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. There was Austin Seward, an escaped slave from Virginia who came to Rochester soon after the Erie Canal was completed and joined the city’s antislavery crusade. There was Charles Grandison Finney, the great preacher, who made Rochester a key stop on his revival tours of the 1830s. There was Amy Post, a Quaker reformer, who came to Rochester with her husband before the Civil War and spent decades in the Temperance, Abolitionist and spiritualist movements.
And there was an unheralded woman named Phoebe Rey, who lived in Rochester’s old Fifth Ward and began a crusade to integrate city schools in the 1830s and 1840s. Part of today’s Northeast Quadrant, Rochester’s old Fifth Ward – like the rest of the city – had segregated schools in Phoebe 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 kids. None other than Frederick Douglass saluted Phoebe Rey and her activist colleagues as true pioneers of race reform.
During the Civil War era, of course, 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 rectified this wrong. But without their longtime crusade, that very amendment may never have been secured in 1920.
By that time, Rochester was booming in another way, as the rise of new technology and manufacturing companies (from Kodak to Bausch and Lomb to Hickey Freeman) made the city a business leader. Yet even as it grew, Rochester did not lose its reputation for progressive reform. In fact, in the early decades of the 20st century, Rochester reformers focused on a range of new issues: labor reform, environmental reform, and educational uplift. Labor leaders focused on improving the lives of garment workers while urban reformers advocated 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 Lither King Jr.
The story of Rochester reformers continued in the post-World War Two era – and it leads right up to the present day. Each generation of Rochesterians has focused on social problems old and new. Some issues are timeless: the struggle for Civil Rights and economic justice. Some issues are just being put on the civic radar: the right to digital access in many neighborhoods and schools.
No matter the issue, Rochester can draw on a proud tradition of reform and reformers that guides each new generation of people who want to change their neighborhood, their city, and their nation for the better. They are wise in the way of Douglass – and Phoebe Rey.