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Douglass property deed shows abolitionist’s interest in economic development

A deed discovered by a team from Rochester Institute of Technology in December shows that Frederick Douglass made efforts to invest in Rochester, and not just live and work here.

The famed abolitionist, who was born into slavery 200 years ago and lived in Rochester for 25 years, bought land on North Clinton Avenue in April 1863. The land has been part of the Sibley Building property for more than a century.

“This is an important document and we’re thrilled to have found out about it during the Douglass bicentennial,” said Richard Newman, a history professor in RIT’s College of Liberal Arts, who identified the document while working with undergraduate students at the Rochester Historical Society. “This property deed tells us that Douglass saw Rochester not only as his activist home, but a community that he wanted to invest and build in as a businessman and civic leader.”

Carolyn Vacca, professor of history at St. John Fisher College and historical society president, said, “We’re proud that the historical society has preserved this key record of Douglass’s business career for so many years. It shows that we are truly Rochester’s story keeper.”

Newman suggested the land could have been meant as a home for Douglass’ printing business or as housing for fellow African-Americans returning from the war.

“Whatever he wanted to do, Douglass felt strongly about tying his future to the city of Rochester. It’s where he matured as an activist, an editor, a community leader and a statesman.”

During the war, however, Douglass was often traveling on speaking tours and to drum up Union support. He was unable to keep up with mortgage payments on the property and the land reverted to the original owner, a white neighbor of Douglass’ when he lived on Alexander Street.

“It’s pretty clear that the toll and sacrifice of the Civil War led to his losing of the property,” Newman said. Once they found the deed, Newman and the RIT students dove into research of Douglass’ letters and other documents to try to understand why he lost the property two years later. After regaining the property, the original owner sold it for twice what Douglass had paid for it—a little more than $3,000.

“We can trace what he’s saying and thinking at this time. Going through these letters, he’s also thinking about the costs of the Civil War and his and his family’s recruiting efforts,” Newman said. Three sons, for instance, were in the Union army but received no pay for more than a year when they protested being paid less than while recruits.

The tale of the property and its loss also reflects the larger story of how hard it was for African-Americans to amass wealth during the 19th century, a time when other self-made men who were white—Carnegie and Rockefeller among them—were making fortunes.

“Douglass helped win the Civil War but he lost an important investment,” Newman said.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren said, “The discovery of this important property deed sheds new light on the life and work of Frederick Douglass in Rochester and demonstrates that he fully understood, just as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would articulate some 100 years later, that true freedom for former slaves must also include economic equality. We already know of Douglass as an author, orator and abolitionist, and now we also know him as one of Rochester’s earliest investors.”

Douglas moved to Washington in 1872, but maintained a home on Hamilton Street and was buried in Rochester. His continuing land ownership may have reflected the need to hold onto assets that would allow him to vote in this state, Newman said. But he also counseled his children to invest in land and seemed to feel safety by owning land in the North.

“Douglass linked property with suffrage, property with equality,” Newman said.

Newman said he hoped the document will be displayed at some future event celebrating the Douglass bicentennial.

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