The knock at Sherri Dukes's front door came years after her late husband, Lee, confided his secret to her: that he had seen the ghost of a studious black man seated at their bedroom desk.
At the door that day in the fall of 2003 was historian Jean Czerkas, on a mission to unearth remnants of anti-slavery crusader Frederick Douglass's links to Rochester.
Czerkas had already discovered the long-forgotten grave of Douglass's daughter, Rosetta Douglass Sprague, at the city's Mount Hope Cemetery, where the abolitionist author is also buried. And that led to records of a modest, two-story house that once belonged to Douglass.
This was the house that Lee and Sherri Dukes bought on Hamilton Street in 1973, 100 years after Rosetta moved there with her family -- with her famous father listed as a boarder.
Sherri Dukes was thrilled to learn that she lived in the only known house still standing in Rochester that Douglass had owned and occupied.
"Please come in! You're just the person I've been looking for," she told Czerkas.
Douglass spent 25 of his most influential years in this city, publishing the North Star journal on Main Street. Rochester was the place, he later wrote, where "I shall always feel more at home . . . than anywhere else in the country."
Although he owned various properties, none is known to have survived. His family farmhouse on South Avenue was destroyed in a suspected arson in 1872. Another Douglass house was replaced long ago by a parking lot. Czerkas has so far been unable to validate sketchy evidence that Douglass owned a rental home up the road from the red-brick Victorian of his close friend, suffragist Susan B. Anthony. Anthony's home has been lovingly restored as a museum.
But though a public statue of Douglass was erected here in 1899 -- the first in the nation to honor a black American -- the power of place that keeps Anthony's legacy alive has so far been absent.
A mid-19th century house with cramped rooms, pine floors that bulge and creak, and clapboard walls hidden behind turquoise siding could now provide the momentum to end decades of failed efforts here to build a museum honoring him -- a humble counterpart to Douglass's stately home in the District of Columbia, a national historic site. Similar exhibits are in the works to showcase his boyhood in slavery in Maryland and newfound freedom in New Bedford, Mass.
In Rochester, "squabbling or ego trips, or whatever it is, has gotten in the way of an enduring memorial," said David Anderson, who heads the city-appointed Freedom Trail Commission.
Here and in Boston, Philadelphia and other nerve centers of the anti-slavery movement, he noted, "many properties connected with an African American presence, even an heroic presence like Douglass, were downplayed either deliberately or through, simply, people caring more about something else."
It is far from certain whether the vernacular-style, three-bedroom house in a blue-collar neighborhood south of downtown is museum material.
Aside from having tiny rooms unsuited for interpretive displays, "you're talking millions of dollars" for rehabilitation and maintenance, a task usually undertaken by a devoted nonprofit group, said Cynthia Howk, a researcher at the Landmark Society of Western New York.
"The federal government is highly unlikely to take that on," she said. And although a city landmark designation could be "one way to ensure it is not demolished" someday, City Hall is not rushing in to help.
A few years after buying the house, Douglass sent his daughter's family to live there. In both 1873 and 1874, however, Douglass was listed in city directories as a boarder.
"I wondered for a long time how he managed to have as much money as he did," said biographer William S. McFeely, author of "Frederick Douglass." "And I think in a good old, middle-class, 19th-century way, it looks to me as if he might have been playing the real estate market."
The Spragues installed a fancy marble fireplace, a sign they intended to settle down. But the death of their 6-year-old, Alice, in 1875 appears to have ruined their affection for the house. The next year, the family rejoined Douglass in Washington, his main residence until his death in 1895.
The Dukes, both South Carolina transplants, rented out the top floor until the mid-1980s. Around 1986, Lee Dukes, a janitor, said he began encountering a well-dressed figure in a corner of their bedroom.
"He described a black guy with gray hair, a gray beard and a top hat" who was "always busy with his head down, constantly writing, always flipping pages and stuff," his wife recalled.
While she scoffed at his stories, she was intrigued enough to take out a library book on Douglass.
"When I showed him a picture and asked, 'You know who this is?' -- I knew he didn't know him, he didn't have a high school education or do a lot of reading -- he got excited and said, 'That's him! That's the guy!' "
Lee Dukes died of a stroke in 2000 at age 51. His wife, a breast cancer survivor, recently retired on disability after 23 years working on an assembly line. Both her children, Lewanda and Lee Jr., live at home.
If someone took care of her $70,000-plus mortgage and found her another place to live, she said she would deed the house to a historic preservation group.
Though she herself has never experienced Douglass's supernatural presence, one conversation with her husband sticks in her mind.
She sought her husband's assurance that, if he died first, he would "let the ghost know not to let me see him -- because I'm afraid," she said with a poignant chuckle. "He would laugh, 'Oh yeah, I'll do that!' "