Frederick Douglass statue in Rochester, NY

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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.