When the University of Rochester unveiled the long anticipated marble bust of Dr. Frederick (Bailey) Douglass by local artist Johnson Mundy on its campus in June 1879 the man being celebrated was not in attendance.
To recognize the University of Rochester, President Anderson and his friends and associates in Rochester who had commissioned the work and organized the effort Douglass sent a timely letter to confidant Samuel Porter.
The below article and letter from Dr. Douglass was contemporaneously published by the Democrat and Chronicle and re-printed by fellow Rochester newspapers.
Additionally, Douglass thought the statue consequential and important enough to mention in Life and Times.
It will be remembered that a bust of Frederick Douglass was recently placed in Sibley Hall, of the University of Rochester. The ceremonies were quite informal – too informal, we think, as commemorating a deserved tribute from the people of Rochester to one who will always ranks as among her most distinguished citizen. Mr. Douglass himself was not notified officially of the event and therefore could in no public manner take notice of it. He was, however, informed privately of it, and responded most happily, as will be seen by the following letter which we are permitted to publish: –
Washington, D.C., June 25, 1879
My dear Sir, – I am extremely obliged to you for your kind and timely letter which came this morning, for it was a relief from a real cause of embarrassment.
When I first read of the formal unveiling and the presentation of my bust to the city of Rochester, the speeches made on the occasion by imminent gentlemen, – notably the remarks of Dr. Anderson, the honored President of Rochester University, an institution which has done so much to make the name of the city illustrious, – I felt an almost irrepressible impulse to do or say something out of the common way to some one of my old friends and fellow-citizens, which should express however crudely, something of the grateful sentiment stirred in my breast by this distinguished honor.
But as no one of the respected gentlemen active in the procurement of the testimonial said anything to me about it, and treated me as if I were out of the world, as all men should be when they are once reduced to marble, I began at last to think that silence on my part was perhaps the best way to the properties of the occasion.
Now, however, I am relieved. You have made it easy for me to speak to express my earnest acknowledgements to the committee of the gentlemen having this matter in charge and who have conducted it to completion.
Incidents of this character in my life do much amaze me. It is not, however, the height to which I have risen, but the depth from which I have come, that most amazes me.
It seems only a little while ago, when a child, I might have been fighting with old “Nep,” my mother’s dog, for a small share of the few crumbs that fell from the kitchen table; when I slept on the hearth, covering my feet from the cold with warm ashes and my head with a corn bag; only a little while ago, dragged to prison to be sold to the highest bidder, exposed for sale like a beast of burden; later on, put out to live with Covey, the negro breaker; beaten and almost broken in spirit, having little hope either for myself or my race; yet here I am alive and active, and with my race, enjoying citizenship in the freest and prospectively the most powerful nation on the globe.
In addition to this, you and your friends, while I am yet alive have thought it worth while to preserve my features in marble and to place them in your most honored institution of learning, to be viewed by present and future generations of men.
I know not, my friend, how to thank you, for this distinguished honor.
My attachment to Rochester, my home for more than a quarter of a century, will endure with my life.
Very gratefully and truly yours,
“FREDERICK DOUGLASS,” June 28, 1879, Democrat and Chronicle, p. 2