Rediscovering Frederick Douglass



A Remarkable Image

Mayor Lovely A. Warren unveiled a unique image of famed abolitionist, human rights advocate, writer, orator, advisor to President Abraham Lincoln and statesman, Frederick Douglass on February 18, 2016 at City Hall. Watch the unveiling event.

2018 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederick Douglass. Click here to read more about the bicentennial celebration.

The image was found in the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division. Mayor Warren was joined by City Council Vice President Dana Miller, community members, Library Director Patty Uttaro, City Historian Christine Ridarsky, local scholars and students at City Hall to celebrate this historic discovery. 



 “We are thrilled to have rediscovered this remarkable image of Frederick Douglass in the heart of our city,” said Mayor Warren. “The legacy of this great American—the leader of the abolitionist movement who lived most of his life here in Rochester—makes us proud. The Rochester Public Library is a treasure trove of our city’s rich history and we are elated to be able to add this stunning photo to the timeline of Frederick Douglass’ story, to be appreciated by generations to come.”

Frederick Douglass, a former slave and eminent human rights leader, was profoundly aware of photography and the power of an image, as demonstrated in his writings and speeches. This is underscored with the collection of existing portraits of Douglass, created between 1841 and 1895. Scholars have confirmed that Douglass was, in fact, the most photographed man of the 19th century, more so than President Abraham Lincoln, George Custer or Walt Whitman.

Douglass called Rochester home from 1847 to 1872, and lived here longer than anywhere else in his life. In Rochester he published his newspapers, the North Star and Frederick Douglass’ Paper, assisted friends Amy and Isaac Post in Underground Railroad activities, hosted runaway slaves in his own home, gave speeches, supported women’s suffrage alongside Susan B. Anthony and much more before moving to Washington D.C. in 1872. He is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery.

Found in a Scrapbook

The Douglass photograph was discovered during routine maintenance of artifacts last fall in the Special Collections of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division. Library page Kristy Hoffman noticed the scrapbook, donated to the library more than a century ago, was in need of repairs and brought it to the attention of Librarian Cheri Crist. The scrapbook, typical of the late 19th century was one in a volume of 10 that contained many notable Rochester citizens, landscapes and buildings, newspaper clippings and other memorabilia. The scrapbook was created by Mr. William H. James, a postal carrier who lived downtown and may have crossed paths with Douglass during his lifetime. As Crist was turning the pages of the book she found a picture of Frederick Douglass that she had never seen before--and that’s where the story begins.

After extensive research on the photo, which included consulting with scholars at the University of Rochester as well as with authors John Stauffer, Zoe Trodd and Celeste-Marie Bernier who recently published “Picturing Frederick Douglass: An Illustrated Biography Of The 19th Century's Most Photographed American,” it was confirmed that the photo was indeed previously “undiscovered.”

The photograph, of Douglass as an elder statesman, has been professionally restored by Paper and Photograph Conservator Gary E. Albright, and dated by City Historian Christine Ridarsky and George Eastman Museum photography curators Jamie Allen and Heather Shannon to approximately 1873.

Mayor Warren played a video greeting from the great, great, great, great granddaughters of Frederick Douglass, Dharma Douglass Skinner, and Zoë Douglass Skinner of East Windsor, N.J. The unveiling event also featured performances of excerpts from Douglass’ speeches and writings by several past winners of the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site Oratorical Contest: Eric Daniels of School of the Arts, Campbell McDade Clay of Brighton High School, and Tian-Xing Stephens of McQuaid Jesuit High School. All three students attended elementary school at Rochester City School #12, located on the site of the Douglass homestead, and are alumni of the Frederick Douglass Club created by Michelle Garcia-Daniels.

Documentary Available for Viewing

“Rediscovering Frederick Douglass,” will air at 10:30 p.m. on WXXI-HD on Monday, Jan. 15, 2018 and at 4:30 a.m. on Sunday, Jan. 21, 2018. DVDs are available for checkout at all City branch libraries as well as to students at every Rochester City School District secondary school.

The Mayor’s Communications Bureau followed the story of the newly discovered photo and produced a documentary titled “Rediscovering Frederick Douglass” that explores the interesting life of the owner of the photo, the mystery surrounding this unique image and provides a look into the restoration work that was done to preserve the photo. The documentary was created by City Communications Bureau staff members, William Schwappacher, Director, and Tiana Stephens, Producer.

"Under the leadership of historian Christine Ridarsky, the Rochester Public Library’s Local History and Genealogy Division has found and preserved countless photos, artifacts, and documents significant to the history of Rochester and the Genesee Valley," said Uttaro. "It is through the diligent work of librarians like Cheri Crist, who discovered the Douglass image, that our history is preserved, documented, and, most importantly, shared with our community."

The Douglass photo was  displayed in the visitor’s area of City Hall from mid-February to March 16, 2016 along with additional materials from the Library’s special collections. The display includes other photos of Douglass, an original copy of The North Star, as well as items from the Rochester Museum & Science Center’s Albert R. Stone Collection and the University of Rochester’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections & Preservation. 

Douglass DVDS