I grew up in a mid-sized town in Michigan, where I was convinced nothing of any great import had ever taken place. I’m sure that’s not really true, but as a Midwesterner, when I moved to the East coast as a graduate student almost 20 years ago, I spent a lot of time marveling at the history of the places I visited, the important people who had lived there and what they contributed to the character of our country. That sense of wonder eventually wore off, and I stopped being surprised to find history around every corner.
But, that childlike sense of awe has been renewed, after spending several days exploring the legacies of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass in the Rochester area.
Let me give you a bit of a backstory:
In 2013, we created an experiment here at Geva, to find a new way to connect our artists with our patrons. We wanted to give our audiences an opportunity to really get to know our playwrights, and we wanted our writers to get to know Rochester. (You can read the results of that experiment on the funder’s blog here.) So when we were preparing to produce Mat Smart’s play Tinker to Evers to Chance, we created an event called The Author’s Voice, where our audience was introduced to Mat and some of his plays. And to help Mat understand what Rochesterians are proud of, we took Mat to some of our favorite Rochester places like the Strong Museum of Play, the George Eastman Museum and the Susan B. Anthony House. Mat was moved, at the Susan B. Anthony House, by the statue of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony having tea, and before he left town, he emailed me about an idea for a play.
So, we applied for, and received funding from the New York State Council on the Arts to commission Mat to write a play about the friendship between the two formidable civil rights leaders. And then, we applied for and received a grant from the New York Council on the Humanities to bring Mat to Rochester for research, and for a series of meetings with historians, community leaders and our audiences to discuss their legacies today. So, Mat spent a weekend in Rochester, and he and I began to dig into the research.
We began our whirlwind history tour at the Mount Hope Cemetery, with one of the most informed docents, Vicki Schmidt. A historian and curator of exhibits on both Anthony and Douglass, Vicki took us to the gravesites of people with incredible stories – the entire Anthony family, with Susan’s grave nestled amongst her family and the words Liberty, Humanity, Justice and Equality inscribed on the family tombstone; Isaac and Amy Post, who were crucial to the progressive movements in Rochester during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; Jacob Morris, who was a partner of Douglass’ in the Underground Railroad; Samuel Porter and Susan Farley Porter, who were great supporters of Douglass; Reverend Thomas James, who ordained Frederick Douglass as a minister in the AME Zion church; and of course, Frederick Douglass, himself, along with his first wife Anna Murray Douglass and second wife Helen Pitts Douglass. The stories we heard as we walked through the gorgeous cemetery were insightful, and laid the groundwork for the days to follow.
On the second day of Mat’s residency in Rochester, we met with historians Lori Birrell (University of Rochester Rare Books Department) and Christine Ridarsky (City Historian). While at the U of R, we held in our hands letters written by Frederick Douglass, and saw the daguerreotype that Douglass, the most photographed man in the 19th century, gave to Anthony as a symbol of their friendship. At the Public Library, which houses the City Historian’s office, we held letters written by Susan B. Anthony, and saw the newly discovered photograph of Frederick Douglass, found in a scrapbook by an archivist and now the subject of a documentary by the City of Rochester. Then we went to the Susan B. Anthony house for a tour.
That statue that Mat had been inspired by two years ago stands a block from Ms. Anthony’s house, in a diverse, middle class neighborhood. Designed by Pepsy Kettavong and called “Let’s Have Tea,” the statue shows the two leaders in a friendly conversation. They are larger than life, but shown as equal in size (symbolic of their quests for equality – in real life, there would have been quite a disparity in heights). When Mat and I visited it, a child had used sidewalk chalk to draw hopscotch courts all around these two legendary figures. But my favorite part was right at the foot of the statue, where she or he had written “I love you Susan.” The statue has a cultural significance, but it’s also part of a playground – we watched as a little girl – maybe the same one who wrote on the sidewalk – pretended she was having tea with them too, sitting on Ms. Anthony’s lap. That’s the essence of what Mat was initially inspired by – the way that Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass live on today in Rochester – and across the country.
We left Rochester for a quick trip to Seneca Falls, to visit the Women’s Rights National Historic Park. Mat and I sat in pews in the Wesleyan Chapel, where in 1848, the first Women’s Rights Convention was held, and where Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the other organizers of the convention were encouraged by the support of Frederick Douglass to keep an insistence on women’s suffrage in their Declaration of Sentiments. We visited Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s house with a group of Girl Scouts, and we were all impressed to learn that Stanton had written most of Susan B. Anthony’s speeches, but was kept in Seneca Falls by the need to take care of her seven children. When we talked with the ranger (the property is a National Park, so the staff are park rangers) about why this all could happen in a town like Seneca Falls, she pointed out the nearness of the Erie Canal, and the progressive ideas it spread throughout New York State.
Back in Rochester, we rehearsed with actors – Peter Jay Fernandez and Ellen Horst – who would read the speeches of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony in an event called “Failure is Impossible: The Ongoing Legacy of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony.” I had selected some of each of their most well-known speeches – among them were Douglass’ speech here in Rochester, delivered on July 5, 1852 and “Woman Wants Bread Not the Ballot,” Anthony’s speech given throughout the 1870’s, which necessitated moving her trial (she’d been arrested for voting in 1872) out of Monroe County. The theatre was packed for the event, and the crowd remarked again and again at the relevance of these speeches today, and marveled at how contemporary the issues still were, even after 150 years. Joining Mat, the actors and I for a discussion after the reading were David Shakes, artistic director of the North Star Players and Deborah Hughes, President and CEO of the Susan B. Anthony House. We talked about their legacies and their friendship, which suffered a rough patch during debates over the Fifteenth Amendment, but was sufficiently mended for Anthony and Douglass to have been at an event together on the day Douglass died in 1895. We discussed some of the stories that have been left out of the historic narrative – specifically those of Matilda Joslin Gage, who advocated for the rights of Native Americans along with women and African Americans. And we talked about the movements following in the steps of Anthony and Douglass – like the Disability Rights movement, Black Lives Matter, and the LGBT struggles for equality. The event was just the beginning of the kinds of conversations that working on this play is sure to engender.
As we approach the 100th anniversary of Women’s Suffrage (2017 in New York and 2020 federally) and the 150th anniversary of the Fifteenth amendment (in 2020), recognizing Rochester’s roots in both of these movements is inspirational. As we consider the distance our country has yet to travel in the quest for true expressions of Liberty, Humanity, Justice and Equality (as highlighted on the Anthony family tombstone), the words of these incredible leaders will surely continue to lead the way.
“Where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”
“Cautious, careful people, always casting about to preserve their reputation and social standing, never can bring about a reform. Those who are really in earnest must be willing to be anything or nothing in the world’s estimation.”
Susan B. Anthony