Last year I got to celebrate Black History in Rochester, New York and learn more about the local abolitionists and African American heritage the city is known for. From Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass to Austin Steward thousands of freedom seekers traveled to and through Rochester to Canada on The Underground Railroad.
I was also excited to connect with local movers and shakers who continue to fight for diversity and equity. Most importantly, I got to share this enriching experience with my mom. This is a great 3-day itinerary for anyone interested in learning more about the rich Black History in Rochester while supporting Black-owned and minority-owned local businesses.
Arriving at Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport is always a joy. It’s a small airport which made it easy to find my mom. It also means you can pick up your rental car outside of baggage claim. By the time I finalized the car rental, our luggage was ready.
Our first stop was dinner and drinks with Jessica Lewis at Trata. Jessica is the President & CEO of LáLew Public Relations. Her expertise in DEI and impact messaging makes her a highly sought-after speaker and consultant for businesses looking to deepen their understanding of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Over a delicious mix of Asian-American fusion food, Jessica shared some of the incredible projects she’s worked on. Including campaigns for the Greater Rochester Martin Luther King Jr. Commission and the Equal Rights Heritage Center.
After dinner Mom and I checked in at the Courtyard by Marriott Rochester Downtown. The hotel was centrally located and provided free parking. After a long day of traveling and a delicious dinner, we were excited to turn in for the night and get plenty of rest to explore the next day.
The first day started at the home of suffragist and abolitionist Susan B. Anthony. During the docent-led tour at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum & House, I learned a lot more about how she fought to educate and protect Black women. As well as how her fight for equality led to a friendship with another local legend, Frederick Douglass. Next, we walked down to Susan B. Anthony Square where we found the “Let’s Have Tea” Sculpture.
Here Frederick Douglass is memorialized in bronze having tea with his friend, fellow civil rights champion, and local hero Susan B. Anthony. Rochester is proud of its roots in social justice and civil rights. This lovely greenspace was a great place to process the things we’d just learned and celebrate both of their contributions to where we are today.
Not too far from the Let’s Have Tea sculpture is the statue of Frederick Douglass at the Frederick Douglass Monument and Memorial Plaza. Just down the street from the Monument and Memorial Plaza is Women of Color New York, a unique collective of nine women-owned businesses under one roof. Here you’ll find fashion, beauty, wellness and spa services.
For dinner, we met the Executive Director of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative at Native Rochester (FDFI). I knew that Frederick Douglass made Rochester his home when he fled the South. I was aware that he was considered "Rochester's Son”, but I was surprised to learn about the extensive work the FDFI is doing around human trafficking, education, and anti-racism today. In 2019, Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives moved its headquarters to Rochester. The FDFI has a powerful mission, it “exists to honor and preserve the legacy of Frederick Douglass and to create awareness about modern-day slavery in an effort to expedite its demise.”
Next, we were blessed with the opportunity to visit Frederick Douglass at Mount Hope Cemetery with the Executive Director of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative. The Victorian cemetery spans over 196 acres, but finding Frederick Douglass resting peacefully beside his family felt right. Visiting with someone so aware of his story and the struggle to bring everyone to rest at Mount Hope Cemetery made the experience extra special.
The RMSC Museum & Science Center was our first stop on day two. We had an opportunity for interactive learning at the Flight to Freedom Exhibit. For me, this was the most powerful experience of the trip. I was introduced to abolitionists and freedom fighters that I’d never heard of, like Henry “Box” Brown and Reverend Thomas James. I also learned how people I was aware of like Harriet Jacobs joined Rochester activists in the fight to abolish slavery.
For lunch, we met with local activist Calvin Eaton nearby at Petit Poutinerie for some of the best fried brussels sprouts I’ve ever had. Calvin is the founder of 540WMain, an antiracism-focused non-profit organization that engages the community through content centering Black and Indigenous thinkers and creators. As someone with food sensitivities, Calvin brought up the topic of food equity and accessibility in marginalized communities. Meeting Calvin reminded me of the work that the Frederick Douglass Family Initiative continues to do and reaffirmed the fact that Rochester continues to work towards building a more equitable community on all fronts.
After a deeply introspective morning, it was nice to spend the afternoon having fun at The Strong National Museum of Play. Here you’ll find two floors of hands-on, dynamic, interactive exhibit spaces, and we had fun exploring them all! We marveled at the life-size American comic book superheroes. Sat still for a digital "Etch-a-Sketch" session followed by my mom beating me at pinball more times than I care to admit.
My mom was leaving Rochester early the next morning, so for our final dinner I wanted to bring her back to her Cajun roots. For dinner, we went to the French Quarter Cafe in downtown Rochester. The food at this Black-Owned Cajun-Creole restaurant was authentic and passed her NOLA taste test. The portions were generous and we enjoyed the music.
We were up early and packing on day three before I dropped my mom off at the airport. I was thrilled to learn about Tru Yoga and jumped at the chance for meditation and yoga classes before my trip ended. Tru Yoga owner Imani Olear is the first Black woman who’s ever led me in meditation. Before our hour-long session, she spoke with me about her love for travel, birds, and her community. I learned how her non-profit Yoga 4 A Good Hood creates a space of healing for BIPOC/ QTPOC and individuals with low socioeconomic status through meditation, yoga, and training. Then I took my first yoga class with a Black yoga instructor.
As a fat Black woman, I often feel excluded from the health and wellness industry due to lack of representation. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Bali and Thailand for yoga retreats and I always feel like the only one in one way or another. At Tru Yoga, I felt empowered by the diversity in size and the inclusive environment. Which was the perfect way to end my first visit to Rochester.
After class, I was full of energy and ready for my last stop in Rochester. I stopped in at Crisp Rochester which was nearby. I grabbed lunch to-go from the chic women/LGBTQ+-owned restaurant and headed to Highland Park to enjoy. Highland Park is home to the largest collection of lilacs in North America and is the site of the annual Rochester Lilac Festival. It’s also home to a statue of Frederick Douglass, which was the first statue erected to honor an African American man in the United States.
I was pleasantly surprised to see how much there was to see and do in Rochester. Exploring the area’s civil rights history with my mom is a core memory. I can’t wait to return sometime soon.
For more trip ideas in Rochester click here.