Monday, January 18, 2010

Why we owe Haiti more than support

Working in the "history business" I am not usually surprised when some event or person from the past resonates with my life today.

In preparing for The Landmark Society’s event "Walk the Walk: Encounters with Rochester’s African-American Ancestors" it crossed my mind to take a look at Frederick Douglass’ service, late in life, as an American ambassador.
I knew it was to a Caribbean island, but had to check to see which one.
Mr. Douglass was appointed by President Benjamin Harrison as "Minister in Residence and Consulate General to Haiti." He served from 1889 to 1891, when he was in his early 70’s.

We are all thinking about Haiti these days, aren’t we?

It seems a lot of Americans were also thinking about Haiti during Douglass’ time – but not with the empathy and support most of us are feeling today. This was at a time when America was much divided about the country of Haiti, as many remembered when an "uprising" of enslaved people revolted and took their freedom at the beginning of the 19th century – and even after emancipation here, that apparently made many Americans nervous.

Douglass became an advocate for Haiti, and when the Haitian pavilion opened at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Douglass was invited to speak.
The internet is full of transcriptions of that speech, given on January 2, 1893. It’s a lecture, really - describing the country, the people, the politics, how our country might benefit from Haiti and how Haiti might benefit from the U.S.
To me, the most amazing segment of the speech is where Frederick Douglass credits the revolt in Haiti with starting the wheels of change rolling that ultimately resulted in freedom for many across the globe.

Here are a few excerpts, in the words of The Great Orator:

"We should not forget that the freedom you and I enjoy to-day; that the freedom that eight hundred thousand colored people enjoy in the British West Indies; the freedom that has come to the colored race the world over, is largely due to the brave stand taken by the black sons, of Haiti ninety years ago. When they struck for freedom, they built better than they knew. Their swords were not drawn and could not be drawn simply for themselves alone. They were linked and interlinked with their race, and striking for their freedom, they struck for the freedom of every black man in the world."

"It is said of ancient nations, that each had its special mission in the world and that each taught the world some important lesson. The Jews taught the world a religion, a sublime conception of the Deity. The Greeks taught the world philosophy and beauty. The Romans taught the world jurisprudence. England is foremost among the modern nations in commerce and manufactures. Germany has taught the world to think, while the American Republic is giving the world an example of a Government by the people, of the people and for the people."

"Among these large bodies, the little community of Haiti, anchored in the Caribbean Sea, has had her mission in the world, and a mission which the world had much need to learn. She has taught the world the danger of slavery and the value of liberty. In this respect she has been the greatest of all our modern teachers."

" … Until Haiti struck for freedom, the conscience of the Christian world slept profoundly over slavery. It was scarcely troubled even by a dream of this crime against justice and liberty…. "

"Until she spoke no Christian nation had abolished Negro slavery. Until she spoke no Christian nation had given to the world an organized effort to abolish slavery. … Until she spoke, the slave trade was sanctioned by all the Christian nations of the world, and our land of liberty and light included."

Yes, we are all thinking about Haiti these days – offering our sympathy and our support. But history has reached out to me today, and taught me that I also owe the legacy of Haiti a debt of gratitude.

Cindy Boyer, Director of Museums and Education.

Experience "Walk the Walk: Encounters with Rochester's African-American Ancestors"
Free Performance Friday February 12th at 7 pm
Mt Olivet Baptist Church
141 Adams Street
Rochester, NY

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

A comeback for a 1950s icon

The much-lamented Donuts Delite has come back to life! This iconic post-war building at the corner of Culver and Empire has been vacant for several years since the business closed, but reopened as both Donuts Delite and a new outpost of Salvatore's Pizza. I can't wait to get back there for the donuts and the wonderful 1950s atmosphere.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Director of Preservation Services


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Rochester's Newest Landmark

It's official: the house at 271 Hamilton Street, which I referred to in the post below, was confirmed as the City of Rochester's newest landmark property by the city's Planning Commission yesterday.

Congratulations to Jean Czerkas, Tim O'Connell, and Ann Parks, and to homeowner Sherri Dukes for this well-deserved recognition of an important historic site!

See our website for more on what landmark designation means and how to pursue it.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Director of Preservation Services


Thursday, January 7, 2010

Recognition for a forgotten Frederick Douglass site

Last night the City of Rochester's Preservation Board rung in the new year by voting in favor of designation of an exciting new city landmark. The house at 271 Hamilton Street was discovered, through a serendipitous find followed by years of painstaking research, to be the only known surviving house in Rochester owned and occupied by Frederick Douglass.

Douglass lived in Rochester for much of the most productive period of his life, and this city was his home base for some of his most significant work in the abolition and women's rights movements. Both his first house, at 297 Alexander Street, and his main Rochester home, on South Avenue, have been lost, leaving Rochester with no house associated with Douglass - until the discovery of the Hamilton Street property.

According to the landmark nomination, which was based on research by local historians Jean Czerkas and Tim O'Connell and written by Ann Parks, our former deputy director, "Douglass is known to have invested in real estate in the city, and in 1855, he purchased the property at 271 Hamilton Street. In 1872, Douglass deeded the property to his daughter Rosetta Sprague where she and her husband Nathan Sprague lived until 1876, when Nathan Sprague encountered financial difficulties and both subsequently moved to Washington. Frederick Douglass took back ownership of the house in 1877, retaining it until his death in 1895. Local city directories (1873 and 1874) indicate that Douglass returned several times to Rochester as he was listed as a 'boarder' at 271 Hamilton Street."

It was thrilling to hear the story from Jean of how she unexpectedly discovered that a house on what was then "Hamilton Place" was connected to the Sprague/Douglass family. Having made that initial find, Jean and Tim then did a great deal of research to locate which house it was and piece together the story of Douglass's ownership and residency. They found documentation that the Spragues purchased a marble fireplace surround for the house not long before the death of their six-year-old daughter and their departure from Rochester, and have discovered that the fireplace remains intact. The Preservation Board specifically mentioned the fireplace as part of the designation.

Also thrilling is the explanation they have deduced as to why Douglass retained the house and occasionally boarded there even after moving to Washington, D.C. Residents of the nation's capital at that time could not vote in any federal elections (they since have gained voting rights in Presidential elections), and Jean and Tim have concluded that Douglass kept the house in Rochester in order to maintain his hard-won right to vote.

At the hearing, in addition to Jean and Tim, Victoria Schmitt and Dr. David Anderson, both respected local historians with expertise in local African-American history and in Douglass's life and career, spoke eloquently in favor of the application and the property's significance. They spoke to their expectation that this house, with its tangible connection to a transcendant historical figure, will have an important future as well as an important past.

The Preservation Board voted in favor of the designation; on Monday the application goes before the Planning Board, which must also vote to approve it. Fortunately, the property owner is in favor of designation, making this an easier process.

Posted by Katie Eggers Comeau, Director of Preservation Services