No celebration of Black History Month would be complete without honoring Frederick Douglass, considering his monumental influence on the abolition of slavery and equal rights movements for all races and for women. All of these movements for social justice, led him to form deep connections with the kindred spirits he found in the Farmington Quaker Community and the people who gathered in and around the 1816 Meetinghouse.
Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in 1818 on a plantation in Maryland, eventually escaping to New Bedford, Massachusetts, when he was twenty. In Boston he began his long career as a public speaker and defender of equal rights. In 1845 Douglass wrote his autobiography, which would eventually become known as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, one of the first published accounts of slavery told from the perspective of an enslaved person. It was after a tour promoting this book that Douglass bought his freedom and started his own anti-slavery newspaper, The North Star, based in Rochester. The North Star’s motto was “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren.”
Douglass’s ties to the 1816 Meetinghouse are strong, and especially through several prominent Quaker families who were associated with the Meetinghouse, most notably J.C. (Joseph) Hathaway, his wife Esther, and his sister, Phebe of Farmington and Thomas and Mary Ann M’Clintock and daughter Elizabeth of Waterloo. J.C. Hathaway was one of the organizers and of the Western New York State Anti-Slavery Society, while Phebe Hathaway helped form the Farmington Female Antislavery Society. After one visit to Farmington, Douglass wrote, “If there had been nothing else to contribute to our pleasure, the company of Joseph C. Hathaway, a faithful friend of the slavery and co-laborer in the cause of the oppressed, and his excellent wife (Esther Hathaway) and family of interesting children, added to whom was the noble hearted Anna Adams, these themselves were sufficient.” (HSR 98).
J. C. Hathaway, Charles Lenox Redmond (a free Black abolitionist), and Frederick Douglass toured the region in the winter of 1848 speaking on behalf on the Western New York Anti-slavery Society, including a stop on Farmington on Feb 23, 1848. With Martin Delany, Douglass also spoke in Farmington in August 1848, urging Quakers who voted to vote for the Free Soil Party.
In 1857, Douglass delivered one of his most notable speeches, “If There is No Struggle, There is No Progress,” in Bemis Hall in Canandaigua, just south of Farmington. “The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle,” he argued.
“The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. 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. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.
This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
Douglass credited these lectures in Farmington, Canandaigua, and elsewhere with helping him to develop his power personal style and independent views. In his 1893 autobiography, he recalled:
“I did not rely alone upon what I could do by the paper, but would write all day, then take a train to Victor, Farmington, Canandaigua, Geneva, Waterloo, Batavia, or Buffalo, or elsewhere, and speak in the evening, returning home afterwards or early in the morning, to be again at my desk writing or mailing papers. . . .I have come to think that, under the circumstances it was the best school possible for me. It obliged me to think and read, it taught me to express my thoughts clearly, and was perhaps better than any other course I could have adopted.”
Abolitionism overlapped with the growing movement for women’s equality. Accompanied by Quakers, Frederick Douglass attended the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York, on July 19-20, 1848. He was the only known African American to sign the Declaration of Sentiments. When Elizabeth Cady Stanton asked the assembly to pass a resolution asking for women’s suffrage, many of those present opposed the idea, including influential Quaker Lucretia Mott. Douglass spoke eloquently in favor of women’s suffrage and convinced the convention to pass the resolution by a small margin. In his editorial in The North Star, Douglass recalled the “marked ability and dignity” of the proceedings.
Douglass was allied with many Quakers, including Amy Post, in the Underground Railroad. In one incident, he sent a freedom seeker to Farmington to help his escape to Canada. “I can say I never did more congenial, attractive, fascinating, and satisfactory work,” wrote Douglass, although “as a means of destroying slavery, it was like an attempt to bail out the ocean with a teaspoon.”
After the Civil War, Douglass moved to Washington D.C. He died at his home in Anacostia in 1895. His last public act was to attend a woman’s rights convention. He kept property in Rochester until he died, however, perhaps so that he would have an official voting residence. After a funeral at Central Presbyterian Church in Rochester, he was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, in Rochester New York, not far from his friend Susan B. Anthony. Local African Americans raised funds to erect the first full-length public stature of an African American.
Today, you can visit Douglass’ grave at Mt. Hope Cemetery, his statue (now in the new Frederick Douglass Memorial Plaza), a statue of Douglass and Susan B. Anthony located in Susan B. Anthony Square, and an exhibit, “Flight to Freedom,” at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. At the 1816 Farmington Quaker Meetinghouse, you can also see a bench that was in Central Presbyterian Church at the time of Douglass’s funeral.
You can read more about Douglass’s involvement with Farmington in our Historic Structure Report.