Museum momentum

Print More
The museum hopes to anchor the downtown cultural district in the Atrium Building at 140 E. Main St.
(Photo by Henry Litsky)

In a time of intense political and cultural clashes, organizers of a planned museum in downtown Rochester hope to inspire healing and reconciliation through the legacy of Frederick Douglass.

“We are as divided as a country as we’ve been in a very long time,” says Kenneth Morris Jr., cofounder and president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, the nonprofit behind the plan. “His words are as relevant today as they were all of those years ago. It’s unfortunate that they still need to be relevant, because there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

FDFI moved to Rochester in 2019 from Atlanta, bolstered by an outpouring of community recognition for Douglass in 2018, the bicentennial of his birth. Founded in 2007 by Morris and his mother, Nettie Washington Douglass, who are descended from Frederick and Anna Douglass, the nonprofit raises awareness about modern-day slavery through prevention education and a project to distribute a special edition of Douglass’ first autobiography to 1 million schoolchildren. FDFI had revenues of $243,148 in 2020, the most recent year available.

Kenneth Morris Jr.
(Photo: Celeste Sloman)

Morris is a great-great-great grandson of the Douglasses. He started feeling passionate about making a difference in the world through his family’s legacy about 15 years ago. In the Frederick Douglass Museum Center for Knowledge, Equality and Justice, he envisions a place for inquiry and reflection—for scholars, community members, change makers and history lovers from around the world.

The Douglasses and their children—who helped on the Underground Railroad and in their father’s publishing business—were a radical collective that can inspire current generations, he says. Frederick Douglass emphasized the importance of education, and the museum will help visitors understand how activism during times of great upheaval in the past can guide needed action today.

Big plans

FDFI is a small organization with a big dream. If all goes as planned, the museum will anchor the downtown cultural district in the Atrium Building at 140 E. Main St.—where FDFI has its headquarters—four to five years from now. Morris and his team began working on an 18-month feasibility study in February and have secured commitments of support from elected leaders at the city, county, state and federal levels. They’re meeting with officials on zoning and to gather and ensure consensus around the concept and its role as a centerpiece of local and state development strategies for downtown. The building sits across the street from the Hyatt Regency Rochester and the nearby convention center.

“There’s a lot happening on that block, going through redevelopment … and we see a museum like this as the cultural anchor to a project like that. And I think the mayor sees it in the same way,” Morris says.

The Douglasses lived in Rochester during one of the most tumultuous periods in U.S. history. The museum will show surprising parallels between their fight for human rights and today’s activism. The concept is still being developed, but it will include exhibitions and space for education and performances, as well as apartments where visiting scholars and speakers can stay. As for what attractions the space will hold, Morris isn’t ready to talk specifics—but he hints at using virtual reality to recreate Douglass’ scathing July 5 speech in Corinthian Hall downtown, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

Consultants and board members are all working pro bono. They include Dale Green, an architecture professor at Morgan State University in Baltimore and a partner in Sulton Campbell Britt, an African American architecture firm that was a finalist for the design of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He’ll advise an international design competition for the space—itself a way to raise the project’s profile.

A senior consultant to New York City’s second-largest real estate developer is putting together a development strategy and recruiting other prominent private-sector partners. A national political strategist and super-PAC founder who was a special assistant to President Barack Obama is advising on fundraising, with an eye toward high-net-worth individuals around the world. Morris doesn’t have an exact price tag but says the museum will be a multimillion-dollar project that involves a capital campaign outside of Rochester.

Board members include David Blight, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” and Charles Randolph-Wright, a film, TV and Broadway producer and director.

Morris says this project is seeing strong support out of the gate because it’s backed by Douglass’ own family—something previous projects lacked. He also says FDFI’s 16-year track record as an organization lends credibility.

“We’re still a small nonprofit, relatively speaking to this type of ambitious project, but we’re able to pull together the right partners and people that we need,” Morris says.

Organizers also have strong international support. Douglass avoided recapture after his first autobiography came out by spending time in England, Ireland and Scotland, where his story of oppression has long resonated. Statues, plaques, murals and building names honor him today.

Rendering courtesy of FDFI

Past effort

Douglass’ story has been inspiring people for a long time, but interest spiked in 2018, the 200th anniversary of his birth. That same year, however, a previous local effort hinging on Douglass’ legacy, the Frederick Douglass Resource Center on King Street, shut its doors.

The center opened to much fanfare in 2009. With $1.2 million in government grants, organizers remodeled a former machine shop into an auditorium, computer lab, library and exhibit space, according to an Associated Press story at the time. The Rev. Errol Hunt was the driving force; his son, Gerry Hunt, was executive director. It was a private enterprise that ultimately lacked the funds it needed to operate.

By 2018, Morris, who has been leading Underground Railroad tours with stops in Rochester for years, sensed from conversations that the city was well overdue for a museum that gave Douglass’ international stature the recognition it deserved.

“One of the things that I noticed,” he says, “was that there really was no place in Rochester where you could go and you could learn about his life”—besides glimpses at Mount Hope Cemetery, the Let’s Have Tea statue in Susan B. Anthony Square Park, and a plaque affixed to the building where Douglass published his newspapers.

Morris says siting the museum a few blocks from The North Star offices made him smile when he was signing the purchase and sale agreement for site control of the Atrium Building.

“When I finally signed the agreement, put pen to paper, I actually had tears streaming down my face, because it made me think about Frederick Douglass publishing The North Star newspaper just right down the street in the Talman Building.”

Douglass in Rochester

The Douglasses moved to Rochester in 1847, just nine years after Douglass—then Frederick Bailey—escaped from slavery in Maryland disguised as a sailor, aided by his wife-to-be, Anna Murray, a free Black woman. They had settled in New Bedford, Mass., where they adopted the Douglass surname and started a family. They soon joined the antislavery movement there, where Frederick was encouraged to share what he went through during slavery with white audiences. As his confidence and leadership skills grew, he and Anna moved their young family to Rochester, a boomtown on the western frontier and a haven for business and social innovators. He was almost 30.

Over the next 25 years, Douglass published anti-slavery newspapers downtown and rose to prominence on the international stage as a sought-after speaker and author. He traveled frequently, and Anna managed the household accounts and ran their busy Underground Railroad operation. They had five children. In 1872, after a fire destroyed their home on South Avenue, the Douglass family moved to Washington, D.C.

Sally Parker is a Rochester Beacon co-founder and a contributing writer. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

9 thoughts on “Museum momentum

  1. I will be one of the happiest men if this project truly comes to fruition. Throughout the 19th century, Rochester was one of the most progressive cities and at the forefront of history. A National Museum to Frederick Douglas is long overdue, as is truly a museum that pays true homage to Women’s suffrage. Rochester, given its status in history, should be the home to many museums of international quality. It would be nice to see people coming together to succeed rather than different factions pitting against each other. The elites should learn from those with direct connections and work with them and not oppose them. Rochester can be a world-class city, a right it deserves.

  2. As facilitator of the Black History Month in a Year project in neighboring Wayne County and founding member of Wayne Action for Racial Equality, I applaud your efforts. I hope we can be involved in some way as you move forward.

  3. I enjoyed your article. I used to live in the Southwedge at 283/5 Hamilton St. The abstract showed that Frederick Douglas hadd owned the property (but not the current house which was built in 1908.) I am curious if there has been any attempt to purchase or rent space in the Talman Building 25 E. Main Street for the museum. According to wikipedia it was used as an office by Frederick Douglass in editing and publishing the abolitionist journal, The North Star from 1847 to 1863. It was also a stop on the Underground Railroad, and Douglass gave asylum to many traveling fugitives, of which at least one party was led by Harriet Tubman. I’m not sure of the historical significance of the Atrium Building.

  4. …..almost certain? (a grammar issue?) If not documented as a certainty, while it adds a little “flavor” to the comment, I fail to see the value in that maybe, might have happened possibly observation.

  5. The museum is a good thing. That said, I think that the City of Rochester is well overdue for an educational system that would make Frederick Douglas proud. At the moment he has to be wondering when the educational leadership is going to allow kids to discover their innate skill and or gift. All kids have them, it’s up to the K-12 journey to help them discover that. What do you think would be his comments on todays education effort? I think he would wonder about the fact that while opportunity exists, the system is not responding. Lastly, I am positive that lowering the bar toward success would actually disappoint him.

    • Consider an EXPANDED, Strong Museum of Play, opening this June 30.
      RCSD and other local school systems could link up with Strong to motivate students.

      The spirit of PLAY has no limits. A more playful learning experience can help students and teachers and parents to stay EXCITED about learning, with fun, fun, fun…

      It does not have to cost a lot of money and time to enhance playful learning.
      Perhaps RCSD and other school districts will wake up to their true potential with play.


  6. The creation of a Rochester museum commemorating the life and work of Frederick Douglas will be a long-overdue historical counterweight to Cedar Hill, the Douglass family home in the District of Columbia, the site of Douglass’ second marriage, to Helen Pitts of Honeoye, NY, as well as his death in 1895.

    It’s appropriate that the Rochester museum will be the work of Douglass’ descendants given that the preservation of Cedar Hill (today the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site) and of Frederick’s papers – preceded by the creation in 1900 of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association- was a project carried forward by Helen Pitts Douglass without the involvement of Douglass’ children.

    The stone on Helen’s grave in the Douglass plot at Mount Hope Cemetery briefly tells the story (a couple of typos notwithstanding):

    1838 – 1903



    It should also be noted that the Douglass home on South Avenue did not just burn in 1872, but was almost certainly a case of arson.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *