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Uncovering History

~by John Clay~

Frederick Douglass and the Abolitionist Movement in Ithaca

Welcome aboard, everyone, we’re so glad to see all of you here so excited to learn about Ithaca and its ties to the Underground Railroad. Before we begin, if you have any questions, please feel free to raise your hand and I’ll get to you as soon as possible. Please be respectful of the site, and taking pictures is absolutely encouraged! We’re currently standing on a spot that may seem unremarkable, but actually has a deep, beautiful history. Here we are at the Seneca Street parking ramp, which is rumored to have been the spot where famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass delivered a speech regarding slavery, social issues in the United States, and his abolitionist work. I’m so excited to tell you the story of this amazing man, so let’s get started!

Brief Biography:

Frederick Augustus Bailey Douglass was born a slave in February of 1818 in Maryland. Because of the cruel, evil conditions of slaves, he never got the chance to establish deep connections with either his mother or father. His father was a complete mystery to him, and his mother died very young while working at a different plantation. At just eight years old, Douglass was hired out as a servant in Baltimore. This was actually quite a common practice during the 19th century, where slave owners would essentially “loan” out slaves for small profits. 

            Douglass, however, had an incredibly profound spirit. Nothing would or could break him, and he was always curious and hungry for knowledge. He wanted nothing more than to defy the expectations of him and follow his personal interests and passions. Remarkably, while living in Baltimore in the household of Sophia and Hugh Auld, Sophia Auld took a special interest in helping Douglass. She began teaching Douglass how to read and write, while doing so with slaves was forbidden. Her husband disapproved, feeling that literacy would encourage Douglass to seek freedom, so Sophia “not only stopped teaching Frederick, she also kept her Bible and other reading materials from him.”[1] Yet, Douglass continued, secretly, to teach himself.

            In early 1832, when Frederick was fourteen, after about seven years with the Auld household, his legal owner ordered his return. So, in March 1833, Frederick returned to rural Maryland.[2] The brutal, harsh, and cruel conditions of field work broke Douglass’ sense of self-worth. He was later made to work for Edward Covey, a local farmer who had a reputation as a “slave-breaker.”[3] Covey’s constant abuse nearly broke the 16-year-old Douglass psychologically. Knowing what he was capable of, however, Frederick ultimately stood up to Covey, “regain[ing] his courage and sense of agency.”[4] Despite the repercussions of fighting his “slave-breaker,” Douglass was always interested in establishing his self-worth, and to him this was the way to show that he didn’t belong in slavery. This just goes to demonstrate how amazing and unbreakable Douglass was. His personality and actions were rooted in believing that he was strong, even though he was institutionally encouraged to believe he was inferior to those around him. 

            After an aborted escape attempt, Douglass started to actively cause disruptions at the plantation that he worked at. He encouraged other slaves to cause issues, taught them how to read and write, and continued to be disruptive to his “slave-breakers.” Because of the disruptions he caused, he was sent back to Baltimore with the Auld family. During this period, Douglass met a woman named Anna Murray, his future wife. Born in Delaware to parents who had recently manumitted, she was the first in her family to be born into freedom, and helped Douglass to escape slavery.[5] He finally succeeded to escape on September 3, 1838, by disguising himself as a sailor and boarding a train to the north. After stepping foot in New York City, Douglass was free.[6]

            From that moment on, Douglass dedicated his life to abolitionism and to promoting active self-worth to those that were attacked by American institutions. Over the course of his life, Douglass went on to publish several books, create a newspaper called The North Star, and travel across the country to deliver poignant speeches that encouraged Americans to take up action in the fight against oppression. Setting up his future in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Douglass finally had what he needed in order to accomplish the work that was important to him and his life.

Ties to the Area:

Figure 1: Frederick Douglass addressing an audience in London in 1846 (Credit: Bettmann Archives/Getty Images)[7]

Being one of the most significant and brightest minds in his generation, Douglass often delivered speeches around the Northeast regarding slavery, abolition movements, and the treatment of discriminated people across the country. He generally had to be incredibly cautious, as he was a very controversial figure at the time that was resented by the South. These efforts brought him to Ithaca, NY, on several occasions. On October 14th 1852, Frederick Douglass traveled to Ithaca to deliver a speech at the St. James AME Zion Church at 116 Cleveland Ave. Douglass delivered an empowered speech regarding the evils of slavery and complicit attitudes of Americans.[8]

            His speech focused on the lackluster attitude of those who are anti-slavery but aren’t actively fighting it. He addressed the bystanders, trying to rally support from those who were sympathetic to his cause but didn’t have the courage or guidance to step up in a world that was dominated by slavery. In his speech he stated, 

We know you hate your platform in your hearts; but we complain that you do not in your votes. You love liberty and vote against it. You hate slavery and the fugitive slave act, and then vote for the twin abominations. When we condemn your votes, you vindicate your opinions; when we assail your deeds, you defend your motives. Is this honest? Is it manly? What matter is it to the man in chains, whether his chains are voted on by an anti-slavery or by a pro-slavery man, by a Christian or by an infidel? It is not the motives nor the opinions of the voter, but it is the vote that either rivets or breaks his fetters.[9]

            His words are relevant even today, and this is what makes his work so powerful. He was ahead of his time, able to identify the root of the complicit attitudes regarding slavery through the country at the time. What is even more impressive is that his tone isn’t accusatory, but rather understanding. He doesn’t only see the evil in white Americans, but rather sees them as being worried to take a stand because no one has empowered them to do so. 

            In 1841, Douglass traveled to Nantucket for a conference, rising to speak about his life.[10] First, he was noted as being shaky and stumbling. As he settled, he delivered one of the most powerful speeches of all time, beautifully capturing what the experience of being a slave was like and how it disrupted his life in ways that many people couldn’t even relate to. He shared his pain and trauma with others in a way that made them understand, even if they generally had no interest in hearing about his struggle. Douglass, then, found a voice that could connect with people and represent his point of view in a way that others could understand. While there is no true record of his exact speech, he was said to have been spoken “with great power”. His intelligence, poise, and stature made him come across as someone that didn’t belong in slavery. He was a model of what black Americans could be if they weren’t suppressed and oppressed by the systems around them. 

            While we don’t have actual evidence of the way that Douglass’s speech was received here in Ithaca, where we are standing, we can certainly use our imagination. The following fictional excerpt is the journal entry of William Floyt, an Ithaca-based locksmith who listened to the speech:

            On October 14th, the anticipated speech of abolitionist and free-man Frederick Douglass was planned. The crowd, gathered at Seneca Street, was live with anticipation. Ithacans from all walks of life were prepared to hear the words of Douglass; men, women, and children were gathered, some avid followers of Douglass’ important work, others skeptical of his message, and all ready to listen to him speak. At exactly 3:00pm, Douglass emerged. Immediately, the crowd silenced; all the noises, whispers, and angst were stilled by Douglass’ serious and commanding presence. 

            What followed was the most tremendous, poignant speech that I have ever heard. My initial goal was to transcribe his words, but I quickly got lost in his anecdotes and details of his life. His words inspired me to dream more and do more. He had women in the crowd in tears, and by the end his strongest critics respected his wisdom. 

            Frederick Douglass is a man that achieves truth through self-belief. Strong overtones of being true to oneself were in his speech. He sees every action as a way to develop character and a sense of moral responsibility. I can’t keep kidding myself, I need to be better. I’ve struggled with an internal conflict of being worried to upset others, and it stifles my growth. I need to focus on myself. I need to be more true to who I am. Should I live a life of comfort by appeasing others? Maybe, but I’ll die knowing I’m a coward. I no longer care what others think about my actions, as long as I know that what I’m doing is right. I need to be a man of strength and character and stop shying away from conflict or true challenges. I shall be there for when times are rough and for when times are good, but I can’t be the empty shell of a man that I have been my entire life. If a man born into slavery can break out of that position of servitude and cruelty, then I can break out of the only thing that imprisons me: my mind. 

            A note to myself: be comfortable with who you are, be true to your values, and be stubbornly strict on the principles that you know are right. There’s no more time to not be involved in the issues that you care about. Be there for what you know you need to do, be a man that your children and wife and neighbors can respect, even if they don’t agree with you. I need to model my life off of a single principle and that is to make every decision based on the ideal person I want to be. Be that person. 

            As we can see, this journal entry demonstrates intense emotion that was stirred up by Douglass’s speech. He inspired the middle-ground Americans to do what they knew was right, and rallied wholehearted support for his cause across the nation.  We are so proud and lucky that Frederick Douglass delivered speeches in this great, historical town. We have to remember the past in order to appreciate the importance of the land around us. Thank you all for listening to my fictional story! 

A Document from the Time:

Figure 2: Miller, H.L. An address delivered before the Tompkins County Colonization Society at their third anniversary, held in Ithaca, March 4, 1834 (Credit: Cornell University Library, Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection)[11]

Now, let’s move onto the next topic of the tour. During the early 19th century, when slavery was starting to be questioned by small, unified groups of people across the country, a number of “Colonization Societies” were formed, which supported the movement of free African Americans back to Africa. The idea was based on returning captured black Americans to where they were originally displaced from. Many leaders in these movements were black religious leaders who believed that the best place to be for African descendants was back in Africa, where they were surrounded by African people. 

            Let me show you this artifact. Please be careful if you choose to hold it, as this is incredibly fragile. As you can see, apart from some slight ink bleeding, this has been held in impeccable condition, so we’re very excited to show you this. This artifact documents the speech that Revered H.L. Miller delivered during the Colonization Society’s Third Anniversary in Ithaca, NY. At the request of the society, this speech was published in 1834, the same year it was delivered. The Reverend starts the address very powerfully, stating “…the plan of Colonizing the free coloured population of the United States upon the shores of their native country, is the only practicable plan of delivering ourselves from a great and growing evil…”[12] Reverend Miller explains that the American Colonization Society was formed in 1816, originating with Reverend Robert Finley, in Basking Ridge, NJ. 

            In support of relocating free black Americans back to Africa, Reverend Miller gives many arguments that represent the colonial era version of self-determination: for example, he thinks that black people should be able to set up a government created by and for other black people, where personal self-interest doesn’t conflict with the interests of citizens. 

            A really interesting aspect of these movements is how their goal is rooted in separatism. Rather than engage in a political debate regarding whether the North or South should be the model for how black Americans are treated, Reverend Miller disregards all arguments that don’t lead to handing back to black Americans the eventual power of government. The era here should be noted. This address was delivered in 1834, a time when the country boasted freedom, while also participating in the most evil, widespread trade of humans in the world. Free black Americans were frustrated, and we have to wait three more decades to see any strong legal actions towards helping black Americans. The country seemed hopeless for black Americans, so Reverend Miller was proclaiming that no one could govern black people better than their own people. In a way, he was advocating for lawmakers to represent the people that they governed, and he didn’t see a path to this in the United States at the time.

            This paints an interesting picture of general negativity and pessimism that surrounded black abolitionists at the time. Revered Miller states, “the immediate abolition is… impracticable.”[13] Miller is so pessimistic about the United States desire and initiative to change the culture of black Americans that moving black Americans back to Africa seems a more suitable and realistic option to him. This paints a very compelling picture of the black community mindset at the time. It demonstrates that the entire country locked black people up, psychologically, literally, and metaphorically. They weren’t able to be free, even if they weren’t slaves. 

            Regardless of the insight this document gives into the period, it still leaves us with a few unanswered questions. It’s interesting to read the mindsets of certain separatist groups at the time, but there’s no information as to how effective or ineffective these groups were. It would also be interesting to learn more about how Ithaca specifically played a role in the American Colonization society, and whether there were some sort of “headquarters” in the area. 

            Now, folks, that concludes this section of the tour. We really hope that you enjoyed hearing about Frederick Douglass and his ties to the area, and seeing this artifact of the American Colonization society. These are just a few examples of the many ways that Ithaca stands out during the 19th century: learning about this history is truly a way to appreciate the land that we all are on today. Safe travels and come back anytime!

Bibliography Editors. “Frederick Douglass Biography.” The website. Published on April 2, 2014. Last updated on July 15, 2021.

Koehn, Nancy F. Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders. New York: Scribner Book Company, 2018.

Miller, H.L. An address delivered before the Tompkins County Colonization Society at their third anniversary, held in Ithaca, March 4, 1834. Trumansburg: D. Fairchild, 1834. In Cornell University Library. Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection.

Montana, Rob. “Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Speech at Ithaca’s St. James AME Zion Church Still Resonates.” Ithaca Times, October 8, 2012.

National Park Service. “Frederick Douglass.” Accessed May 19, 2022.

Williams, Yohuru. “Why Frederick Douglass Matters: He kept America focused on hard truths because he believed it necessary to a strong democracy.” Published on February 10, 2018. Updated on January 27, 2021.

[1] Nancy F. Koehn, Forged in Crisis: The Making of Five Courageous Leaders (New York: Scribner Book Company, 2018), 273.

[2] Ibid., 281.

[3] Editors, “Frederick Douglass Biography,” the website, published on April 2, 2014, last updated on July 15, 2021,

[4] Nancy F. Koehn, 284.

[5] Ibid., 292.

[6] National Park Service, “Frederick Douglass,” accessed May 19, 2022,

[7] Yohuru Williams, “Why Frederick Douglass Matters: He kept America focused on hard truths because he believed it necessary to a strong democracy,”, published on February 10, 2018, updated on January 27, 2021,

[8] Rob Montana, “Frederick Douglass’s 1852 Speech at Ithaca’s St. James AME Zion Church Still Resonates,” Ithaca Times, October 8, 2012,

[9] Ibid.

[10] Nancy F. Koehn, 302.

[11] H.L. Miller, An address delivered before the Tompkins County Colonization Society at their third anniversary, held in Ithaca, March 4, 1834 (Trumansburg: D. Fairchild, 1834), in Cornell University Library, Samuel J. May Anti-Slavery Pamphlet Collection,

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.