochester Museum & Science Center has a permanent exhibit called The Flight to Freedom, documenting the Underground Railroad in Rochester. With so many important players for the time period, it’s great to see them on display.

Additionally, the museum opened a limited-time featured exhibit to commemorate the centennial of the ratification of the 19th amendment. The Changemakers: Rochester Women Who Changed the World honors women from the Rochester Region and Haudenosaunee Confederacy who made their mark on history. It features some incredible women, including several abolitionists! Check out what they have on Susan B. Anthony, Anna Murray Douglass, Matilda Joslyn Gage, and others. The exhibit is open through May 16, 2021. It is included in museum admission.

The Legacy of the Underground Railroad in Rochester

You can find both Frederick Douglass’s and Susan B. Anthony’s graves in Rochester at Mount Hope Cemetery. Visitors often come to pay their respects and leave tokens of their appreciation on their tombstones. Nearly every election day, you can find “I voted” stickers on Susan’s grave.

There is so much history found in Rochester. Have you visited any of these sites? Or do you know about other Underground Railroad sites in Rochester that aren’t mentioned here? Let me know!



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