A petition to rename the Greater Rochester International Airport to honor Frederick Douglass has quickly gained momentum.
Posted early Sunday morning by Rochester resident Richard Glaser, the petition asks Monroe County Executive Adam Bello to rechristen the Rochester airport as the Frederick Douglass International Airport—Rochester, N.Y.
On Tuesday, Bello released a statement promising to pursue the suggestion in concert with local and federal officials.
“I am supportive of this idea and my administration will be working with the County Legislature, the Federal Aviation Administration, the public and other stakeholders in coming weeks to develop a process to study this proposal,” Bello said.
Glaser says he hoped to see 1,000 to 2,000 area residents join the drive. By midday Thursday, the drive had picked up more than 3,600 endorsements and was gaining signatures at a steady clip.
Enslaved at birth, Douglass escaped and fled his native Maryland, going on to become an acclaimed 19th century American abolitionist, orator, author and editor. He lived and worked for a quarter-century in Rochester, where he published the abolitionist newspaper the North Star. At various points in his career, he also spent time in Pennsylvania, New England and Washington, D.C., where he moved after an arsonist destroyed his Rochester home.
As a “gateway” to the region, Rochester’s airport should better reflect the area’s unique history and in the not-too-distant past, it did, Glaser says. But under previous County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, the names of Douglass and his friend, colleague and fellow Rochesterian, suffragist Susan B. Anthony, were removed from two of the local airport’s concourses and works by local artists including designer/craftsman Wendell Castle, ceramicist Nancy Jurs and photographer Richard Margolis were removed and replaced by commercially sponsored displays.
Renaming the airport to honor Douglass would restore some of the airport’s lost unique local flavor, and inform visitors of the internationally celebrated abolitionist’s strong ties to the region, Glaser believes.
Until the late 1980s, Rochester’s airport was less grandly known as the Monroe County Airport. Some critics, citing the fact that the only international flights landing at or taking off from Monroe County were from and to Toronto, saw the County Legislature’s decision to rebrand the facility as an international hub as overreach. One such person was Ron Thomas, executive director of the Baden Street Settlement.
Then a Democratic Monroe County legislator representing an inner-city district, Thomas in a poke at the Republican majority, sponsored a bill calling for the Legislature to rename the airport The Patrice Lumumba International Airport.
A founder and leader of a movement seeking to free Congo from colonial rule by Belgium in the mid-20th century, Lumumba served as the newly independent Congo’s prime minister. He was killed in 1961 in an assassination that the Belgian government in 2002 apologized for having a hand in.
When Thomas put the Lumumba bill forward in the late 1980s, he said that he saw Lumumba as an appropriate namesake for the rebranded local facility because he was truly an international figure.
“I’d have to think about what I meant,” Thomas says now. “That was a long time ago.”
He believes he chose Lumumba at least partly to express solidarity with South African anti-apartheid activists, a movement that was much in the news and on his mind at the time.
Thomas has heard of the Frederick Douglass petition. He has not signed it so far, but says that he certainly would consider adding his name to the drive provided that it draws wide community support.
“There’s still some pretty conservative people out there,” says Thomas. “But if the people of Rochester want it, then I’m for it. I will support anything that fosters good will. We need to come together.”
Glaser, who says he privately felt out Bello and consulted with William Johnson Jr., Rochester’s first African-American mayor, before launching the drive, believes the petition is likely to succeed.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer.