Proposal to rename Rochester’s airport takes flight

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The petition to rename Rochester’s airport has garnered more than 3.600 signatures.
(Photo: Greater Rochester International Airport)

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.

6 thoughts on “Proposal to rename Rochester’s airport takes flight

  1. Yes, rename! Also, can we bring back the wonderful art by Wendell Castle, Nancy Jurs, Richard Margolis? Better yet, commission new work by local Artists of Color!

  2. Changing the name of the airport to reflect on one of Rochester’s most iconic residents, Frederick Douglass, makes sense, but would it not also make sense to include an equally important figure in Rochester’s history: Susan B. Anthony? Why not make it the “Frederick Douglass – Susan B. Anthony International Airport”. We already have a bridge downtown named after the two, so why not do the same for the airport? Not only should we be proud that they brought an early focus to both racial equality and women’s rights, it should also inspire and encourage us to continue to build on their legacy!

  3. Frederick Douglas, one of Rochester’s most famous and respected residents, is certainly a worthy candidate for consideration in regard to changing the airport’s name. However, I hope those responsible for making that decision will not react in haste. The Greater Rochester International Airport has been, since its earliest days in the 1920’s, a major player in the success of our community’s businesses.

    Twice, when the City first developed Brittan Field, individuals were suggested for naming the airport. Each time, Rochester’s businesses let it be known it was important to have the word Rochester in the name. The city was blessed with strong long-time firms and innovative start-ups, many known both nationally and internationally. The Council voted, in the interest of commerce, to name the airport the Rochester Municipal Airport. When Monroe County purchased the airport from the City a similar request was made offering the name of George Eastman. After discussion, the Board of Supervisors also rejected the idea in favor of keeping the word “Rochester”.

    While the current stream of events is promoting reconsideration of numerous named places, please be aware of our community’s long history with regard to naming the airport. In each case the desire to retain specific reference to Rochester in the name outweighed the request honoring that citizen. Our community has always had a strong and stable business community and, today we are swinging back nicely. Renaming the airport to reflect the work of Frederick Douglas, though honorable, will do nothing to support or enhance our business community.

  4. Renaming our airport in reaction to mob violence would clearly be pandering to Black Lives Matter, and so insulting to white, to black, and to Frederick Douglas himself, a man who spoke often with President Lincoln and made a positive difference for race relations and our nation. Only when this is no longer a political agenda item could renaming the airport be a honor Douglas would have appreciated.

  5. I don’t support this proposal because I don’t think that it’s a fitting way to honor Douglas. Many airports are named after famous people. As we travel through them we may recognize the names but learn nothing about the person.

    Did you know that:

    Milwaukee’s Billy Mitchell field is named for the US Army general who many regard as the father of the USAF?

    Chicago’s O’Hare Airport is named for a WW II Medal of Honor recipient from Chicago?

    Lambert-St. Louis Airport Airport is named for an US Army major who learned to fly from the Wright brothers?

    Logan International Airport is named for Boston native who fought in the Spanish-American War and became a general?

    Houston’s Hobby airport is named for a Texas governor?

    Wiley Post airport outside of Oklahoma was named after the first person to flow solo around the world?

    Did you even know that these airports were named after people?

    I’ve been through several of these airports and they all have plaques someplace that explains the reason the person was honored but no one takes the time to read them. Well, I do because I’m a former USAF pilot.

    An important part of honoring someone is informing the public why the honoree was important; what his enduring legacy to the world is. I think we can find far more effective way of showing the world who Frederick Douglas was and what he did for blacks and the America.

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