On a sunny morning in 1999, I was sitting upstairs in my house on Mount Vernon Avenue in Rochester, paging through the original deed of the house.
I was looking for the name of the home’s first owner, a signature penned more than 90 years before, and when I found it, my heart skipped a tiny beat.
I had met Sarah Blackall.
Most old documents noting financial transactions are filled with the signatures of men, so this was a surprise. Here was a woman having a house built in 1906, when women still couldn’t even vote. I needed to know more than just her name.
My search for Sarah eventually took me to archives, local history rooms, libraries and cemeteries around the Northeast. I love heavy leather books, and the dusty, oily smell of old paper, like marriage license ledgers and real estate contracts. If the pages are splotched with ink, all the better.
But first I went online. In the late 1990s, internet searches were slow (remember the clicks and beeps of the dial-up modem?), and they didn’t produce the avalanche of hits they do today. But right away I found Sarah attending the First Unitarian Church. Not long after that came a few hints at family friendships with Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.
My heart skipped again: I’d read enough about both to be familiar with their constellation of friends and supporters, or so I thought, and Blackall was not a name I knew.
I lived in Rochester for 33 years before moving across the state in 2019. Rochester outsiders always seem a little surprised to learn how central it was to some of the biggest movements in our country’s history, namely the abolition of slavery and women’s rights.
To local history buffs, names like Isaac and Amy Post, Mary and William Hallowell, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and of course the Douglasses and the Anthonys, snap to mind when these themes come up. But big change doesn’t happen without thousands of others who, like Sarah and her family, work quietly behind the scenes to power the engines.
I leaned into a quest to learn more about her, and through letters and newspaper clippings, I started stitching together the story of a family of activists whose close friendships with Anthony and the Douglasses spanned decades.
The search for Sarah
I opened an account on Ancestry (ignoring my own ancestors for the moment) and started tracing Sarah’s family tree forward and back. Sarah Blackall was 71 and a widow when she moved into her new house, an American Foursquare near today’s Highland Hospital. She was born in Boston in 1835 into a long line of abolitionists, the Colmans, and married Burton Francis “Frank” Blackall, the son of English immigrants, in 1853.
They moved to Rochester five years later, likely for Frank’s earliest work as a telegraph operator. He was part of the telecom boom, at one time superintendent of Rochester’s fire alarm and telephone system. His 1901 obituary describes him as one of New York’s leading electrical experts, who traveled extensively for his work and enjoyed a national reputation.
Two of their children, Gertrude and Florence, lived with Sarah in the house on Mount Vernon. Gertrude was almost 40 and owned a stenography business and school in the Powers Building downtown, atypical for a woman at the time. Their other children, Minnie and Robert, were married and living out of town. The family has no direct descendants today.
The first time I saw Sarah’s face, an archivist at the National Susan B. Anthony Museum and House handed me her black-and-white portrait in a protective plastic sleeve. Sarah had dark hair parted in the center and gathered in back, with a level expression and the hint of a smile. She felt so familiar, like an old friend. I held it and thought, “Of course it’s you.” (Her picture is the only one I’ve found of the family, except for a colorful, midcentury portrait of her son Robert in later years, painted by her grandson, Richard E. Bishop, a wildlife artist.)
In the early 2000s, a librarian in the local history and genealogy division of Rochester Public Library brought a copy of Sarah’s obituary to the table where I was working. I was grateful and happy for the find—it was full of details that leapfrogged my search—but I didn’t understand back then how utterly rare and special it was: a long obituary, 700 words, of a woman.
It confirmed her lifelong friendship with Susan and Mary Anthony and nearly 70 years pressing for women’s equality. She attended the national convention of the National Woman Suffrage Association more than once. (Her daughter Gertrude also was involved and was in the honor guard at Susan’s funeral.)
The obituary also praised her social work with children in the Boys’ Evening Home at the Unitarian Church, which led me to church papers in the University of Rochester archives. Started in 1890, it was a program for disadvantaged youth in Rochester. The boys were mostly poor Russian and Jewish immigrants who came a few nights a week to take classes in manual arts, current events, zoology, drawing and journalism. Sarah was one of the founders; when they needed more room, she ignored the doubters and led a successful fundraising drive to build a new annex. (The church stood where Innovation Square is now and was torn down for urban renewal.) The boys called her Mother Blackall, and in glowing tributes they wrote years later, they credited much of their success in religion, business and politics to her guidance.
I know very little about the concrete actions Sarah took mostly behind the scenes in the fight against slavery. Her obituary reveals that shortly after moving to Rochester in her twenties, she joined a group of abolitionists who met in Mary and William Hallowell’s home in Corn Hill. National leaders in the movement were at the meetings from time to time: Wendell Phillips, William Lloyd Garrison, Parker Pillsbury, Garrett Smith and John Brown.
To help people escape from slavery was a radical, illegal act—and dangerous. It’s hard to appreciate today, in an era of feel-good hashtags, what it actually meant to be a foot-soldier ally back then.
Of all the things I’ve learned so far, I’m most intrigued by the Blackalls’ friendship with Anna and Frederick Douglass. They met soon after the Blackalls moved to Rochester in 1858. It’s likely they contributed financially to The North Star, Frederick’s newspaper, but the close friendship that revealed itself in my research suggests something more. I don’t know if their homes were stops on the Underground Railroad—in the 1850s they lived on Kent, Tremont, North Chatham and Frank streets —but people helped the cause in many other ways, from providing food and clothing to transporting people to waiting boats.
While Sarah’s role is a mystery, Frank’s is not. He relayed messages for Douglass as a telegraph operator. Douglass wrote in his third autobiography that in 1859 Frank helped him avoid association with John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry. Douglass was away when he sent a telegram to Frank, then 26 years old, “a friend and frequent visitor at my house, who would readily understand the meaning of the dispatch: ‘B.F. Blackall, Esq., Tell Lewis (my oldest son) to secure all the important papers in my high desk.’ I did not sign my name, and the result showed that I had rightly judged that Mr. Blackall would understand and promptly attend to the request.”
In a 1950 letter to the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Robert Blackall recalled that as superintendent of the B&O Telegraph Co., his father overheard a competitor in the office next door tapping out a message that kidnappers were searching for Douglass. “Knowing where Mr. Douglass was hidden, he alerted him, and Fred made his way to Canada,” Robert wrote.
Letters between friends
Frank and Frederick were friends for a long time. After the Douglasses moved to Washington, D.C., in 1872, Frank kept the books for rental properties Frederick had in Rochester. In his letters, Frank laments bad tenants, crows about his redhaired granddaughter, chides Frederick for poor bookkeeping, and asks him how much he’s making as the new recorder of deeds in Washington.
In October 1880, Frank described a patriotic parade in downtown Rochester.
“We had one of the longest torchlight processions here last night that I ever saw. They walked 8 abreast, and it took 25 minutes to pass a given point. It was exciting to see the rockets and Roman candles shoot into the air amidst the booming of cannon on Court St. Bridge, and the whole procession singing, ‘John Brown’s body lies mouldering in the ground but his soul goes marching on.’
In the 1890s, Sarah and Frederick exchanged chatty letters about current events and the latest news about family and mutual friends.
“My Dear Brother Frederick … If I were in Washington now, I should go to hear those tariff discussions,” Sarah wrote in 1894. “It must be very interesting to hear them. If there is anything I enjoy more than perfect sense, it is a good square fight, and by the paper’s report of the speeches, they have them in Congress.”
Douglass was in his seventies, still speaking and receiving honors. He describes the excitement of the Columbia World’s Exposition in Chicago, where he spent six months in 1893 as former minister to Haiti. When Sarah and one of her children visited the 690-acre fair, he eagerly showed them around.
Douglass was busy and engaged, but he was also feeling the effects of age and his years away from the spotlight. And he was homesick for his friends in Rochester, where he, Anna and their children lived for 25 years.
“I only wish I was residing in dear old Rochester just now and could see you and Zerviah (Sarah’s sister) once more,” he wrote in 1894. “Do not think I can get letters from you or from any of our dear family circle too often. I am always glad to see the Rochester post mark on a letter addressed to me.”
After a visit from Sarah in 1894, he wrote: “I cannot tell you how much pleasure your visit to Cedar Hill gave my wife and myself. Nothing has occurred to me lately to bring back to me so much of my Rochester life as your visit has done.”
The two exchanged gifts over the years. In reminiscences she wrote for Rochester Historical Society in 1929, Gertrude Blackall said Frederick gave Sarah the gold pen he used to write his third autobiography, “Life and Times of Frederick Douglass,” as well as a locket containing a lock of his white hair that is now in the collection of Rochester Historical Society. Sarah made a silk case out of her wedding gown and gave it to Frederick for his beloved violin.
Memories of childhood
Gertrude also wrote about spending time with the Douglasses as a young girl in the late 1860s and early 1870s. She remembered Anna as “very likeable and hospitable” and how Frederick would get down on the floor to play with the children.
“Mr. Douglass had a great fondness for young people,” she wrote. “He taught my brother to whistle on his fingers, an accomplishment which delighted his boyish heart, as well as the child-heart of Mr. Douglass. All of us children loved him, because he was one with us in spirit.
“As we grew older, we heard him deliver some of his masterly orations, in that soft, rich voice of his, which was capable of such great power.”
As I learn more, I believe the Blackalls and the Douglass children were friends as well. Sarah and Frank were around the same age as Rosetta Douglass Sprague, the eldest sibling. When their house in Rochester burned, the Sprague family stayed with the Blackalls for a few days. The children of the neighborhood taunted Rosetta’s children repeatedly, Gertrude recalled.
“Mr. Douglass had taught them to stand for their rights, and as a result, one day one of the girls came in announcing, ‘One of those boys called me a … and I locked him.’”
The letters show that years later the bond between the families was still strong. Gertrude and Florence, then in their late twenties, sent pictures of themselves to Frederick and Helen, his second wife, in 1894.
“Dear Gerty, You have made us ever so happy,” Frederick wrote. “We are all delighted with your photograph. It is your own dear self—It looks, thinks, and almost speaks. I gave a real joyous laugh when I saw it. It was just as if you had come to Cedar Hill for a pleasant visit and thus to make us all glad.”
Florence wrote: “I cannot tell you how honored I feel at your request for my photograph. I am going to send you two—one as you used to know me when you called me Flossie, and the other taken last year.”
In September 1894, Frederick wrote to Sarah of a summer home he was building on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay, “where I expect to spend some weeks next summer in boating and fishing, and in whatever innocent employment an old man can find pleasure.”
He never had the chance. On Feb. 20, 1895, just a few weeks before the cottage was to be completed, Sarah received a telegram from Frederick’s son, Lewis: “Father dropped dead tonight.”
Eleven years later, the same year Susan B. Anthony died, Sarah moved into her home on Mount Vernon, where she continued her work for women’s rights. She lived to be almost 82 and died in 1917 in the home, perhaps even in the same upstairs room where I first ran across her name.
I have a hunger now to know as much as I can about Sarah and others who fought those long-ago fights, which more and more seem eerily contemporary. After 23 years of reading about the Blackalls and feeling their presence in the way you do with ancestors, I want to know what motivated them. Why did they get involved?
What did Sarah believe? Where did she stand on Black equality and opportunity after emancipation? How did she view the degrading language her close friends Anthony and Stanton used to usher the “intelligent” white woman’s vote ahead of the “ignorant” Black man’s? And what about Black women? What political and social complexities were at play?
The history of a house is the history of a community in all its messy complications. Finding the Blackalls’ story and just letting it unspool over the years has been more rewarding than I could have imagined the day I flipped through the deed. It’s taught me a lot about the living reality of the past. And I’m not done. I keep thinking I am, but that’s not how this works.
Sally Parker is a Rochester Beacon co-founder. She lives in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley.
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