Scholars explore Douglass's life

Experts explain his connection to Ireland​

By John Bezon

Frederick Douglass and Rochester, N.Y. have always been synonymous with each other. There are not many people however, that typically pair Douglass and Ireland together.

What most don’t know is that Douglass spent nearly a year of his life in England and Ireland.

That is why two scholars attending a conference at St. John Fisher College in Rochester on Feb. 22, 2013 spent some time recounting how Frederick Douglass was influenced by his trip to Ireland in the early 1840s.

Ann Coughlan, a Ph.D candidate at the University College Cork in Ireland, and Patricia Ferreira, a professor of English at Norwich University in Vermont, each spoke during the 10:10 a.m. session of the Frederick Douglass and Ireland Conference put on by the Irish Studies Program at St. John Fisher College.

They were both introduced by organizer of the conference and director of Irish Studies at St. John Fisher College, Dr. Tim Madigan. The main topic of the session was Douglass’s visit to Ireland and the poverty he witnessed while there.

Both Coughlan and Ferreira presented on two similar aspects of Frederick Douglass’s trip to Ireland. They recalled the numerous examples of poverty that Douglass came across while in Ireland and how he expressed his concern about it.

Coughlan used much of her time speaking at the conference by highlighting letters that

Ann Couglan, seated left, and Patricia Ferreira, standing left rear, talk with conference attendees after presenting their thoughts on some of Frederick Douglass's writings.​

Ferreira, who spoke second, picked up mostly where Coughlin left off. She made sure to emphasize the comparisons Frederick Douglass made between the Irish poverty he witnessed and African-American slavery.

In her studies of Douglass’s reviews on his trip to Ireland, Ferreira explained to the audience that he never wrote about the differences between the Irish poor and African-American slaves, but rather their similarities in their struggle.

The session wrapped up with a quick question and answer session that included over a half dozen participants from the audience -- an audience that had just become aware of how synonymous Frederick Douglass is with Ireland, in addition to Rochester.

Douglass wrote to William Lloyd Garrison about the poverty and suffering he witnessed while in Ireland. She handed out a copy of one of these letters to the audience.

For Coughlan, there is something to be said about how the issue of poverty in Ireland made Frederick Douglass a better speaker and writer because he was so motivated to speak out on the problem. It is one of the reasons she was drawn to study Douglass and ultimately make the trip to Rochester for the conference.


“Any opportunity to visit a site associated with Douglass and to get the local knowledge, I was just absolutely delighted to take it,” said Coughlan.

Historian describes life during time in Rochester

By Samantha Reynolds


The mid-morning session of the Frederick Douglass and Ireland conference revolved around the greater Rochester area’s interaction with Douglass and his work.

Carolyn Vacca, Monroe County Historian and an associate professor of history at St. John Fisher College, emphasized how a fire that destroyed his home on South Avenue also burned the majority of Douglass’ artifacts. This has had an impact on knowledge of his life here.

Vacca prepared many photos of the house in which Douglass lived, which is now 294 Alexander Street. The story of the fire that had burned significant artifacts in his past home was very concerning to Douglass’ history. She also considerably included her thoughts and information on Anna Murray Douglass, Frederick’s wife. Her explanation of Douglass’ life moved many students, faculty, and guests.

“As an American I feel I am living on hallowed ground,” said Patricia Ferreira, a professor of English from Norwich University, one of the speakers from the previous session.

Vacca then accentuated the facts about Douglass’ newspaper, The North Star, and its relevance to his empowerment as an individual. She says Douglass went from “an icon of the abolitionist movement to his own individual” through this paper. The North Star has only two or three existing copies left and are very significant to Douglass’ life.

Melissa Jadlos, director of Lavery Library, went into detail of Douglass’s work by showing the navigation through the New.

Photos by Samantha Reynolds

Above, Conference organizer Tim Madigan introduces his Fisher colleague Carolyn Vacca for her presentation. Below, a replica of one of Douglass's publications that was on display

York Heritage website, where digital versions of some copies of The North Star that are owned by Fisher are now availableThe college’s assistance to “digitize scrapbooks and historical newspapers from the Library’s Special Collections and Archives is an important effort to make them more widely accessible to the public,” Jadlos said.

The project contains 20 oversized scrapbooks, 111 issues of the Frederick Douglass Paper, seven issues of the Douglass Monthly, and 20 issues of the New National Era.         
With this collection there has also been an inclusion of “204 issues of other anti-slavery or abolitionist newspapers,” Jadlos said. The collection and digitization of these artifacts has created an opportunity for more people to have access to their contents and allow more recognition for Douglass and his cause.

Fisher students were among those attending the conference

Session covers draft riots, rumors of an affair

By Alexis Wilson


Two scholars at the St. John Fisher College Frederick Douglass in Ireland Conference focused on two very different topics, the New York City draft riots and the relationship between Frederick Douglass and Julia Griffiths.

Assistant Professor of History at Le Moyne College Leigh Fought shifted her focus from women’s suffrage to discuss the rumored affair between Douglass and Julia Griffiths.

Griffiths, a British abolitionist. devoted her energies to galvanizing, supporting and assisting Douglass directly. She worked as a business manager for his paper, The North Star, and helped put it on a sounder financial footing, Fought said.

Rumor had it that Griffiths and Douglass would spend an inordinate amount of time alone at all hours of the day. Fought discussed this in detail at the conference, and she has written extensively about it also. "These events and rumors foreshadowed the difficulties that Griffiths and Douglass would face throughout their friendship," she wrote in an article for the Encyclopedia of African-American History published by Oxford University Press


The close friendship Griffiths had with Douglass made it very difficult for her to be seen as a women of value to some people

Fought says people jealous of Griffiths's success as a fund-raiser seeking money from the same sources as they were also led to attacks on her. Abolition movement figures gossipped about each other "like a bunch of 12-year-old girls," Fought told the conference

But in the end, Fought concluded, it wasn't about the alleged affair which has no documented evidence to this day but what these two figures did to our society and history as a whole.

David Baronov, professor of sociology at Fisher, focused his studies on the New York City Draft Riots, specifically the role the Irish played during these riots starting in July 1863

Baronov organized the slideshow presentation with three acts covering the role the Irish played in the draft riots. Act 1 stated The Irish were to blame, Act 2 stated not all the Irish were to blame and Act 3 was The Consummate Politician, which included a lengthy excerpt from a speech by a leading Irish Catholic clergyman .

The most interesting facts Baronov presented throughout his presentation slides were the quotes he pulled from The New York Times, New York Daily and the New York Tribune from July 17 1863 specifically of the riot. The quotes were able to reel the audience in and give them a better understanding of what was happening during that time.