Frederick Douglass in Rochester: a gallery of images and words

From Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave with an Introduction and Notes by Robert G. O’Meally.


Frederick Douglass was the first African American to whom a public sculpture was dedicated. The bronze was dedicated on June 9, 1899, in Rochester, New York, with Theodore Roosevelt, governor of New York, in attendance. The cast of Douglass stands with arms held forward palms up, as if welcoming visitors. The statue is the work of James, W. Thomas, an African-American artist from Rochester. Originally erected near the train station, the statue enjoyed a prominent position in the city; in 1941 it was moved to Highland Park, near the site of the Douglass Rochester home.

Photo of Douglass statue in Highland Park by George Payne


Freedom seekers traveled the Genesee River looking for Canadian vessels heading north via Lake Ontario.

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 This was a typical route for freedom seekers during the Fugitive Slave Law period in Rochester.


Douglass mural by artist Shawn Dunwoody


The view of the river from Maplewood Park and the banks of Seth Green Island. Freedom seekers would have traveled through this passageway to reach the majestic bend in the river by what is now Turning Point Park.


I prefer to be true to myself, even at the hazard of incurring the ridicule of others, rather than to be false, and incur my own abhorrence. – Frederick Douglass


The Underground Railroad trail captured in these pictures may date back to the Fulsom Point people almost 10,000 years ago. After the Fugitive Slave Law was passed in 1850, it became a federal penalty to harbor escaped “slaves” in Rochester.  (Photos by George Payne)


A Rochester that Douglass would have known well.

The slave is a man, “the image of God,” but “a little lower than the angels;” possessing a soul, eternal and indestructible; capable of endless happiness, or immeasurable woe; a creature of hopes and fears, of affections and passions, of joys and sorrows, and he is endowed with those mysterious powers by which man soars above the things of time and sense, and grasps, with undying tenacity, the elevating and sublimely glorious idea of a God. It is such a being that is smitten and blasted. The first work of slavery is to mar and deface those characteristics of its victims which distinguish men from things, and persons from property. Its first aim is to destroy all sense of high moral and religious responsibility. It reduces man to a mere machine. It cuts him off from his Maker, it hides from him the laws of God, and leaves him to grope his way from time to eternity in the dark, under the arbitrary and despotic control of a frail, depraved, and sinful fellow-man. As the serpent-charmer of India is compelled to extract the deadly teeth of his venomous prey before he is able to handle him with impunity, so the slaveholder must strike down the conscience of the slave before he can obtain the entire mastery over his victim.                                                        The Nature of Slavery. Extract from a Lecture on Slavery, at Rochester, December 1, 1850


Interpreters such as Bob Stevenson of the Maplewood Avenue neighborhood and Dr. David Anderson with Nazareth College, have generously donated their wisdom and time to the Lower Falls Foundation Stevenson is an expert on the local history of the gorge and its various mill settlements. Anderson is an expert on Douglass and the Underground Railroad. Both men are enchantingly kind, thoughtful, full of information, and happy to teach what they know to others.


I have shown that slavery is wicked—wicked, in that it violates the great law of liberty, written on every human heart—wicked, in that it violates the first command of the decalogue—wicked, in that it fosters the most disgusting licentiousness—wicked, in that it mars and defaces[345] the image of God by cruel and barbarous inflictions—wicked, in that it contravenes the laws of eternal justice, and tramples in the dust all the humane and heavenly precepts of the New Testament. Inhumanity of Slavery. Extract from A Lecture on Slavery, at Rochester. December 8, 1850



Without friends and mentors such as Austin Steward, Douglass’ years in Rochester would have been lonely and cold. Steward’s example lit a flame underneath Douglass to keep vigilant in the mental emancipation of African Americans everywhere.

Photo by George Payne (West Main Street in downtown Rochester, NY)


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Follow the North Star my children. Photograph by George Payne



Letter to Harriet Tubman

Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day — you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt ” God bless you ” has been your only reward. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown — of sacred memory — I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony to your character and your works, and to say to those to whom you may come, that I regard you in every way truthful and trustworthy Letter to Harriet Tubman (29 August 1868), as quoted in Harriet, the Moses of Her People (1886) by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, p. 135


There would be no black upper middle class in Rochester without the work of Frederick Douglass. He paved the way for generations to come.

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Photos by George Payne


A man’s rights rest in three boxes. The ballot box, jury box and the cartridge box. Let no man be kept from the ballot box because of his color. Let no woman be kept from the ballot box because of her sex. – Frederick Douglass



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