Hello, I Must Be Going: Frederick Douglass’ Arrival and Departure from Rochester (Last of a Series)

“Hello, I must be going. I cannot stay; I came to say I must be going. I’m glad I came, but just the same I must be going, la la!”

Hello, I Must Be Going, [comic song]. Words and Music by Bert Kelmar and Harry Ruby. Sung by Groucho Marx in the film Animal Crackers (1930).

 Local History Rocs is a website devoted to the history of Rochester and its environs, but careful readers of this series of blog posts tracing the career of Frederick Douglass will note that he has yet to arrive here. To date he has lived in Tuckahoe County, Maryland, New York City, New Bedford, Massachusetts, and Great Britain and Ireland.

douglass in roc-house

Douglass’ first Rochester home at 297 Alexander Street.

Douglass had been in Rochester several times on his speaking tours, but finally settled here in 1847, partly due to the influence of the Rev. Thomas James, who had been his pastor in New Bedford and had previously been the pastor of the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Rochester (42 Favor Street). Wishing to start his own anti-slavery newspaper (what became The North Star), Douglass, it is commonly held, initially published the paper out of the basement of James’ former church, later moving operations to 25 Buffalo Street (what is today the Talman Building, located at 25 East Main Street).

dougalss in roc-zion

Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Favor Street

Douglass relocated due to Rochester’s reputation as the home of abolitionists, women’s rights activists, and temperance reformers. Among his staunchest friends were Underground Railroad conductors, Isaac and Amy Post, and women’s rights activist, Susan B. Anthony. It would be misleading, however, to suggest that Rochester was colorblind.

Shortly after moving into the first of his three homes (this one on Alexander Street), Douglass sent his daughter Rosetta to the nearby Seward Seminary. The principal, Lucilia Tracy, admitted her, but placed her in a class by herself due to disapproval by the school’s board of trustees. After protests from Douglass, Miss Tracy sent the white children home with notes to their parents, seeking their views on accepting Rosetta as a pupil. Due to the opposition of one parent – Horatio Gates Warner, editor of the Rochester Courier newspaper and designer of the Warner Castle on Mt. Hope Avenue – Douglass was forced to withdraw his daughter from the school. He later took part in a campaign to desegregate Rochester schools, a goal that was achieved statewide in 1857.

Douglass continued to reside in Rochester until 1872, his home and his office both functioning as Underground Railroad stations before the Civil War. After the war, much of his time was spent lecturing throughout the nation and lobbying in Washington, D.C. for civil rights. On the evening of June 3, 1872, while Douglass was once more in Washington, a fire broke out in the last home he owned here (on South Avenue, near where Highland Park is now). It was initially posited that the fire had been deliberately set.

douglass in roc-funeral

Frederick Douglass’ Funeral (1895), Central Presbyterian Church (today Hochstein School of Music).

As Douglass  exclaimed shortly after, even in one of the “most liberal of northern cities … that Ku Klux spirit … makes anything owned by a colored man a little less respected and secure than when owned by a white citizen.” Shortly after the fire, he left Rochester for good, making his home in the nation’s capital for the next 23 years. He returned to Rochester in a coffin, having died on 20 February 1895. Today, his mortal remains are buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, a pilgrimage site for all those committed to civil rights.

-Christopher Brennan

For More Information:

“Douglass (Bailey), Frederick,” in The Encyclopedia of New York State, ed. Peter Eisenstadt (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 2005), 467-468.

The Frederick Douglass Papers: Series One, Speeches, Debates and Interviews, Volume 3: 1855-1863, ed. John W. Blassingame (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986).

“Frederick Douglass’ Rochester: Mapping his Tracks in Our City,” [exhibition], Rundel Memorial Building, Rochester Public Library.

William S. McFeely, Frederick Douglass (New York: W. W. Norton, 1991).

Victoria Sandwick Schmitt, “Rochester’s Frederick Douglass, Part One,” Rochester History 67, no. 3 (Summer 2005).

Victoria Sandwick Schmitt, “Rochester’s Frederick Douglass, Part Two,” Rochester History 67, no. 4 (Fall 2005).

Published in: on May 8, 2018 at 10:00 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] As explained by Christopher Brennan (Rochester Public Library/Local History & Genealogy Division) in Hello, I Must Be Going: Frederick Douglass’ Arrival and Departure from Rochester (Last of a Serie…: […]

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