Photo by Amy Cools
On the occasion of the month of his birth in 1818 (the exact day is not known), let’s follow Frederick Douglass in New York City. As a young man, Douglass escaped from slavery in Maryland, and his destination was New York City, to the home of David Ruggles. A free man of mixed race descent, Ruggles helped escaped slaves find new, safe homes in the free North. And this same man married Frederick Douglass to his love Anna Murray, a free black woman who sold her mattress and saved her hard-earned money to fund Douglass’ escape and who became his life-long partner and mother of his children.
1. William Street – There are two connections with Douglass here, if indirect.
S. William Street today. #13 is the Dutch-inspired building on the far left, constructed after the time of Douglass, but the foundations from an 1830 building are still present and viewable.
One: Douglass may have visited the railroad depot which was on this street. In early drafts of his autobiography The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, Douglass accidentally referred to the Philadelphia depot on Willow Street, from which he took the train towards Manhattan, as the ‘William Street depot’. This slip of the tongue (pen?) may indicate that he did go to William Street that day, or at least he was familiar enough with the William Street depot for it to come more readily to mind. When Douglass took the ferry from New Jersey to Manhattan, he would have disembarked not too far from here, and as he tells it, he slept on the docks before making his way north on Broadway.
Two: In any case, some of the structures on William Street date existed there at the time of Douglass’s flight to freedom in 1838, including the original brickwork found at 13 S. William Street. This part of town suffered a serious fire in 1845, but some of the rebuilt structures in that town retain the original foundations, brickwork, and stonework.
Photo by Amy Cools
There is a historical plaque on 13 South William Street, the one with the year 1903 prominently displayed near the pointy top. That is the year it was rebuilt after a fire in a more fashionable Dutch Revival style; the original building was under construction when Douglass was here in New York City in 1838, and the foundations remain. The buildings’ other entrance is on Stone Street, to the east and parallel to S. William St as it curves around and up in a northeasterly direction. New York City atlases show that the streets here retain their shape and direction from Douglass’ days here. So even if Douglass didn’t come to the William Street depot when he arrived, he was near this part of town, this is one of the few places where anything still stands from that time
Also see this spot on our upcoming tours of the Remnants of Dutch New Amsterdam: