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Recent discovery highlights Frederick Douglass, the businessman


Local scholars say a recent discovery found among the personal artifacts of Frederick Douglass broadens our understanding of the famed abolitionist.

RIT history professor Richard Newman and a team of undergraduate students found the deed to a property at 28-30 North Clinton Avenue that scholars did not previously know Douglass had purchased.  He took out a $3,000 mortgage for the land in April, 1863.

Carolyn Vacca, president of the Rochester Historical Society, believes the parcel of land, located in the rear of what is now the Sibley Building, was a real estate investment for Douglass.

"We hear so much about him in the fight for abolition, and of course, he was towering,” Vacca said. “But we don't hear as much about him as a husband and a father and a man who founded a printing business and ran it, ran a newspaper, and invested in real estate."

The property deed was found in a box of Douglass' belongings that were donated to the Historical Society. "This was almost resurrected, I guess you could say,” said Vacca. “It was in our records, but it had been in there so long, had been so carefully put away that nobody really thought about it. And! There it is."

The RIT researchers who made the finding were working in the RHS archives under a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities on “Community, Memory and Sense of Place in Rochester.”

It was quite out of the ordinary for a Black man to own land in the U.S. on a national level in 1863, and it was exceptional even in New York, according to Vacca. But Douglass was not the first African American land or business owner in Rochester.

Austin Steward owned a meat market on Main Street in 1817.

Douglass purchased the North Clinton Avenue property during the period when he was recruiting black soldiers for the Union army during the Civil War.  Two of his sons – Charles and Lewis – fought in the war.

He bought the property from a white abolitionist colleague who was a former neighbor on Alexander Street.  Professor Newman speculated that Douglass may have wanted to move his printing business to the new location or establish housing for African Americans returning from the war. Vacca said documents related to the property might have been lost in the 1872 fire that destroyed Douglass' home on South Avenue. Tax assessment rolls and other records might provide more information.

Whatever his purpose was, Newman said the land acquisition is an indication that Douglass felt strongly about tying his future to the city of Rochester.