Frederick Douglass has been a career passion for renowned historian David Blight who spent decades researching what is probably the most comprehensive biography of the man who rose from slavery to global abolitionist celebrity, almost unparalleled orator (perhaps only equaled by Mark Twain) and advisor to presidents (Lincoln, Grant, Hayes and Harrison.)
Interweaving Douglass’s three autobiographies within the full spectrum of archival resources and even 21st century literary representations, Blight takes us from Douglass’ early days as a slave boy teaching himself to read to the man — considered the most photographed person in North America and second only to Queen Victoria in the world — who travelled thousands of miles and offered hundreds of thousands his prophecy of freedom. The only man to attend the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, Douglass has been called the founder of the civil rights movement in America.
Marveling at Blight’s “extraordinary biography,” as he concludes his essay, Gopnik extends his assessment of Douglass’ greatness beyond the 19th century:
In an American history including Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr., Gopnik’s suggestive endorsement that Douglass was the greatest figure so far is not so implausible.¹
In this the two hundredth anniversary of Douglass’ birth, Rochester has embraced the legacy of Douglass, especially seen in Olivia Kim’s 13 statues that now dot the city, the fiberglass semi-replicas of Douglass standing on his monument in the Highland Bowl.
At the same time, if Gopnik is right, we need to do even more to draw attention to Douglass who said Rochester would always be his home. The time has come for a state-of-the-art Douglass museum in downtown Rochester.
Like others, my first interest was what place Rochester has in Blight’s extraordinary biography. After borrowing the book from the Winton Branch Library, I initially checked the index. The references to Rochester are ample, but not overwhelming. Rochester is not the leading actor, but plays a significant role in Blight’s story. We always have to remind ourselves that Douglass spent six months of the year travelling and lecturing and was in the British Isles for extensive visits.
Nonetheless, we are there when in 1847 Douglass moves to Rochester to open the offices of the North Star (later renamed as Frederick Douglass’ Paper and then the Douglass Monthly) in the Talman Building at 25 Buffalo Street. Blight takes us through the unprecedented success of the newspaper which circulated as far away as Australia, as well as its financial shakiness that was a source of deep anxiety for Douglass. We are there when Douglass ends the Douglass Monthly after Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. We are there on June 2nd, 1872 when an arsonists’ fire destroys the Douglass home site and with it the full run of sixteen volumes of the newspapers.We are there at Corinthian Hall on July 5th, 1852 when Douglass delivers “To a Slave what is the Fourth of July.” Gopnik describes the speech — considered one of the most powerful in American history — as “a masterpiece of startling argumentative twists.” The oration — in which Douglass equates the struggle for abolition with the colonists’ struggle for independence from England — employs the “paradox of the positive” in which Douglass simultaneously praises, embraces and indicts the Constitution.
We are there when in 1859 when John Brown stays at Douglass’ home and delivers a speech at the Rochester City Hall. We are there when Douglass watches Lincoln’s train pass through Rochester en route to his inauguration. Later, we are there on November 8th, 1864 when Douglass casts his vote for Lincoln’s re-election — as also faced and scared off with his fists four drunken white men who shouted at him, “Nigger.”
During the secession crisis, Douglass stayed in Rochester. He deeply fretted that a compromise might be forged preventing war and preserving slaver. He thought President-elect Lincoln might be more of a friend to slavery than a foe. During this period, Douglass considered emigrating to Haiti. He went to a farewell event for African-American Rochesterians who were going to Haiti. But Douglass stayed.
We see him on May 3rd, 1861 join some twenty thousand Rochestarians who gathered in the city center to watch and cheer as eight companies of soldiers paraded to the train station and off to war to become the Thirteenth New York Volunteers. As thrilled as Douglass was, he bemoaned that no black men were part of Rochester’s first war parade. Later, Douglass’ sons would serve in the Union army. Lewis survived the Second Battle of Fort Wagner in which half his regiment was killed.
Then, on Sunday December 28th, 1862 at the pulpit of the Spring Street AME Zion Church, three days before Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Douglass gave an address that Blight says, “In words and sentiments he [Douglass] had dreamed of saying for most of his nearly forty-three years.”
Looking forward to the day of Jubilee, Douglass told his rapt audience:
In 1872 and 1873, Douglass decided not to rebuild his home and moved permanently to his second residence in Washington, D.C. But Douglass never cut ties with Rochester. One of his last visits was on Memorial Day, 1892 when along with President Benjamin Harrison — who appointed Douglass as U.S. minister resident and consul general to Haiti in 1889 — dedicated the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument in Washington Square Park with the marble statue of Lincoln looking down.
Douglass would return one more time. Eight days after his death on February 20th, 1895, Douglass was buried in Rochester:
After the church service in the afternoon, dozens of carriages followed the hearse out to Mt. Hope Cemetery, and on a gentle hillside Douglass was laid to rest in the winter landscape.
Rochester plays a prominent role in Blight’s discussions of Douglass’ complicated personal life. Douglass had a distant marriage with his wife Anna Murray who was not a kindred intellectual spirit. Douglass had intimate relationships with two white women, Julia Griffiths (British) and Ottilie Assing (German) that may or may not have been erotic. We are there on the homestead where Griffiths and Assing lived at various times as husband/wife and friend negotiate truces. We also see Douglass and Griffiths walking arm in arm on the streets of Rochester to the delight of gossips.Blight also chronicles of the comings and goings and struggles of Douglass’ children. For Douglass, a former slave, the concept of home and family were fundamental to freedom. The Douglass family had its share of strife and tension — Douglass complained that his children always needed money — but, as Gopnik suggests, Douglass’ ability to be both a global abolitionist celebrity and a good father is part of his remarkable legacy.
One element of the book surprised me. Blight says very little about the relationship between Douglass and Susan B. Anthony. Douglass and Anthony had a friendship, though not a deep one, but clashed sharply when Douglass did not push for a constitutional amendment giving the vote to women. On the Douglass-Anthony relationship writes:
The “touching monument” is Pepsy Kettavong’s “Let’s Have Tea” in Anthony Square.² Overall, Blight is probably right about the romanticized Douglass/Anthony narrative existing in Rochester’s collective historical consciousness — even a bridge named after them both.
In October 2017, GEVA theater performed the World Premier of The Agitators, described in the playbill:
The Agitators tells of the enduring but tempestuous friendship of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. Great allies? Yes. And at times, great adversaries. Young abolitionists when they met in Rochester in the 1840s, they were full of hopes, dreams and a common purpose. As they grew to become the cultural icons we know today, their movements collided and their friendship was severely tested. This is the story of that 45-year friendship – from its beginning in Rochester, through a Civil War and to the highest halls of government. They agitated the nation, they agitated each other and, in doing so, they helped shape the Constitution and the course of American history.
When I saw the play, I accepted the warmth between the two in their supposed 45 year friendship, especially in the scene above in which they are imagined together at one of Douglass’ sons baseball games. After reading Blight, I think The Agitators substituted mythology for reality.
1. Also see Eric Foner’s discussion of Blight’s Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom in The Nation, “The Double Battle: Frederick Douglass’s moral crusade” (10/26/18) and Brent Staples review, “Frederick the Great” in The New York Times Book Review (11/11/18)
2. In 2014 Dr. Anne Klaeysen, a Leader of the New York Society for Ethical Culture, wrote a play imagining the conversation over tea. The play fits within the romanticized narrative describe by Blight.
ALSO ON DOUGLASS