Metropolitan Hall was built in 1856, only four years after Rockford incorporated as a city. It soon became an active entertainment venue. At the same time, public opinion in Rockford was becoming increasingly anti-slavery, and Metropolitan Hall became a gathering place for abolitionist speakers.
H. Ford Douglass was born into slavery in Virginia in 1831, but escaped to live in the North when he was 15. He lived in different parts of the country, but eventually settled in northern Illinois. He admired Frederick Douglass and took his last name to honor the great orator. H. Ford Douglass was an admired speaker himself. He went on the abolitionist circuit and published articles in abolitionist newspapers. Douglass was considered radical for calling for violence to end slavery. He and Frederick Douglass appeared together at Metropolitan Hall on February 10, 1859, speaking before a large crowd.
At the outbreak of the Civil War, H. Ford Douglass enlisted in the 95th Illinois as a private, one of only a few African Americans to join a white regiment. He saw action in Tennessee and Louisiana. In 1863, Douglass was permitted to raise his own regiment of black soldiers and received his commission as a captain, one of only 30 black commissioned officers in the Civil War. During his time in Louisiana, Douglass contracted malaria. His regiment was transferred to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1865. Still suffering from malaria, Douglass was discharged in July 1865. He died in Atchison, Kansas, on November 11, 1865.