Michelle Daniels focused intently on the sprawling mural in front of her, which depicted vignettes from the life of Frederick Douglass and his family. When she reached the center panel, where Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass sat side by side, she stopped.
Next to Douglass, she pointed out, were writings by Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare, as well as an edition of “Lady of the Lake,” the poem by Sir Walter Scott from which Douglass chose his name as a free man. When Douglass’s home on South Avenue was destroyed in a suspected arson, his books were saved at the expense of his personal papers.
On Murray Douglass’s lap rests a ledger. Daniels explained that she ran the house and could read, countering a common belief that she was illiterate.
“I think that there’s such a patriotic, historical story that’s not being told,” Daniels said of the Douglasses and their descendants. “We’re sitting here with royalty and we’re not sharing that.”
For the better part of 15 years, Daniels has been on a mission to advance the legacy of Frederick Douglass, which was one reason she was so intimately familiar with the scenes in front of her. Another was that Daniels, who is retired, and her husband, Eric, who works in financial services, commissioned the piece.
The mural, 29 feet long and 4 feet high by artist Michael Rosato of Cambridge, Maryland, cost the Danielses $21,000 and was unveiled last month at the public flight observation deck of the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport — a place accessible to arriving visitors and the general public alike.
While no public money went into the commission, several county and city officials attended the unveiling.
“I paid for it but it’s not mine, I’m giving it to the family,” Daniels said, adding that she’s in the process of legally transferring ownership of the painting to a Douglass ancestor.
Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass were unyielding champions of education. History has it that Frederick Douglass remarked, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” To embrace that spirit of learning, computerized interpretive displays will be put in near the mural so people can find out more about the scenes it depicts.
Daniels also said she’s been contacted by community leaders interested in bringing busloads of students in to see the mural and staging reenactments in full costume to discuss the different scenes in the painting.
She wants children to know that “because someone says you can only do something, that’s not your limit,” Daniels said. “You can do amazing things as long as you plan and prepare for it. Don’t take no for an answer if it’s something you really want.”
Douglass, she said, modeled that advice.
As Daniels navigated her way around the mural, which flowed smoothly and clearly from scene to scene, she circled back to the center. Positioned between Frederick and Anna Murray Douglass was a small portrait of a rather generic looking white man. Daniels’ eyes brightened and she explained that the man was Gerrit Smith, a philanthropist, abolitionist, and suffragist who was first cousin to Elizabeth Cady Stanton. He was close to Douglass and provided substantial financial support for his newspaper, The North Star.
Daniels delighted in talking about the mural and, like Douglass himself, wasn’t afraid of injecting humor into her remarks. At one point she explained that when someone insulted Douglass, he had a way of insulting them back without the original offender realizing it. She was wearing a mask but her eyes betrayed her grin underneath.
For Ken Morris, the great-great-great-grandson of Frederick Douglass and co-founder and president of the Rochester-based Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, praised the mural for its scope. Since the organization was founded in 2007, part of its mission has been to “lift up the life and teach about the legacy of Frederick Douglass,” but also that of Anna Murray Douglass, to whom he was married for 44 years.
Without Anna Murray Douglass there would be no Frederick Douglass, particularly because she provided him with support as he escaped slavery, Morris added.
“It's so meaningful to the family and we really appreciate what Michelle and Eric Daniels did to to fund a mural and also to tell not only the story of the Douglass family in Rochester, but some of the other key players,” including abolitionists and suffragists with whom Douglass worked and sometimes quarreled.
The day after the mural unveiling, Morris, who lives in southern California, was standing in front of the painting and soaking in its elements as he waited for his flight to New York City. He was the only one in the observation deck until a father and son walked in and made their way to the mural.
Morris remained silent. The son asked the father who was in the painting and the father explained it was Frederick Douglass and proceeded to tell the child a little about the writer, orator, and abolitionist.
“It’s probably something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life and I’ll talk about every opportunity I have,” Morris said. “That’s the power of art and being able to connect with, in particular, young people.”
Daniels’ own in-depth education about Douglass, his life, and his family began in 2007, when she worked as a parent liaison at School No. 12, now known as Anna Murray Douglass Academy. The school was built on the site of the former Douglass family home on South Avenue.
“I parked my car in front of a marker and was shocked to find out that Frederick Douglass actually lived at that site with his family and just recently before then, I found out that Frederick Douglass was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery,” Daniels recalled. “And it’s pretty embarrassing because in middle school, I went to Frederick Douglass Middle School.”
Soon after, she cracked open a copy of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” and was drawn into the story of self-made man who succeeded in a world that set him up to fail. Daniels explained that she came from a background where she faced a lot of adversity and admired Douglass’s mindset.
“I’ve realized how many challenges he had and he overcame every last one,” Daniels said. “So I felt like, okay, I have no true excuses. If I really want to do something, I want to get something done, I go ahead and do it.”
“I call it the Frederick Douglass spirit,” she added.
As Douglass’s birthday and the anniversary of his death approached that February, Daniels asked the principal at School No. 12 if anything would be done that month to commemorate either Douglass Black History Month. The answer to both questions was no.
That’s when Daniels asked the principal if she could form a Frederick Douglass club at the school. The answer was yes.
Twenty-eight students joined the club the first year and stayed with it. For the next few years, Daniels and her husband chartered buses and paid for hotel stays for the youth so they could visit different cities where Douglass made his mark.
“Kids are so hungry for history,” said Daniels, who led the club until 2013 when she stopped due to health reasons. “They want to learn so bad, but you’ve got to be able to make it relatable to them.”
Daniels continues to visit historical sites related to Douglass, including ones not open to the general public. While there she soaks in all the knowledge she can, which she then shares back home.
In 2018, Daniels donated the cost of 2,800 copies of “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” to the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. Morris and the organization had set a goal to distribute one million copies of the book.
The Danielses also held the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives founding event at their home, where they have one of the life-sized Frederick Douglass statues that dot the city in her backyard. Daniels paid for three of the statutes and one stands in front of Anna Murray Douglass Academy, the other at Alexander and Tracy streets. The latter, which stood at the site of the Seward School, where the Douglass children attended, was damaged by vandals at one point but has since been replaced.
The new Douglass painting has its origins in a Harriet Tubman mural painted by Rosato on the side of the Harriet Tubman Museum & Educational Center in Cambridge, Maryland, where Tubman was born.
Daniels had seen the mural and appreciated Rosato’s work. That led her to commission him to paint a mural in Easton, Maryland near The Hill, a historic Black community. Douglass was born in Talbot County, near Easton.
That mural was unveiled Sept. 4 and the same day Daniels wrote Rosato the check for him to paint the Douglass mural at the airport in Rochester.
He completed the painting in 24 days, working as much as 14 to 15 hours each day, Daniels said. There are scores of figures in the painting, some well-known, such as the abolitionist John Brown and President Abraham Lincoln, others more obscure. Rosato drove the mural’s painted panels to Rochester and installed them in the public observation area at the airport.
Daniels came up with the mural’s concept and she worked closely with Rosato to bring it to fruition. But in doing so she leaned heavily on Douglass ancestors and experts, some of whom she had met through the Frederick Douglass Club she founded, to make sure the mural was as historically accurate as possible.
She gave particular credit to David Anderson, a professor and respected Douglass historian who lives in Rochester. He was a valuable resource in the mural’s development, Daniels said.
Ultimately, Daniels hopes this mural will help more people learn about Frederick Douglass. His influence and reach have been global, but for a long time the people in the city he called home for 25 years didn’t learn much about him.
That’s starting to change, which Daniels finds encouraging and necessary.
“There’s so much to learn about Frederick Douglass because Rochester did a lot to make sure that he was omitted from the history, local history,” Daniels said, adding that part of the mural’s impetus was “going back to get our history so we can bring it back to our kids.”