Douglass Funeral

Frederick Douglass died in Washington, DC, but wanted to be buried in Rochester because of his love for the city where he had lived for 25 years—longer than any other place in his life. He had visited Rochester in 1842 to attend a convention for Blacks, where locals had supported him and the city had been where his most productive public reform activities had taken place.

The ceremonies in Rochester were extensively documented by John W. Thompson, a member of the Douglass League and the leader of the committee to erect the Douglass Monument, which now stands in Highland Park. A procession moved from the train that brought Douglass and members of his family through the city streets with the 54th Regiment Band playing a funeral march in what Thompson called “a bare statement of one of the most impressive scenes that has ever been seen in Rochester.”

Many emotional residents paid their respects, including thousands of school children, who were dismissed from school and encouraged to “view his remains in order that they might tell their children that it was their privilege to look upon the face of Frederick Douglass.” His body lay in state in the Rochester City Hall, watched by an honor guard consisting of four members of the 8th Separate Company and four officers of the police department.

On Feb 26, 1895, the Rochester funeral for Frederick Douglass was held at the Central Presbyterian Church (now Hochstein Music School). Many people spoke, but the address of the day, delivered by Rev. Dr. W. C. Gannett defined Douglass’ life as “charity personified.” Rev. Gannett closed his remarks, “Let me end with one great word. It is his word. There are but six word in the sentence and it is one of the great sentences worthy to be painted on church walls and worthy to be included in such a book as the Bible. It is: “One with God is a majority.”

Douglass had died on Feb. 20, 1895, from a massive heart attack or stroke between 5:00 and 6:00pm, although he had, during that day, attended a meeting of the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C, in which they brought him to the platform and gave him a standing ovation.

His Washington funeral had been held at the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, where he had a pew and where he had given many lectures, including his last major speech, “The Lesson of the Hour.” A simple bunch of lilies decorated the casket. However, among the floral tributes were a beautiful piece from the Haitian Government and a cross by Capt. B. F. Auld, of Baltimore, a son of Douglass’ former master.

The following letter from Elizabeth Cady Stanton was read at this funeral:

“As an orator, writer and editor, Douglass holds an honored place among the gifted men of his day. As a man of business and a public officer he has been pre-eminently successful; honest and upright in all his dealings, he bears an enviable reputation. As a husband, father, neighbor and friend—in all social relations—he has been faithful and steadfast to the end. He was he only man I ever knew who understood the degradation of the disfranchisement of women. Through all the long years of our struggle, he has been a familiar figure on our platform with always an inspiring word to say. In the very first convention he helped me carry the resolution I had penned, demanding woman suffrage. Frederick Douglass is not dead. His grand character will long be an object lesson in our National history. His lofty sentiments of liberty, justice and equality, echoed on every platform over our broad land, must influence and inspire many coming generations.”

Susan B. Anthony read a eulogy at this Washington service and was not able to return home for the Rochester funeral services, but she shared her thoughts in a letter to a friend in Rochester, which referred to “all of the Porter Family!! None were quite so near to Mr. Douglass as they.”

The outpouring of praise for Douglass after his death was unprecedented. The Democrat and Chronicle carried this surprising news story:

“The adjournment of the lower house of the legislature of North Carolina, an old slave state, out of respect to the memory of Frederick Douglass is one of the signals of the times. The same legislative body refused to adjourn for Washington’s birthday and would not honor the memory of Robert E. Lee, on the 19th of January. The resolutions passed by the North Carolina house were simple and direct:

Whereas, The late Fred. Douglass departed this life on the 20th instant; and

Whereas, We greatly deplore the same; now, therefore, be it resolved,

That when this house adjourn, it adjourn in respect to the memory of the deceased.

This expression is worthy of the state of North Carolina; it shows that emancipation has emancipated white and black alike. One of the authors of emancipation was Frederick Douglass, the son of a slave. He was greater than Spartacus, greater than any slave in all history, and the country which nourished him and listened to his voice will honor him as no man born a slave was ever honored before.”

Frederick Douglass’ Funeral in sanctuary of Central Presbyterian Church, 1895

Gathering outside during Douglass’ funeral at the Central Presbyterian Church

Douglass’ grave in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY

(Click on images for a larger view.)