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Remembering Frederick Douglass on his 200th birthday

February 13, 2018
photo of a spoon bearing the image of Frederick DouglassLike most African Americans born into slavery, Frederick Douglass was never told the date and year of his birth. He chose February 14 as the day on which to celebrate it, and in 2018 we celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. At the University of Rochester, one of the most extensive collections of Douglass artifacts in the country can be found in Rush Rhees Library. (University of Rochester photos / J. Adam Fenster)

This year marks the 200th birthday of the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass, who spent his most active years in Rochester, publishing the North Star newspaper in a second-story office in the Talman Building downtown.

One of the most extensive collections of Douglass artifacts can be found at the University of Rochester in the Rush Rhees Library’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation. The collection comes from multiple sources, with the largest cache—more than 100 letters—traced to the papers of Isaac and Amy Post, two Rochester abolitionists and friends of Douglass.

Included in the collection are photographs, newspapers, ephemera, books, and a large array of letters written by Douglass that span several decades, notes Jessica Lacher-Feldman, assistant dean and the Joseph N. Lambert and Harold B. Schleifer Director of Rare Books, Special Collections and Preservation at Rush Rhees. “Most remarkable are his letters that are part of the Isaac and Amy Post Papers, which shed light on his decades-long friendship and collaboration with this radical activist family in Rochester,” she says.

Along with the many letters in the collection are samples of Douglass’s speeches, the North Star newspaper, a lock of his hair, and memorabilia commemorating his death.

“The Post papers and other Douglass letters have been digitized and are freely available online,” says Lacher-Feldman. “We are working to revise and update our Frederick Douglass digital presence as part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of his birth.”

Douglass spent 25 years in Rochester and is buried in Mount Hope Cemetery, adjacent to the University’s River Campus.

Like most African Americans born into slavery, Douglass was never told the date of his birth. He chose February 14 as the day on which to celebrate it.

From the collections

Two “passes” for the Underground Railroad.

Souvenir sterling silver spoon with embossed image of Frederick Douglass and the words “Born 1817 Maryland” inscribed on it.

Keepsake glass paperweight produced for, or shortly after, the unveiling of Rochester’s Frederick Douglass monument in 1899. It shows the original location of the monument in downtown Rochester. In 1941 the monument was moved to a site in Highland Park near the location of Douglass’ home, and will be moved in 2018 in honor of the 200th anniversary of his birth, to a more prominent location in Highland Park, near where his former residence once stood.

lock of hair on a piece of paper with the hand written words Frederick Douglass

Lock of Frederick Douglass’s hair, 1869. Frederick Douglass lived during a time when it was common to give a lock of hair as a personal remembrance.

“Red, Black and Blue.” Artist’s rendering of Frederick Douglass on the American flag, signed and numbered “P. Conant” and produced circa 1960 or 1970. We do not have a lot of information about this print or the artist that created it, but it is a striking reminder that 20th century artists saw Frederick Douglass as an important symbol of American history.

“Men of color, to arms! Now or never!” This broadside was produced in Philadelphia in 1863, and is a call to arms for African-American men to join the Union Army and fight in the Civil War. As a leading abolitionist, Douglass lent his name to recruitment efforts.

In this undated letter, Douglass asks his friend Amy Post to shelter a runaway slave.

In this letter dated October 28, 1847, Douglass announces to his friend Amy Post that he has decided to run his newspaper, The North Star, out of Rochester, New York.

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