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Rochester has always been a city of notable reformers.
Even before famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass settled here in 1847, Rochester had a reputation as a hotbed of reform. Austin Seward, an escaped slave from Virginia, came to Rochester soon after the Erie Canal was completed and joined the city’s antislavery crusade. Famed preacher Charles Grandison Finney made Rochester a key stop on his revival tours of the 1830s. Amy Post, a Quaker reformer, came to Rochester with her husband before the Civil War and spent decades in the Temperance, Abolitionist and spiritualist movements.
One unheralded activist was named Phoebe Rey, who lived in Rochester’s old Fifth Ward and began a crusade to integrate city schools in the 1830s and 1840s. Along with the rest of the city, Rochester’s old Fifth Ward (part of today’s Northeast Quadrant) had segregated schools in Rey’s time. She and other African-American parents pushed back against this injustice and eventually compelled the city to allow black children to attend the same schools as white students. Frederick Douglass himself saluted Phoebe Rey and her activist colleagues as true pioneers of race reform.
During the Civil War era, Rochester played a central role on the Underground Railroad and in the early women’s rights crusade. John Brown visited Frederick Douglass several times in his Rochester home, while escaped slaves – including Harriet Jacobs, Harriet Tubman, and William Wells Brown — routinely passed through the city’s gates. On the women’s rights front, the greater Rochester region hosted the nation’s first women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls in 1848. Over the next fifty years, Rochester became a center of women’s voting rights struggles. Led by Rochesterian Susan B. Anthony and her longtime friend and colleague Elizabeth Cady Stanton (who resided in Seneca Falls), women’s rights activists argued that until women had the ballot they would be second-class citizens. Both Anthony and Stanton died before the 19th Amendment prohibited voting discrimination on the basis of sex in 1920, but their activism paved the way for its adoption.
By that time, Rochester was booming in another way, as new technology and manufacturing companies were on the rise. Companies such as Kodak, Bausch and Lomb, and Hickey Freeman made the city a leader in the business sector. Yet even as it grew, Rochester did not lose its reputation for progressive reform. In fact, in the early decades of the 20th century, Rochester reformers focused on a range of new issues: labor reform, environmental activism, and better education. Labor leaders focused on improving the lives of garment workers while urban reformers advocated for the creation of a better park system to improve city life. Rochester was still a hot-bed of reform.
Indeed, Rochester played a key role in the rise of the Social Gospel movement, which challenged religious figures to improve the material conditions of average Americans and not just their spiritual lives. Both Robert Rauschenbusch and Howard Thurman, celebrated members of the clergy who became leading advocates of the Social Gospel before World War Two, settled in Rochester. Their work and writings influenced a more famous activist to embrace the teachings of the Social Gospel later on: Martin Luther King Jr.
The story of Rochester reformers continued from the post-World War Two era to the present day. Each generation of Rochesterians has focused on social problems old and new. Some problems are timeless, such as the struggle for Civil Rights and economic justice. Some issues are only now on the civic radar, like the right to digital access in neighborhoods and schools.
No matter the issue, each new generation of Rochester activists draws on a proud tradition of reform and reformers who came before them, changing their neighborhood, their city, and their nation for the better.