Rochester's Roots: Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives

Patrick Moussignac
Created: February 14, 2020 07:21 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — It's been almost a year now since descendants of Frederick Douglass relocated the headquarters of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives (FDFI) to Rochester.

Since their move, the organization has been working on keeping his legacy alive in the city. 


For 25-years Frederick Douglass called Rochester home.

He was known for being a social reformer and an abolitionist, who not only fought for the rights of newly freed slaves but equality for all people.

He was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey sometime in February 1818. 

While the exact date of his birth is unknown, he chose Feb. 14 to celebrate. 

Born into slavery near Cordova, Maryland, Douglass fought to improve his life.

Robert Benz, a co-founder of FDFI says Douglass first deconstructed the idea that people of African descent were less than intelligent compared to those from Europe.

"He did it through his mind. Through educating himself on how to read and how to write," Benz said. "He escaped slavery basically with his brains and his fists, and he went on to become one of the smartest, most well-spoken people on the earth at that time, or at any time in our history."

Historians say in the mid-1840s, after living in several cities, both home and abroad, Douglass moved to and settled in Rochester. 

Here he first printed the abolitionist newspaper, called The North Star, inside the Memorial AME Zion Church. 

Benz says Douglass championed the rights of all people, regardless of their skin color or gender.

"He truly believed in the ideals of the constitution,” Benz said. “So yeah, he was a big advocate for immigration, believing that what's right for you has to be right for the people that are looking for a better life in America. That's what the promise is all about."

Along with Benz, FDFI was founded back in 2007 in Atlanta, Georgia, by great-great-granddaughter Nettie Washington Douglass. 

She's not only blessed to be a part of his lineage but is also happy to see that he's not been forgotten. 

"I'm just so overwhelmed by the adoration, the recognition that he so deserves is happening," Washington Douglass said.

Her son, Kenneth Morris Jr., Douglass' great-great-great-grandson, serves as the founder and president.  

The FDFI moved to Rochester in 2019, and currently has an office at the central library. 

Besides archived records, thousands of books written about, or by Douglass, line the shelves. 

One reason behind the headquarters’ relocation is to bring awareness to the contemporary forms of exploitation in today's world here in Rochester. 

"When you look at the social ills that exist in communities all around this country and in various parts of the world those social ills intersect,” Morris said. “What we do is we work to reduce the vulnerability for young people to being trafficked, and that's being education, training teachers and educators to implement a prevention curriculum in the classrooms."

Rochester is considered his adopted home. 

In 2018, the city celebrated his 200th birthday. 

This year, the city celebrates Susan B. Anthony and 100 years since the 19th Amendment passed. 

Buried here in the heart of the Mt. Hope Cemetery, Douglass will also be remembered for his support of women's rights.

"Rochester is lucky to have a legacy like Frederick Douglass right here," Benz said.

Benz tells us although Douglas’s last remaining descendants live around the country, none of them live anywhere near Rochester.

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