Frederick Douglass statue in Rochester, NY

The Frederick Douglass statue in Rochester, NY’s Highland Park celebrates one of my hometown’s two greatest civil rights luminaries. The other is Susan B. Anthony. Their names also grace the two concourses of the Rochester airport and a bridge in downtown Rochester (affectionately dubbed the Freddie-Sue bridge by locals).

Author Jeanne Gehret visiting the Frederick Douglass statue in Rochester, NY

Douglass statue is as imposing as the man

Douglass (1817-1895) himself stood more than six feet tall and weighed at least two hundred pounds. His reputation as a formerly enslaved person, self-educated publisher, civil rights orator and statesman made him a man to look up to. Thus it is fitting that his eight-foot statue sits on a nine-foot granite base. (In the above photo, I am standing about ten feet away from the statue.)

Erected in 1899, the monument originally stood outside Rochester’s New York Central Train Station. At the time of its dedication, Susan B. Anthony commented that it should have been facing north, owing perhaps to Douglass’s Rochester newspaper The North Star. Two subsequent moves brought it within the confines of Highland Park, just a few hundred feet from where the African-American leader lived during his early reform years. Susan would be happy to know that the statue now faces northeast.

Of Rochester, Douglass later wrote:

I know of no place in the Union where I could have located at the time with less resistance, or received a larger measure of sympathy and cooperation, and I now look back to my life and labors there with unalloyed satisfaction . . . having spent a quarter century among its people.

Rose O’Keefe, Frederick and Anna Douglass in Rochester, New York, p. 45

Douglass, in making this comment, graciously overlooked the fact that Rochester’s Board of Education in 1845 closed city schools to African-American students. Later, a neighbor who had sold a plot of land to Douglass voted against allowing young Rosetta Douglass access to a local girls’ school.

In a similar hopeful vein, he commented thus on the 1857 Dred Scott Decision that denied African-Americans citizenship:

I know of no soil better adapted to the growth of reform than American soil. I know of no country, where the conditions for effecting great changes in the settled order of things for the development of right ideas of liberty and humanity are more favorable than here in these United States.

Engraved on the frederick douglass monument in rochester’s highland park

Colleagues in Rochester and beyond

Three years older than Susan, Douglass preceded her into reforms seeking gender and racial equality. While he was starting his North Star newspaper, she was teaching school to help her family recover from bankruptcy. She met him for the first time at her parents’ dinner table where it was customary for the Douglass and Anthony families to dine together with other reformers on Sundays. Once she entered the fray, the two of them often spoke on the same lecture circuits and sometimes the same platforms. Eventually, she became the head of the Antislavery Society of New York.

Great American Women of Susan B.’s Era

Susan LaFlesche Picotte was the first Native American woman to receive a medical degree.

During Women’s History Month we will use this space to celebrate several great American women who were comrades of Susan B. Anthony. (Click here for an earlier blog post on Women’s History Month.)

Though Miss Anthony did not know all of them, each one came from her era and worked to make us a more equitable and just nation. We have far to go to complete the reforms they championed, but knowing of their work can help us go and do likewise whenever we have a chance.

 

Today we remember Dr. Susan LaFlesche Picotte as one of these great American women.  She traced her desire to study medicine to an experience at the age of eight. Young Susan LaFlesche kept vigil at the bedside of a Native woman while waiting for a (white) doctor who promised to come, but never arrived. The patient died. In those dark moments, Susan realized that Natives needed doctors devoted to their care. Rather than lament the lack, she became one.

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This week in History: John Brown at Harpers Ferry

John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry shook the Anthony family’s roots when on this day in 1859 he broke into a federal arsenal in Virginia and was captured.

Lucy and Daniel Anthony had raised Continue reading

Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass association recounted in new biography

Susan B. Anthony And Justice For All is out in its new edition and explores her long-term association with Frederick Douglass. (Click here to order on Amazon.)This monument, titled “Let’s Have Tea,” depicts two of the main characters in the book.

A Multifaceted Friendship

Susan and Frederick were neighbors when both moved to Rochester in the 1840s; the Douglasses frequently dined at abolitionist gatherings at Susan’s farm home. The two worked tirelessly together for universal suffrage until a falling-out but were re-united in their old age. Read more about their friendship in my new easy-reading biography Susan B. Anthony And Justice For All: Suffrage Centennial Edition.

A Little Background on the Statues

When Susan’s brother Daniel died a rich man, he specifically left $1,000 for a memorial to Susan. Instead, however, she elected to spend the money on a woman suffrage campaign. (She outlived him by two years.) It wasn’t until 2002 that the Susan B. Anthony Neighborhood Association in Rochester, NY commissioned Laotian immigrant Pepsy M. Kettavong to create the larger-than-life statues near Susan’s Madison Street home.

Was Emily Dickinson as miserable as film suggests?

The film A Quiet Passion did not serve up the Emily Dickinson I know. Having read some biographies of Dickinson as well as her poetry, I have to say that the movie seemed pretty one-sided in portraying her life as one of angst and frustration. Continue reading

The Lady Who Made This Big War

That is how Abraham Lincoln is said to have greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe when he met her many years after the publication of her shocking 1852 bestseller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which gave slavery a face and a heart by telling it through the eyes of individuals. Read about Harriet, her book and its amazing success by clicking here.Even more popular than the book itself (which had sales in the 19th century second only to the Bible) were the stage renditions of her play.

It is probable that the Anthonys of Rochester and the Osborns of Marthas Vineyard were familiar with Stowe and her work. Harriet’s family of origin moved in the same abolitionist circles as the Anthonys. And Josiah Henson, the man who upon whom Harriet based her novel, made a notable appearance at the Methodist Camp Meetings that were held every summer on Martha’s Vineyard; the Osborns would likely have seen the publicity. In addition, the stage rendition of her story was one of the most popular theatrical renditions of its era.

Of her most famous book, Stowe said:

As a woman, as a mother, I was oppressed and broken-hearted with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity–because as a lover of my country, I trembled at the coming day of wrath.

For another look at her family, her other literary works, and her later years, visit the website of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center.

The Scandal of Speaking in Public

The National Women’s History Project salutes “countless millions of women who planned, organized, lectured, wrote, marched, petitioned, lobbied, paraded, and broke new ground in every field imaginable, [making] our world…irrevocably changed. Women and men in our generation, and the ones that will follow us, are living the legacy of women’s rights won against staggering odds in a revolution achieved without violence.”

 

For women’s history month, I have confined my selection of heroines to those who lived in 19th century America. That eliminates some of my favorite women like Alice Paul and Inez Milholland, who were both so instrumental in the second generation of suffragists that brought the movement through the final years before the woman suffrage amendment finally passed in 1920.

This is a special year for New York State, where women earned suffrage on state matters in 1917. Unfortunately New York State resident Susan B. Anthony did not live to exercise her right to vote legally in either her state or her country, for she died in 1906. Indeed, even though the entire country revered her late in life, her home state in 1894 ignored 600,000 petitions for woman suffrage, and the following year it formed an association opposed to woman suffrage. The only states that allowed women to vote in Susan’s lifetime were Wyoming (1890), Colorado (1893), Utah and Idaho (1896).

To offset this sad showing for New York State, today I am highlighting two female reformers who blazed their way across the empire state so brightly that they inspired the young Miss Anthony. They were Sarah and Angelina Grimke, who made themselves unpopular in their native Charleston by championing slavery, as memorialized in Sue Monk Kidd’s excellent historical novel The Invention of Wings. The sisters grew up as privileged daughters of a judge and plantation owner, with their slaves sleeping on the floor of their bedroom.

In an article about the sisters’ Charleston home, author Louise Knight also gives background on the economic dependence of that slaveowning city on slavery.

The striking elegance of the Grimké home reflected both the sophistication of the city they lived in and the family’s fabulous prosperity. Charleston in the early years of the nineteenth century was one of the new nation’s great metropolises. In 1810, with a population of roughly 24,711, it was the fourth largest city in the United States and possessed enormous wealth. The white community numbered 11,568. Charleston was a majority black city, with 13,143 Africans and people of African descent. In 1810, 89 percent of the black population—11,570 people—was enslaved, toiling in the households or the family stables or hiring out to work in the trades. Their unpaid labor across the city—combined with the unpaid labor of those working on plantations across the state—created Charleston’s wealth. The remaining 11 percent of the black population—some 1,430 African Americans—formed the free black community, whose skills in the trades and at the docks kept the city functioning.

Sarah and Angelina witnessed their mother’s arbitrary and cruel punishment of slaves in the “sugar house,” a place of such barbarism that its walls were soundproofed to muffle the screams of tortured persons within. Sarah taught her slave to read and would probably have been a lawyer had she been female. Angelina wrote a pamphlet entitled “Appeal to the Christian Women of the South,” in which she wrote:

I appeal to you, my friends, as mothers; Are you willing to enslave your children? You start back with horror and indignation at such a question. But why, if slavery is no wrong to those upon whom it is imposed? Why, if as has often been said, slaves are happier than their masters, free from the cares and perplexities of providing for themselves and their families? Why not place your children in the way of being supported without your having the trouble to provide for them, or they for themselves? Do you not perceive that as soon as this golden rule of action is applied to yourselves that you involuntarily shrink from the test; as soon as your actions are weighed in this balance of the sanctuary that you are found wanting?

Her pamphlet was burned in Charleston. Soon after, the Grimke sisters undertook a 67-city speaking tour of the Northeast (including New York), where they amazed crowds by addressed mixed audiences, not just women—a practice that was considered scandalous because the sexes were supposed to be kept separate and women were not supposed to speak in public.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke paved the way for Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and others to speak in public about abolition and on women’s rights, as well.