The unknown history of Seneca Falls: Frederick Douglass

A black and white portrait of suffragist Frederick Douglass
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This year marks the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which extended the right of suffrage to women, but practically speaking, millions of women of color were still barred from the polls.

To reflect on this anniversary, we’re exploring stories from the women’s suffrage movement that aren’t widely known, and that can shed light on the continued fight for gender equality today.

I n 1848, Frederick Douglass, a 30-year-old man who had escaped from slavery, attended the Seneca Falls Convention. He had taught himself how to read and write while enslaved. When he was free, he delivered lectures to support anti-slavery. His autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845), sold more than 30,000 copies in the United States and Britain. Douglass included his portrait in the book so that readers could see him as a well-dressed, educated Black man. By the time he attended the 1848 meeting, Douglass was perhaps the most famous Black person in the world.

Douglass was the only Black person that we know attended the Seneca Falls Convention, and he contributed very different experiences to it. In 1845, he had evaded the slave catchers who sought to return him to his former owner. Douglass escaped to Britain and lived there for almost two years before reformers purchased his freedom. When he returned, he started his own reform newspaper, the North Star. In era before social media, newspapers like his were essential for social activism.

At the Seneca Falls meeting, Douglass convinced attendees to support women’s voting rights and endorsed the Declaration of Sentiments. He encouraged fellow anti-slavery reformers to support the movement and proclaimed: “Standing as we do up on the watch-tower of human freedom, we cannot be deterred from an expression of our approbation of any movement, however humble, to improve and elevate the character of any members of the human family.”

It might seem logical that anti-slavery activists would support women’s rights too, but many opposed them. They even prohibited women from giving public talks or holding leadership positions in anti-slavery groups.

After the convention, Douglass wrote about it in the North Star. He called the meeting “extraordinary” and said it was “characterized by marked ability and dignity.” Since few Americans had been to a meeting led by women before, Douglass wanted to convince his readers that these women had “brilliant talents and excellent dispositions.” He added that “in no case was there the slightest absence of good feeling and decorum.” Opponents labeled these women who participated in politics as masculine “monsters,” but Douglass portrayed them as virtuous hosts.

In 1869, racism among leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony became more aggressive, and they opposed votes for Black men after the Civil War. Nonetheless, Douglass remained a women’s suffrage supporter and later worked with the pair again. He was an innovative leader in the fight for racial and gender equality.