When Erica Mock was 12 years old, a 50-cent purchase changed her life.
She had gone to the library — a childhood refuge from the outside world — where she spotted a copy of Frederick Douglass’ autobiography on the shelf of used books for sale.
“I had a really rough home life, and I was going to the library not just to hide from the bullies outside but also from bullies within my own nucleus,” Mock said. “I read books because I needed to escape that day-to-day.”
Published in 1845, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave” describes his experiences up to age 27. Douglass describes the harsh and often inhumane existence of someone born into slavery and chronicles how he grew determined to find his freedom.
Now 44, Mock is the executive director of the Rochester-based Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives. The organization, founded by descendants of Douglass and Booker T. Washington, focuses on promoting racial equity and combatting human trafficking.
Mock said that Douglass has been a constant presence throughout her life. She can speak not only to Douglass’ historical importance but to the urgency and relevancy of his message in today’s world.
In that way, she’s perfectly positioned to guide the nonprofit organization toward its most ambitious goal yet: opening a Rochester museum dedicated to Douglass’ legacy.
In February, Mock announced that the FDFI would undertake the effort to launch the Frederick Douglass Museum Center in a building they are purchasing at 140 East Main St. in Rochester. Formerly known as the Atrium Building, it most recently was home to the now-defunct Rochester Auto Museum.
It’s a prominent location in the center of downtown, a two-block stretch that is in the middle of a $10 million revitalization project. But the Main Street location is also at the epicenter of the Rochester where Douglass spent nearly 25 years of his life. It’s just down the street from the building where Douglass published his abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, and about a mile and a half north of the site of Douglass’ home on South Avenue.
“You can visualize Frederick walking on this street,” Mock said. “You can visualize the route he would have taken to go back home when he was done with his day.”
Mock said the organization is fundraising for the Douglass project, with an eye toward opening the museum in the next three or four years.
They are expecting the cost of the project to be near $100 million and so far, have received support internationally and from the local community. They are also planning to host a design competition to help aid in sharing the project with community.
“We have strong international support, and funding commitments regarding our capital campaign initiative. We need all hands on deck. This is for the international community, so naturally we will want their support,” said Mock.
Douglass was one of the most significant figures in the history of the United States, and he spent many of his most active years living in Rochester.
A social reformer, abolitionist, author and statesman, Douglass was born into slavery in Maryland in 1817 or 1818. He never knew who his father was, though he surmised it was a white man, and he was separated from his mother during infancy. With the help of his first wife, Anna Murray Douglass, he managed to escape to freedom in 1838 and became one of the leading figures of the anti-slavery movement.
Fearing that his growing fame might draw the attention of his former owner, friends and supporters encouraged Douglass to travel to Great Britain in 1845. He would later write about how shocking it was to live in a society free from racial discrimination.
He returned to the United States in 1847 and settled in Rochester. Douglass used money he raised from British supporters to start his first abolitionist newspaper, The North Star, from the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church. That publication and its successor, The Frederick Douglass Paper, became important voices in the fight against slavery and for civil rights.
Douglass also became involved in the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves reach freedom in Canada. He was a frequent speaker at local and national events, delivering powerful speeches that challenged the status quo and advocated for equality.
His most famous speech, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” was delivered in 1852 at Corinthian Hall, near the present-day intersection of West Main Street and State Street. It remains a powerful critique of the hypocrisy of celebrating freedom while slavery still existed.
“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us,” Douglass said that day. “The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. This Fourth of July is yours, not mine. You may rejoice, I must mourn.”
During the Civil War, Douglass became a consultant to President Abraham Lincoln and worked tirelessly to recruit black soldiers for the Union Army. After the war, he continued his advocacy for civil rights and suffrage and served as U.S. Minister to Haiti.
In 1872, Douglass was presidential elector at large for the New York, and took that state’s votes to Washington, D.C.. He was there in early June of that year when his home on South Avenue in Rochester burned down. Arson was suspected. Fearing for the safety of his family, Douglass moved to D.C where he remained until his death in 1895 at age 77.
Douglass’ first wife Anna has often been regarded simply as a footnote in her husband’s story, an oversight that Mock said she aims to help rectify. Last September, Mock helped spearhead an effort to install gravestones for Anna and their daughter, Annie at Mount Hope Cemetery. Previously, their names appeared on Frederick’s memorial but their own graves were unmarked.
“It really deeply troubled me that people were standing over top of her child’s grave, unknowingly. And I didn’t like it,” Mock said.
She’s hopeful that a new museum can help shed more light on Anna’s contributions.
“I think that a lot of people don’t understand that she was his counterpart intellectually, and they don’t give her credit for that,” Mock said. “But she is the reason he was free. When she met Frederick, she saw that light and immediately knew that he was not meant to be a slave. And it was her convincing him of such that gave him the courage to become free.”
Anna Douglass played an important role in both the abolitionist movement and the fight for women’s suffrage. She raised five children while hosting guests in the anti-slavery movement and helping at least 100 others seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad.
“I would challenge people to just begin to think about her differently,” Mock said, “particularly because Black women in this country are always thought of as the lowest on the totem pole.”
Frederick Douglass has long been honored in Rochester. His name graces schools and libraries. As of 2020, there is the Frederick Douglass Greater Rochester International Airport. His likeness can be found on statutes, on murals, Rochester merch, and just about anywhere in the city.
One statue was erected in Rochester in 1899, making Douglass the first African-American to be so memorialized in the country. Another sculpture, “Let’s Have Tea,” portrays Douglass with his friend and women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony in Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony Square. Thirteen additional Douglass statues were placed around Rochester in 2018, in remembrance of his 200th birthday. “They’ve put Douglass on a pedestal,” Mock said. “He rightfully belongs there, but what people tend to forget is how the man became the man. And I feel that anyone from any walk of life can relate to it.”
Douglass made his own escape from slavery, but he made it his life’s work to continue fighting on behalf of those left behind, to help rescue them from bondage with his words and deeds. And Mock said that while today there are no longer plantations where enslaved workers pick cotton, the weight of racism and injustice, of mass incarceration, and generational poverty still weigh heavily on American society.
“Everyone is afflicted with something. Everyone is enslaved by something. Everyone is seeking freedom from something,” Mock said. “And we live in a time in a space of in a community that is still reeling from the repercussions of those pains.”
Mock notes with sadness that Rochester’s city schools are among the most segregated in the country and that nearly half of its children live in poverty. She needs only look out the window onto Main Street to bear witness to the impact of these failures.
She recounts that while she was standing at a podium in February talking with members of the media about plans for the museum, she saw someone outside digging through a trash can looking for something to eat.
“So if no other place should have something like this, it should be here in Rochester,” Mock said. “This was the North Star, right? This was the place where everyone was seeking their freedom. They knew, and they knew it, yes, because of Frederick Douglass.”
When she’s asked why now is the time to create a Douglass museum, Mock wants to make clear that it’s less about memorializing a man who died more than 125 years ago and more about reviving his words and his advocacy for freedom, justice, and equality.
“Now is because our nation is hungry for it. Our nation is in desperate need of truth-telling, and for an opportunity for that truth to be told,” Mock said. “I think that people have been very comfortable typecasting him into specific places and times in history, but really not understanding that the fight that he was speaking of was a much longer fight than just his short life.”
The message of his words from the 19th century still rings true today. While the details of the afflictions he fought to cure have changed, Mock says those words are just as relevant to help cure the ailments we still face today. And Mock said that leading the fight to bring Douglass and his word to life is an honor and a privilege.
“He’s become my mentor, not just this high-level person who I read about when I was 12 years old,” Mock said. “He’s just become this friend, really, and I didn’t expect to have a friendship with him.”
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