Last Updated on November 2, 2023
As Reverend Paul Carter described the moment when an irate shop owner threw a two-pound iron weight at the head of a small Black child and tore the flesh from the back of a young Harriett Tubman, I stared at the stern black and white photo of Harriett Tubman Davis hanging on the wall at The Harriet Tubman House Museum in Auburn, NY.
Tubman, who suffered lifelong damage from a cracked skull that cruel day, was born into slavery in 1822 and escaped in 1850 from Caroline County, MD.
Under 5-feet-tall, this small woman may have been born in a world of slavery, but she became a legendary leader who led no less than 13 missions back to slave states to free more than 70 enslaved people.
She walked, yes, WALKED, from Maryland to Canada on these trips. She worked with Women’s Rights Activist Susan Anthony, served as a Civil War Spy, and became the first woman to lead an armed assault during wartime.
The Harriett Tubman Home is a non-profit established by the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church located on Tubman’s homestead. A guided tour of the property pulls no punches about the horrors of slavery.
Susan B. Anthony Museum and House
Earlier in the week of my visit, I gazed at the elegant profile of Susan B. Anthony at the Susan B. Anthony Museum and House in Rochester and realized I was sadly ignorant of the sacrifices many women made so I could cast my ballot in today’s elections.
Sitting at a place of honor in Anthony’s home was a photo of her friend and civil rights abolitionist Frederick Douglass, also born into slavery, another who fought relentlessly to end the practice.
I had ventured into The Finger Lakes region of New York for fall leaf peeping, winery visits, and hikes among New York State’s thundering waterfalls, but instead, I found myself reeling with the history of people who created a life of freedom and equality for me.
I realized how much I took for granted these warriors who risked everything in order for me, 100-plus years later, to vote, be paid a fair wage, manage my own finances and much more.
Fighting for the Rights of Women
I first stumbled upon Susan B. Anthony’s story in grade school, but like many kids just waiting for the bell to ring, I didn’t really absorb just how much I owed to this woman a century gone.
On a rainy afternoon in Rochester, I met Ms. Anthony again while starting a 10-day road trip through central New York’s Finger Lakes region with my travel buddy-in-crime, Lyle. We had two days in Rochester, but an unseasonably rainy day drove us to the city’s many museums.
Like many other Americans, I’m frustrated with the vitriolic state of politics, and I was longing for inspiration. I needed some sign that the hateful state of the world could still somehow change.
“Susan Brownell Anthony was born on February 15, 1820,” our tour guide at the Susan B. Anthony House explained. “To put this year into a little bit more context, during 1820, slavery still existed and a woman had no legal right to sign any documents. So, this means a woman cannot own any land or any property, and she could not keep any inheritance that might be left to her. She has no control over her wages, she cannot divorce her husband who can, however, divorce her, and she does not have any custody of her own biological children at this point. And of course, the big one – women at this point cannot vote here in the United States. This is the world Anthony was born into.”
As I further delved into her life, I was captivated by her audacious acts of rebellion. She never married, she verbally and publicly raged against the status quo, and she risked the wrath of those in power.
She dared to vote in the 1872 presidential election, an act that led to her arrest, while defending the rights of all women. Her resilience in the face of adversity was awe-inspiring, and she never gave up the fight although she died before seeing her dream realized.
The Susan B. Anthony Museum and House tour kicked off my fascination with the other key characters of New York who shaped the world I live in today.
While the museum has a modest gift shop full of books and the famous Susan B. Anthony quotes, the house next door has been painstakingly restored to be as close as possible to how it looked when Anthony lived and held her daring meetings there. Much of the decor and furniture are original, and if you sit quietly, you can almost feel her spirit.
Fighting Slavery from Central New York
That brush with Ms. Anthony led me to other figures from the central New York who still shape Americans’ lives today.
You might not expect to find a treasure trove of African-American history in Rochester, but the story of Frederick Douglass, the legendary abolitionist and speaker, is interwoven with the very fabric of this upstate gem.
Rochester is where Douglass truly found his voice both as an orator and a champion of freedom. Rochester was where he gave his famous speech on July 5, 1852, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”
He also played a key role in freeing enslaved Americans through his relationship with Amy and Isaac Post, whose home served as a station on the Underground Railroad, dangerously holding as many as 20 freedom seeking souls at a time.
Born enslaved in Maryland in 1818, Douglass fled the South and moved to Rochester in 1847. He stayed for 25 years, gaining prominence as a speaker and activist. He became editor of the North Star newspaper in Rochester and coordinated Underground Railroad efforts in the area, while also attending the first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848 as the only African-American male speaker at that historic gathering.
Frederick Douglass in Rochester, NY
I should have known Douglass would play a big role in my visit to the region since in 2020, the Greater Rochester International Airport renamed itself Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport in his honor. That was only the start.
Douglass and Susan B. Anthony worked side-by-side in support of voting rights and civil rights and a bronze sculpture titled “Let’s Have Tea” in Susan B. Anthony Square commemorates their friendship and is one of the many tributes to Douglass around the community.
The Frederick Douglass Monument in Highland Park stands proudly at the corner of South Avenue and Robinson Drive. Unveiled in 1899 in front of New York Central Train Station, it was the first statue dedicated to an African-American in the country, a dedication attended by 10,000 people, including the then-New York Governor Theodore Roosevelt.
The statue was moved to Highland Park, Rochester in 1941 because, although Douglass moved to Washington D.C. in 1872, Rochester is where he is laid to rest.
Visitors can learn more about Douglass’s legacy through a self-guided Frederick Douglass Walking Tour that features 13 life-size replicas of the famous Frederick Douglass Monument in Highland Park. Each replica is at locations around Rochester significant to Douglass’s life, and each includes a QR code explaining the site’s historical significance as it relates to the historic figure.
Rochester continues to honor the freedom fighter with The Douglass-Anthony Bridge, which spans over the Genesee River. The Rochester Institute of Technology is also home to the Frederick Douglass Institute for African and African-American Studies.
Seward House Museum
Just up the road, in a much grander domicile, is the Seward House Museum, the historic home of William Henry Seward.
Seward served in the 1800s as a New York State Senator, Governor of New York, a U.S. Senator and as Secretary of State in the Lincoln and Johnson administrations. He too fought for the equal rights of all and remained morally opposed to slavery throughout his legal and political career.
Seward was a key figure in President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, and because of that, he was brutally attacked and nearly killed in his Washington home the same night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
Seward survived that attack and went on to serve in President Andrew Johnson’s cabinet. He’s also famous for negotiating the purchase of Alaska, which is perhaps the achievement he is most remembered for.
For me, however, it was his work with President Lincoln that made the most difference.
Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Gravesites
At the historic Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, a three-hour line weaved around the grave of Susan B. Anthony after the 2016 presidential election.
It had become a tradition to place the “I voted” stickers upon her grave monument at this cemetery – the same resting place as Douglass as well. The highly-charged 2016 election saw thousands of people continuing the tradition. Thousands also mailed in their stickers to place on the suffragette’s gravestone.
I may have been late to the party, but Anthony’s story, and the tales of Douglass, Tubman and Seward became a roadmap for my own journey.
In the end, I discovered these activists were not just forgotten history; they were lessons in reclaiming my own power as an advocate, standing up for what I believe in and refusing to back down in the face of adversity.
I learned to become a fighter in my own life, and in doing so, I hope to honor the legacy and sacrifice of those who so bravely inspired me.