The debates offer an opportunity to look at three Rochester statues created by renowned sculptor Pepsy Kettavong: Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Nathaniel Rochester.
The Douglass and Anthony statues in Anthony Park are beautiful homages to two of Rochester most progressive figures: an abolitionist and women’s right crusader. Less well known is the statue of Nathaniel Rochester in Nathaniel Rochester Square on South Avenue. As many Rochestarians know, Colonel Rochester was a Major in a Revolutionary War militia who founded Rochesterville. He was also a slave owner, and as reported in the City and Rochester History new evidence shows he was also an active slave trader.
I took the opportunity to ask Pepsy what he thinks about the recent debates in relation to the statute. First, Pepsy explained that when the statue was created in 2007, he met with representatives from then Mayor Johnson’s office to discuss the appropriate way to honor Rochester.
Pepsy was well aware of Rochester’s slave ownership. At the same time, Pepsy thinks we have to look at the historical context and understand the good and the bad. Like many in his time, Rochester owned slaves, but he was also an officer in the Revolutionary War and was exceedingly generous with his resources.
Most importantly was Pepsy’s choice of presenting Rochester in “Reflecting.” Pepsy avoided a heroic pose such as Rochester on horseback or having the statue dominate the Square. The statue is not a glorification. Instead, we see a pensive Rochester leaning on a cane next to his hat. Pepsy’s goal is to allow viewers to reflect on their own lives and where they are at this historical moment. The statue opens up — rather than closes off like the most offensive statues of slave holding Confederate generals — the viewer’s interpretations. One can imagine Rochester looking out on the world and seeing the progress we have made.
For Pepsy, the statue is a place for quiet meditation in a little urban oasis in a busy neighborhood.
Even before speaking with Pepsy, I was never in favor of changing or removing the statue, although I heard some extreme calls that Rochester change its name due to Colonel Rochester slave owning and trading legacy. Now, I more appreciate Pepsy’s work as a window into the past and present.