It’s time to stop honoring slave owners and traders

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The recent decision by the Rochester Institute of Technology to strip Nathaniel Rochester’s name off one of their buildings is both an acknowledgment that past recipients of such naming commemorations should no longer be honored due to their slave-owning/slave-dealing actions, and a wake up call to the Rochester city council and the board of education, each of which has been unfathomably derelict in their obligation to do the same for city sites and city schools.

The city council got off to a good start in 2021 when they directed the city historian to conduct, “a preliminary survey in search of public spaces named for people who enslaved others,” and to, “identify Rochesterians who, owing to their contributions toward the healing of historic inequalities and to the development of a city that is thriving based on fairness and justice for all, deserve recognition as replacement namesakes for those public places.” Even prior to such a survey, two sites had already come under scrutiny as candidates for renaming: Nathaniel Square Park on Alexander Street and Major Charles Carroll Plaza (named for one of Nathaniel’s slave-owning partners) near the Main Street Bridge. And in December of that year, the council also authorized the preparation of the paperwork necessary to effect the renaming of Carroll Plaza.

Having initiated the process, the city council then stopped dead in its tracks. A year and a half later Nathaniel Square still honors the man who RIT (and earlier the city board of education when they expunged his name from the Nathaniel Rochester School No. 3) rightly declared to be unworthy of honoring in a public space. Likewise, Carroll Plaza’s name remains untouched.

Additionally, the board of Education has done little to nothing about renaming the Charles Carroll School No. 46 or the John James Audubon School No. 33 (named for the renown wildlife artist who bought and sold slaves in his spare time, the facts of which, when they became public knowledge, resulted in several Audubon Society chapters opting to disassociate themselves from his name). Likewise, the James Monroe High School is a viable candidate for renaming given our fifth president’s history of slave ownership. (In this same vein, in 2019 the school board in Saint Paul, MN voted to remove Monroe’s name from one of their schools. A move initiated by the students’ parents.)

Of course, by its very nature, whether on a local or national level, any discussion of which individual slaveholders/slavery apologists/slavery defenders should have their names removed from public places will be inconsistent. Obviously the names of slave-owing presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe are not going to be removed from state, city or county names. And locally, a renaming of the City of Rochester, of Monroe County, or even of Monroe Ave. or Fitzhugh St. (named for Nathaniel’s third partner and a fellow slave owner) is a practical impossibility. Indeed, even a proposal to rename any of the above would be dead-on-arrival at the city council, county legislature or state legislature.

While a cursory look at the Rochester map shows approximately 20 streets/places/alleys and parks named for presidential and less well-known slave holders, it’s doubtful that city council will have the intestinal fortitude to provoke the political storms (and the costs) of renaming more than one or two of them.

But let’s at least look to harvesting the low-hanging fruit. So to get the ball rolling since city council and the board of education seem to be dozing, I’ll list my personal Top 5 Public Spaces for Renaming in Rochester, excluding Major Charles Carroll Plaza and Nathaniel Square Park which are (hopefully) already on their way out, albeit very slowly. Renaming these five spaces will make clear Rochester’s commitment to the justice and morality of the renaming concept, while at the same time incurring acceptable cost and inconvenience:

1. Charles Carroll School No. 46

2. John James Audubon School No. 33

3. Washington Square Park

4. Monroe High School

5. Jefferson Terrace Park

As essayist Logan Pearsall Smith has written, “Our names are labels, plainly written on the bottled essence of our past behavior.” It’s long past time for Rochester city and school officials to stop dawdling and to get busy changing those labels.

Michael J. Nighan

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7 thoughts on “It’s time to stop honoring slave owners and traders

  1. I understand the importance of reviewing and discussing names of places that appear offensive to a given element of our population. I understand the motivation of those who press for such action. But, as with so many other components of our complex society, I do not understand decisions made based upon a single issue In the case of changing names it seems one should ask, Is this a positive force or a negative force that proponents are trying to carry out? (Renaming the airport to honor Frederick Douglass, for example, was a positive step to honor an important Rochester citizen.) Regarding the removal of existing place names it seems one should ask, “Are there other important contributions by this historical figure whose name is to be removed? Are those considerations worthy of public recognition?
    Decision-makers have, in my opinion, a responsibility to consider a wider range of issues and/or information than those who earnestly seek change based upon the single issue they support.

  2. The slavery issue was settled 158 years ago at the end of the Civil War??? Hmm. Have you explored the withdrawal of federal troups during post-Civil War Reconstruction, the Black Codes and the role of the KKK? How about the continuation of apartied, sanctioned by the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court, and overturning of school de-segregation in the Milliken SC case? Have you been following our recent Supreme Court rulings reducing the rights of many marginalized people of color to vote? And, what about the inequities caused by structural & systemic racism in our crimial justice system, health care, education, housing, and employment? Perhaps, trying to empathize with a Black citizen whose current socio-economic status, has been determined by a long history of racial discrimination, might give you some insight into these symbolic acts of justice by changing whom we choose to honor and why.

    • One grievance dejour at a time please. The article (as stated in the title) takes issue with “slave holders”. I just happened to have watched Spielburg’s “Lincoln” last night, and the then President tells Confederate representatives that “Slavery is finished” and he duly followed up with the 13th Amendment. If you want to expand the subject into every social injustice of the last 2 Centuries and ban references to its participants, lets start with POTUS. He is quoted back in the 70s as opposing de-segregation of public schools (and used un PC phrases like it would turn schools into “jungles”). Do you want to ban historical references to him? LBJ was a segregationist in the 40s & 50s, should we rename the Johnson Space Center? This game is endless, you’ll need “Purity Council” to name anything. Speaking of LBJ, there has been ~$18T of your money sunk into the “Great Society”, sounds like you are dissatisfied with the results. I’d suggest you ask for a audit…

      • I for one wouldn’t want to go on the public record stating that my historical views were based on something I saw in a movie. But hey, why read dozens of books by professional historians when you can use the cinematographic equivalent of a Little Golden Book instead.

        As to your point that there are other moral transgressions other than being a slave dealer/owner/defender which could be used to disqualify someone from being entitled to the honor of having their name attached to some public site, I agree. Certainly naming any piece of public property after Donald Trump would be honoring the dishonorable. Of course, were only those of pure heart and with sterling and saintly qualities to be in the running, we’d have a massive number of unnamed properties sitting around the USA.

        That being said, I assuming that we can all agree that, short of conducting genocide or mass murder, nothing is lower on the moral scale than owning and selling slaves, or conducting war to defend such ownership. So that’s where we draw the line. Moral transgressions of a lesser degree, including racism and white supremacist actions, would be dealt with as outlined below.

        At this point morality takes a back seat to reality, and consistency bows to common sense. As I wrote in my letter, it’s impossible to rename states, cities and counties named for slave-holding presidents such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe or any of the six presidents who owned slave (I discount Grant who may or may not have actually owned a slave, but who nevertheless arranged for manumission shortly after being given control of him). Indeed, renaming cities and counties or even streets, roads and rivers for ANY slave holder/dealer/defender, president or not, is probably politically and financially impossible without the consent of a massive super-majority of the residents and, if necessary, their state legislature. This unfortunately includes the 60+ counties in the US named for Confederate traitors and slave owners/dealers/defenders from Jefferson Davis and Robert E Lee on down. This would tend to limit prospects to local schools and municipal parks.

        I’d point out that the suggestion that, in determining whether an individual is a candidate for having their name stripped from some piece of real estate, their other accomplishments or contributions to society should be thrown into the balance against their slavery record has already been baked into the above renaming process. Those slave owners/dealer/defenders who otherwise made truly historic and positive contributions will already have been effectually exempted as set out above. Those whose contributions were of a lesser nature are unlikely to have done anything that outweighs their record on slavery.

  3. You renamers add hate but no good, and so are the antithesis of the enlighten you believe yourselves to be and / or pretend to be.
    Throughout history, each new group of oppressors seeks to rename things. Orwell in the book “1984” said it so well.
    Lets fix some real problems: the poor quality of local public education, the murder rate, the low levels of Vitamin D especially in the minority community.

    • Interesting. So when Jacksonville, FL stripped the name of Robert E. Lee, the leader of the armies whose purpose was the protection of slavery, from one of their schools, that was unenlightened and an act of hate. When the Virginia General Assembly voted to remove the name of Jefferson Davis, president of the traitorous and pro-slavery Confederacy, from a section of US Route 1, that was unenlightened and an act of hate. When the Pentagon opted to remove the names of nine Confederate generals and defenders of slavery from several military bases, that was also unenlightened an act of hate.

      Taking this to the next level, have you informed the Germans that, after WWII when they renamed “Adolf-Hitler Platz” in Berlin and the scores of other streets and plazas named for their Fuhrer, that was unenlightened and an act of hate?

      By that logic, you must also believe that naming public sites for the slave owners and defenders of slavery, or retaining such names, is enlightened and an act of love. How 1984-ish of you.

      Hey Doc, by the way, I’ve never been called an “oppressor” before. Do I get a badge?

  4. I never cease to be puzzled with these purity exercises? The slavery issue was settled with the end of the Civil War 158 years ago, yet there are some that seem to relish in making the purge of history their life’s work. Given the thousands of Union Civil War Veterans (who lost scores of comrades in battle preserving the Union) from Central NY who went through life without being offended by historical markers and references, I think I can also. (If one wanted to add historically accurate information to a narrative of a historical figure on a plaque, I doubt I would object). Washington and Jefferson?? Really? If it wasn’t for those 2 gentlemen, you’d be a subject of the British Empire (which didn’t formally outlaw slavery in the Empire until 1809, and it lingered for a time after that). What’s next? Removing any reference to George Eastman because the company he created eventually polluted its industrial site? Stand down, the war is over.

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