African American Heritage In Rochester, NY
History & Heritage: African American Contributions From Rochester To The Nation
Rochester stands as an American beacon on several fronts, but none as noteworthy as its African American residents’ historical contributions to the culture of the United States. Many stories can be told about New York State’s third largest city and its area.
These residents have helped build the city and the nation since its incorporation in 1834. A large part of that legacy is tied to abolitionist, author and ambassador Frederick Douglass who lived here for 25 years.
Take an Underground Railroad tour downtown, or just go to the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and pieces of Douglass’ life and work are celebrated. A number of historical markers designate significant events in Douglass’ life during his stay in Rochester, including his Highland Farm off South Avenue. Those who want to see the great advocate for freedom and women’s rights today can visit his eight-foot likeness on a monument near the Highland Park amphitheater along South Ave., and also go down the block on Reservoir Ave. to the 196-acre Mount Hope Cemetery, along Mt. Hope Ave., where Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, two of the city’s most historic former residents are among the cemetery’s 350,000 souls. Douglass’ story is not alone when it comes to African Americans who contributed to the growth of the city and the country. Harriet Tubman, a former slave dubbed “Moses” for the numbers of slaves she led to freedom in the North and Canada, often visited the city. Or, take the hour drive east to Auburn, N.Y. to visit the Harriet Tubman House and Museum at 180 South St. For more information, call 315-252- 2081.
Rochester history shows that African Americans of all backgrounds, many not as well-known as Douglass, helped build the road to freedom. The Rev. Thomas James, an escaped slave, was the founding pastor of the Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The original church building’s basement was home to Douglass’ North Star newspaper. The congregation holds an unparalleled place in Rochester’s African- American history and those of the nation. The original building provided shelter for hundreds of escaped slaves led to freedom by Harriet Tubman, and was a site for Susan B. Anthony’s last public address. The 190- year-old congregation now worships at 549 Clarissa St.. where some memorial windows and other memorabilia are displayed. For more information, call 585-546-5997, or check www.memorialamez.org.
In 1894, when black Civil War soldiers were not included in the city’s Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Washington Park, community members affiliated with the Prince Hall Masons started a campaign to build national tributes to Douglass and to the U.S. Colored Troops who fought for the Union. The plan was to have a national monument in Rochester. Ultimately, The Douglass Monument, was chosen as the project to complete, and became the first statuary in the United States to honor an African American, installed June 9, 1899. Another staunch supporter of the effort was Austin Steward, a runaway slave who became one of the city’s most prominent businessmen, whose bust is in the hotel atrium across from the Riverside Convention Center. Other noteworthy and historic residents include Harriet Jacobs, author of the antislavery classic Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl.
Published on the eve of the Civil War, in 1861, the most prominent slave narrative written by any former slave other than Douglass sparked a firestorm of reaction similar to that of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The author is featured in “Flight to Freedom: Rochester’s Underground Railroad,” housed at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, one of three permanent exhibitions developed as Regional Underground Railroad Interpretive Centers. Visitors can trace the routes and adventures of Jacobs, Douglass, Steward, the Rev. Thomas James, and others who struggled against the scourge of slavery. Discover how they freed themselves and made new lives. Meet courageous people who helped them on their journey and fought to end slavery.
The city annually holds a ceremony to honor the Civil War United States Colored Troops. Information can be obtained from Akwaaba: The Heritage Associates, Inc., 585-482-5192. Visitors can also find their graves included in the Grand Army of the Republic section at the Mount Hope Cemetery. Contact The Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery, 1133 Mt. Hope Ave., or call (585) 621-3529, or check the website for information on walking tours.
Underground Railroad history continues to involve the national, statewide and city efforts to complete the American story. The passage to freedom that flourished from the late 18th century until the end of the Civil War, harbored a string of secret hideaway through 29 states and Washington, D.C.
Thousands of freedom seekers used the trail to northern states and to Canada. For hundreds of those the Rochester area was a hub and a gateway. Among the most prominent former Underground Railroad stations are:
• The Henry Quinby farm by Mendon Ponds Pk.
• The David H. Richardson farm on East Henrietta Rd. near Castle Rd.
• The Warrant farm in Brighton, now 1956 West Henrietta Rd.
• The old Frederick Douglass farm home near Highland Park
• The Harvey Humphrey, Esp. house at 669 Genesee St.
Visitors can still get a feel for what the freedom seekers might have seen at Kelsey’s Landing, often the gateway to freedom in Canada. Constructed in 1844 in the Genesee River Gorge just north of the Lower Falls near downtown, the landing served as Rochester’s dominant port until rail lines connected the city’s downtown to the port on Lake Ontario at Charlotte. The Landmark Society of Western New York’s book, The City of Frederick Douglass: Rochester's African-American People and Places, offers another way to explore this rich heritage.
Beyond the Underground Railroad, visitors will find the city’s African American vibrant legacy in arts and culture at annual festivals, and a tremendous growth in theater productions. C. Kirkland Rivers, owner of Mood Makers Books in Village Gate Mall has sponsored the Sankofa Theatre Festival for more than 10 years.
Also, Rochesterians continue to hold influence throughout the nation and world. Garth Fagan, head of the renowned Garth Fagan Dance company, and the Tony award-winner who choreographed Broadway’s Lion King, is headquartered in the city. Call 585-454-3260 for more information.
Rochester's most widely recognized contribution to African American history, stems from one of our most notable residents, Frederick Douglass -- abolitionist, orator and publisher. This video tells the story of the life and legacy of Frederick Douglass in Rochester, NY.