At Green Spring Gardens, friendships have been forged over afternoon tea, a social ritual that has been connecting people for centuries. A bronze sculpture named “Let’s Have Tea” in Rochester, New York, depicts two unlikely friends bonding over cups of tea and provides food for thought on Juneteenth.
The sculpture features fugitive slave turned abolitionist Frederick Douglass and women’s suffrage pioneer Susan B. Anthony in thoughtful conversation over a shared pot of tea. It is an imaginary, yet plausible, scenario for the two activists who were friends and neighbors, and it reminds us that the struggles for racial justice and gender equality have always been intertwined.
Douglass and Anthony met in the late 1840s and worked closely for many years, united in their commitment to the anti-slavery and suffrage movements. They were close in age, but in many ways fundamentally different — he witty and handsome, she sober and austere. Sometimes their overlapping goals diverged, and the pair clashed. The 1869 passage of the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which granted Black men but no women the right to vote, caused a serious rift. He supported a more urgent need for African American enfranchisement. She violently disagreed. Though he remained a self-described “woman’s rights man,” the friendship suffered, and she moved her focus from abolitionism to women’s suffrage.
Neither Douglass nor Anthony lived to see universal voting rights, but the Fifteenth Amendment would become the basis for the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920, giving women the right to vote. More differences and disagreements between the pair were to follow, but they eventually reconciled, and each continued to be an outspoken supporter of the other’s cause.
As statues immortalized in “Let’s Have Tea,” what are the longtime allies and adversaries saying to each other across the tea table? We can only imagine. Anthony is speaking while Douglass listens thoughtfully, and there is clearly no acrimony between them. Rather there appears to be empathy and solidarity.
The sculpture depicts the role of tea drinking as a powerful, yet purely symbolic catalyst for reform. Yet, tea has played a role in influencing social change. Eighteenth and nineteenth century tea parties provided women with socially acceptable venues to voice anti-slavery and pro-suffrage views and to formulate action plans. Tea wares were designed to express activist sentiments, like this one on a 1760 “Abolition Teapot” by Josiah Wedgwood & Sons:
Health to the sick
Honor to the brave
Success to the lover
And freedom to the slave
Tearoom businesses that hosted abolitionist and suffrage fundraisers were established by women, among them Black women who were often excluded from mainstream efforts but took this path to female entrepreneurism to promote suffrage and civil rights.
Ironically, the tea trade was also responsible for boosting the slave trade. The growing taste for sweetened tea fueled a demand for African slaves to work on sugar plantations in North and South America and the Caribbean. Today, tea workers in many countries continue to be exploited and marginalized by the industry.
This “tea for two” between Douglass and Anthony gives us hope that very different people can talk past their differences to support common goals. It reminds us that racial equality and gender equality are inseparable. It should also remind us that, on both fronts, we still have far to go.
Author Debbie Waugh is the Site Historian at Green Spring Gardens.
Educational afternoon tea programs are offered year-round at the 1784 historic house at Green Spring Gardens. Lectures explore a range of history topics, including how tea has impacted social change.