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The Rochester Reform Trail: Women’s Rights, Religion, and Abolition on the Genesee River and the Erie Canal

It is no coincidence that 19th century Rochester, New York was home to Susan B. Anthony, Frederick Douglass, and a large community of religious innovators like the Hicksite Quakers. The College at Brockport hosts the Rochester Reform Trail, a National Endowment for the Humanities Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop that has brought roughly 400 K-12 teachers from across the country together to explore the history of women’s rights, religion, and abolition at the juncture of the Genesee River and the Erie Canal. The workshop focuses on the power of place to change history, sending participants back to their schools with a keen appreciation for the significance of Western New York in American and world history.

K-12 school teachers from across the U.S. gather in Rochester, New York to learn about the region's history of religious, social, and economic reform. The program features a range of place-based learning opportunities, including a tour of the Susan B. Anthony House. Video courtesy of the Rochester Reform Trail.

The workshop has historically been run in two one-week blocks, during which participants learn together from local faculty members who specialize in the region’s history. Participants are selected from every region of the country and a wide variety of schools, and they are given text to read before arriving in Western New York. When in Rochester, they are encouraged but not required to stay in the same hotel, for which the NEH provides a stipend.

Organizer Jose R. Torre of the College at Brockport, State University of New York emphasizes that Rochester made a disproportionate impact on American reform movements. “Rochester became this hotbed of reform organizations in a way that was just not consistent with its population base,” Torre explains. “It’s really a brand new city; there’s exponential growth from the 1820s to the 1850s. And the questions that comes up is why. Why did it come to rival something like Boston or even New York City?”

“The idea [is] that place matters, that historical change doesn’t happen in abstract space—it happens at particular times and spaces for particular reasons.”

Torre stresses the importance of place for understanding the past, of being there and understanding the social and economic contexts that gave rise to the tradition of innovation. “The NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshop is structured around the idea of place,” Torre explains. “The idea that place matters, that historical change doesn’t happen in abstract space—it happens at particular times and spaces for particular reasons. So why did all these people end up in this place at a very specific point in time? The broad story that I tell the NEH summer scholars is that it’s about the transportation revolution and the industrial revolution.”

Through lectures, seminars, and engagement with primary documents and sites in the region, the workshop explores how Rochester becomes an industrial and transportation hub because of the two waterways: the Genesee River and the Erie Canal. Mills sparked industrial growth along the Genesee River, which flows northward into Lake Ontario. The construction of the Erie Canal changed mobility and the economics of American life, initiating a transportation revolution.

K-12 school teachers from across the U.S. gather in Rochester, New York to learn about the region’s history of religious, social, and economic reform. The program features a range of place-based learning opportunities, including a tour of the Erie Canal aqueduct. Video courtesy of the Rochester Reform Trail.

These revolutions brought both social change and new residents, who worked in factories and were not connected with local kinship units. “It’s my sense is that the reform movement is there because there’s a perception that this new society needs new forms of social control,” Torre says. The religious and cultural reformist spirit in Rochester that these economic forces helped incubate grew to have global impact.

“These people tried to change structures of power ,” Torre notes. “You have in the middle of this kind of hick boomtown these efforts to fundamentally restructure society along more egalitarian principles. It’s really mind blowing . And they sort of went at it with full vigor, as Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass dedicated their lives to it. It’s a national story and it’s really an international story in many ways. Susan B. Anthony has as much to say to the struggle of women in Saudi Arabia as she does to the struggle of women in America in 1855.”

The lessons from the workshop in Rochester have impacted schools around the country, as one anonymous participant indicates: “I feel like a lot of the information could be translated directly into my classroom. Fantastic! We covered the variety of reform movements that occurred in Rochester and influenced our nation. My school was actively considering dropping Women’s suffrage from our curriculum—no more after this.”

To learn more, the Rochester Reform Trail website features videos of site visits and lectures.

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