Professor unveils city’s history to energize today’s social reformers

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A. Sue Weisler

RIT history professor Richard Newman stands at the gravesite of famed activist and orator Frederick Douglass in Rochester’s Mount Hope Cemetery. Newman is conducting a workshop series sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities that seeks to better educate K-12 history teachers on the influence of 19th century social reform movements on modern politics, culture and society. The series will include a tour of Mount Hope and an examination of the Douglass papers at the University of Rochester.

The American reform movements of the second half of the 1800s were incredibly influential in expanding civil rights and legal protection to African Americans, women, immigrants and children, and improved the lives of millions of Americans. Few cities were as important to the development and promotion of these reform efforts as Rochester.

“While Rochester is best known today as a hub of technical innovation, it was arguably the ‘reform capital’ of 19th century America,” notes Richard Newman, professor of history at RIT. 

Newman is seeking to increase understanding of Rochester’s key role in American reform history, particularly among K-12 educators and their students. 

Working with Joe Torre, assistant professor of history at the State University of New York at Brockport, Newman will co-direct a 2011 National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks Workshop on Rochester’s rich reform legacy. “Abolitionism, Women’s Rights and Religion on the Rochester Reform Trail,” funded by a $150,000 grant, will enable Newman to bring 80 teachers from across the country to RIT for a series of daily seminars and fieldtrips to local landmarks and historic sites.

“The social reform movements of the 19th century influenced nearly every aspect of American culture, from the struggle against slavery and religious revivalism to early versions of the civil rights and women’s rights movements,” Newman says. “These seminars will provide history teachers from around the country with a better understanding of Rochester’s vital role in American reform history and allow them to bring insights from Rochester’s reform trail back to their classrooms.”

The summer seminar will include an examination of the artifacts and archives at the Susan B. Anthony House, a visit to Seneca Falls, an analysis of Frederick Douglass’s newspaper writing and a tour of Mount Hope Cemetery, where both Anthony and Douglass are buried.

The workshops are sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities’ “We the People” program and provide the opportunity for K-12 educators to engage in intensive study and discussion of important topics in American history and culture. Newman has previously conducted three summer seminars on the abolitionist movement at The Library Company in Philadelphia, one of the nation’s oldest cultural institutions.

“We need to make sure that today’s students understand that modern conceptions of diversity and equality came out of past reform struggles,” Newman notes. “Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass and Charles Grandison Finney all dedicated their lives to improving American society. By studying their stories now, teachers might inspire a new generation of reformers to solve contemporary social problems.”