Vandalism of Douglass Statue Underscores St. John Fisher College’s Lack of Diversity

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(left) now debris-cleared statue mount at 1 Tracy Street [Photo: David Kramer, 12/18/18]; (center) St. John Fisher at St. John Fisher College [Photo: George Payne]; (right) flowers and remembrance blurb left on fence next to statue mount [Photo: David Kramer, 12/18/18]

George Cassidy Payne

As a St. John Fisher alumnus (Class of 2000) I felt embarrassed and angry when I heard that two Fisher students vandalized one of Olivia Kim’s Frederick Douglass statues at 1 Tracy Street., the site of a seminary where Douglass enrolled his eldest daughter, Rosetta, only to withdraw her after she was being placed in segregated classes.

John Boedicker, 20, and Charlie Milks, 21, pleaded not guilty to criminal mischief charges, and they told a local news station they were drunk when they took the statue early Sunday morning. Apparently they were heading home from the bar when they got a “bad idea” to take it.

Across the street from the former Douglass home on Alexander Street [Photo: David Kramer]

One of 13 near-replicas of the Douglass statue made by local artist Olivia Kim. Across the street from the former Douglass home on Alexander Street [Photo: David Kramer, 11/8/18] From Frederick Douglass’ Alexander Street home commemorated; Seward Seminary marker still missing.

The following day, SJFC President Gerard Rooney issued the following statement:

Effective immediately, two students allegedly involved in vandalism of a Frederick Douglass statue have been suspended from the College. The suspension will continue until the legally mandated student conduct hearing addressing this matter is completed.  We have taken the strongest possible action available to us at this time. In addition to continuing to follow the College’s own Student Conduct Process, the administration will cooperate fully with members of the law enforcement community.

Mayor Lovely Warren also issued a statement:

The vandalism and theft of the Frederick Douglass statue on Tracy Street is a sad event that demonstrates remarkable disrespect for the citizens of Rochester, especially those who have worked so hard to celebrate the legacy of Douglass during the 200th anniversary of his birth. I am grateful to the citizens who reported this incident as it unfolded and for the immediate response of the RPD, which resulted in a successful arrest. I have also spoken with Dr. Gerard Rooney, President of St. John Fisher College, who shares our community’s contempt for this type of behavior. We should all use this opportunity to consider the wisdom and continued relevance in Douglass’s own words when he said: “The soul that is within me, no man can degrade.”

Douglass 1

Olivia Kim’s statue of Frederick Douglass outside the Anna Murray-Douglass Academy School #12 located on the Douglass family home site, 999 South Avenue. [Photo: David Kramer, 10/18/18] From “The greatest American of the nineteenth century”

A witness to the vandalism who called 911, claims that the two students were yelling racial slurs. The students claim that they were just drunk. One stated:

This was not racially motivated. We had no idea who the statue even was, we were just two idiots walking home from the bar that had a bad idea, I’m sorry for my actions and want to apologize and I’ve already reached to the original artist of the sculptor to talk. I would just like to say we were blindsided by these racial allegations as we only found this out when reading the article this evening, there was no mention of it all during processing and this is all a big drunken misunderstanding.

If I am being candid, I have to confess that I was removed from the St. John Fisher Campus in 2002 for setting off a fire extinguisher in my dorm room. That action was fueled by drinking, and it not only cost me my residency on campus, it nearly got me expelled from the school all together. After 200+ hours of community service, I will never look at a fire extinguisher the same way again.  I am not one to cast stones at these two young men.

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The first day of the statue. South Avenue, 7/19/18. From A Frederick Douglass statue and the naming of the Anna Murray-Douglass Academy

But I do think there is a larger issue at play here, one that is not being talked about yet in the media.

Let’s say the students did know it was Douglass and they assaulted the statue out of racial animus. If that is the case, this incident constitutes a hate crime, and they have no business being enrolled at SJFC.

Required reading in the Transitional Studies Program at Monroe Community College. [From David Kramer's collection]

Required reading in the Transitional Studies Program at Monroe Community College. [From David Kramer’s collection]

But let’s assume that they are telling the truth about not knowing who the statue represented. If that is the case, then the crime was not motivated by hate but rather ignorance. As a fellow student of the school, I am not sure which situation is worse. For how can it be that these two young men made it all the way through high school and then a private liberal arts college without knowing who Frederick Douglass is? Douglass is the most significant and famous abolitionist in United States history. For these two self- proclaimed “idiots” to not know who he is, shames not only their families and friends, but the educational institutions that failed to properly teach them about the African-American experience in this country.

In other words, if these young men are telling the truth about their real motivation, that would be an indictment against St. John Fisher College. For again, how is it that two upper-class students did not know Douglass when they saw him? I simply refuse to believe they were so drunk that they knew about Douglass but did not know that the statue depicted him. Assuming that they truly had no clue who he was, what does that say about the level of diversity education on Fisher’s campus? In what ways is the behavior of these two indicative of a much larger issue occurring at my alma mater? Let’s not beat around the bush. Does Fisher have a problem hiring instructors of color? Yes. Has Fisher neglected to make the curricula more responsive to the learning needs of minority students? Yes. Does Fisher need to do a better job connecting the student body with initiatives and programs based in communities of color within greater Rochester? Yes. Can the school, in general, be more racially and ethnically sensitive to the needs and perspectives of non-whites? Yes.

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Washington Square Park. [Photo: David Kramer, 9/1/18. From Frederick Douglass returns to Washington Square Park

Mary Myer's installing flower and remembrance blurb, 12/17/18 [Photo: Tom Myers]

Tom Myer’s installing flowers and remembrance blurb, 12/17/18 [Photo: Mary Myers]

According to College Factual, an organization that obtains their data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the National Center for Education Statistics, Fisher’s college faculty is 85.5% white. Just 5% of the faculty is African American. 84% of the undergraduate student population is white. Only 3.8% of the students are African- American. Consequently, the college is ranked 1,964 in ethnic diversity nationwide with a student body composition that is below the national average.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the president’s swift and forceful statement condemning the student’s actions. But the bottom line is that his College has a lot of work to do. When the president says, “We have taken the strongest possible action available to us at this time,” that may be true to an extent. What matters far more is how the school decides to look within and acknowledge its own failures over the years to diversify its staff, faculty, and academic programming. What actions will the president initiate moving forward to make sure that no other student under his watch has the impudence to say they do not know who Frederick Douglass is?

Displayed at Art of the Book: Artist Books and Altered Books at the Central Library of Rochester

Displayed at Art of the Book: Artist Books and Altered Books, Central Library of Rochester [Photo: David Kramer, 10/19/18] In case you didn’t know, the figure is Frederick Douglass.

UPDATE: See “When one goes down, ten go up”and restorative justice

Olivia Kim, creator of the Douglass statues, 1 Tracy Street, 12/21/18 [Photo: David Kramer]

Olivia Kim, creator of the Douglass statues, 1 Tracy Street, 12/21/18 [Photo: David Kramer] From “When one goes down, ten go up”and restorative justice

SEE ON DOUGLASS

Frederick Douglass’ Alexander Street home commemorated; Seward Seminary marker still missing.

“The greatest American of the nineteenth century”

Frederick Douglass returns to Washington Square Park

A Frederick Douglass statue and the naming of the Anna Murray-Douglass Academy

Discovering Frederick Douglass

Fred DouglasS gets his due

A bust of Frederick Douglass at the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School

In Douglass We Trust

Memorial Day, 1892, when President Benjamin Harrison dedicated the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument in Washington Square Park with Frederick Douglass. And Occupy Rochester

Frederick Douglass in Rochester: a gallery of images and words

Storyteller Bill Pruitt interweaves the lives of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass

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  1. Michael J Nighan

    Oh brother, here we go again. Another trip on the Hyperbole Express. Looks like it’s time to start swinging Occam’s Razor.

    Why is it that this incident can’t be as simple as it appears to be? Namely nothing more than a couple of cretins getting liquored up (as college students have been doing in this country since colonial days) and then going out and doing something REALLY stupid (as college students have also been doing in America since colonial days). Why must we make either a literal federal case out of it by trying to label the actions of these drunks a hate crime, or else blaming St. John Fisher because one dark night two of their students were too bombed to recognize the subject of their vandalism as a statue of Frederick Douglass?

    Obviously their vandalism can not be excused by their inebriation. And they will hopefully suffer the full penalty of both the law and SJF’s student policies for their crime. But if we must blame someone, I suggest we start with their families. They’ve had two decades to teach these clods to act like civilized human beings. To the extent they’ve failed, it is most definitely not the responsibility of the college to make up for deficiencies in their upbringing. SJF may indeed have problems with their diversity hiring and programs. But to allege that these problems are somehow to blame for the actions of two students who have spent at most 9 months a year for 3 years out of 20 at the school is to begger credibility. Indeed, to blame SJF is as logical as blaming the grade schools and high schools which these two attended.

    And if we want to discuss this vandalism as a racist act, although it remains unproven, then I would submit that anyone driving down the road in a pick up truck bearing a Confederate flag decal or the Stars and Bars in their back window, presents every bit as blatant display of racism, albeit not as destruction but certainly far more long-lasting, than this particular act of vandalism. Yet I don’t see such vehicles being pursued and the driver’s publicly castigated for their actions.

  2. George Payne

    Does it matter that they were shouting the N word while they were lugging the statue down the street?

    Anyways, I do blame their parents. I also blame the grade schools, high schools, and SJFC.

    You know what Michael, I even blame people like you who bend over backwards to find ways to downplay acts of hate and injustice. As you put it, they are just “a couple of cretins getting liquored up (as college students have been doing in this country since colonial days) and then going out and doing something REALLY stupid (as college students have also been doing in America since colonial days).

    You ask: “Why is it that this incident can’t be as simple as it appears to be”?

    I know you pine for the simple days when dumb white kids can just be dumb white kids. Those were the good old days weren’t they? Back then you didn’t have to worry about being called out. You didn’t have to worry about your fellow whites making you feel guilty for being racist. Simpler times, right Michael?

  3. Michael J Nighan

    me of the tactics of Joe McCarthy.

    You state as a carved-in-stone fact that these two clowns were shouting racial epithets. But we both know that that accusation comes from the unsubstantiated statement of a single individual. But then the concept of innocent until proven guilty is such a bore and only applies to some, not all, right? Far better and more morally self-satisfying to cry “off with their heads” and, “Sentence first. Verdict afterwards”, ala’ Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen.

    As far as those simpler days are concerned, it seems clear that you, not I , are harkening back to them. For you a knee-jerk rush to judgment and accusation of racism is far simpler than the more complex, nuanced and time-consuming activity of actually waiting for an investigation and an uncovering of the facts.

    And if you define calling for due process and reasoned evaluation of a situation before passing judgment to be “bending over backwards”, then you damn well better call my chiropractor because that’s the way I’ve always lived and always want to live. EVERYONE is innocent until proven guilty in my world, even if I believe that they’re racists, thieves or terrorists. I even extend that benefit-of-the-doubt to those who seem to me to be self-appointed social vigilantes practicing their own form of bigotry.

    By the way, while I’m encouraged by your admission that your original attempt to blame just St. John Fisher for their students alleged racial failings was in error (although you did neglect to explain why you believe that SJF bore any responsibility for the conduct of their students) and that you now admit that other parties (parents and prior schools for example) also share in the blame, I do find it interesting that you did not outline the steps, as you did for SJF, which said parents and prior schools must take to do penance for their alleged racial insensitivities. Seems to me that your concern for racial justice stops at the Monroe County border.

  4. Michael J Nighan

    (My first paragraph was cut off. This site REALLY needs an edit function!)

    So George, with all the actual racism in this country, why do some people find it necessary to spend their time trying to advance their personal agendas by cobbling together new and highly-debatable examples? Reminds me of the tactics of Joe McCarthy.

  5. George

    Talk about hyperbole! McCarthy? Give me a break.

    What is my personal agenda? Am I not entitled to an opinion? Am I not entitled to make an observation about the interrelationships between education, race, and the disrespect these drunken students showed to the entire city of Rochester? What do you think my agenda is? Please share.

    And what new example are you referring to? The eyewitness gave their testimony and it was reported in the first stories that ran the next day. It’s not a new example. You are the one who omitted any mention of a racial aspect to their behavior that night. I merely reminded you about what was reported. You call it an accusation and I call it a witness statement. Who has more credibility in this situation: concerned citizens who witnessed a crime and reported it to law enforcement or two blitzed football players dismantling a statue of Frederick Douglass?

    I notice that you have quite the affinity for straw man arguments. When did I argue that a full investigation is not needed? At what point did I argue that these students do not deserve due process? What cause do you have to insinuate that I do not believe suspects are not innocent until proven guilty? They already admitted to tearing down the statue. They apologized. My article had nothing to do with what you are saying. I actually doubt whether you even read it. I am not assuming they are racist. I am speculating about their motivations, and I am suggesting that they may not have known who Douglass is, which is its own form of travesty. If they did know it was Douglass, how can you assert that no racial insensitivity, prejudice, or ill will was at work?

    Michael, congratulations for being so enlightened. Speaking as a “self appointed social vigilante”, I clearly have a lot to learn from someone as sagacious as yourself. If I could only be as equitable and nonpartisan as you! Silly me, I must have missed that spirit of fair mindedness and neutrality when I read your castigation of Tom Otterness in City. Or does your charity stop at the Monroe County border as well?

    Lastly, I was not blaming Fisher for what happened. I was merely calling attention to Fisher’s lack of diversity on campus and in the classroom. That can have consequences. Rather than hide behind codes of conduct procedures and platitudes for the media, I want the president of SJFC to use this as a catalyst for reform.

    Frankly, I really don’t care if you see the connection or not. Let’s not forget, it was you who clamored for a simple explanation. I am the one who wants an explanation that is “complex, nuanced, and time consuming.” I want to know not just what happened but why it happened. Unlike you, I predict that it involves more than too much liquor at the bar.

  6. Michael J Nighan

    Back in my college days, my philosophy prof lectured long (and loud) about the various types of arguments people employ in daily life. One of his favorites was what he termed the “You Can’t Hit a Moving Target” argument in which someone resorts to switching from one claim to the next, misrepresents what his opponent has stated, and even contradicts his own prior arguments, all so as to convince himself that his beliefs are valid.

    Were Dr. Fidelman still among the living, he’d love your textbook example of “YCHMT” .

  7. George

    I don’t have any beliefs here except the belief that St. John Fisher College is woefully underrepresented by minority faculty and students. This lack of commitment to diversity education and entollment has unintended consequences. Perhaps there is a connection between Fisher’s failure to diversify and these two student athletes vandalizing a statue of Frederick Douglass. If they knew it was him, then they committed a racist act that can be categorized as a hate crime. If they didn’t know it was him, that is extremely embarrassing to Fisher. You want to give them a pass completely by saying they were so drunk they didn’t know what they were doing, I bring up that witnesses heard them using racial slurs as they were doing it and you say we have no reason to believe that until the investigation is finalized. There is no moving target here. The target was that statue. Those young men, by targeting that statue, also targeted a community who was deeply saddened and angered by their actions.

  8. Michael J Nighan

    Sure thing George. If you need to blatantly and intentionally misrepresent my statements in order to convince yourself of the moral superiority of your views, then by all means knock yourself out. It’s interesting how such pathetic bloviating as yours can be so sad while simultaneously being so humorous. What isn’t funny however are your continued and despicable attempts to link St. John Fisher to the actions of these clods. Whether they are stone-cold racists, or just drunken slobs, neither situation is anything which Fisherr has any obligation, moral or legal, to provide babysitting services for, The school’s role is limited to dealing with such problems after-the-fact by penalizing those who violate civil or academic regulations.

  9. George

    There is no hiding from readers the mutual disdain that we have for each other. In an email you sent me, you said I am a “laughably self righteous and sanctimonious windbag and border line egomaniac.” I called you a condescending old fart with unchecked white privledge and a distorted view of human rights. I could easily add to this description the words hypocritical, jaded and myopic.

    But the sad reality is we both reflect a far larger problem in American society today. Rather than debate the worthiness of ideas and seek out ways to inform one another, we have allowed ourselves to be degraded by our own personal biases and driven by a need to make the other person look stupid. These are the worst traits that get in the way of clear thinking, philosophical understanding, and social enrichment. For my part, I want to apologize to anyone following our conversation.

    That said, I think we should stop and let readers decide for themselves what responsibility an institution such as Fisher has in situations like this. They reviewed their applications and admitted them. They brought them onto a campus that has a faculty and student body that is 85% white. Historically speaking, Fisher has neglected to invest enough resources into diversity training, programming, and courses. It has, in fact, a reputation for being suburban and lilly white on purpose. Lastly, to my knowledge, no outside group has ever completed a full investigation into how many racial incidents occur on and off campus that involve Fisher students. Who is reporting these racial incidents and how are they being handled?

    If you truly believe that there is no institutional racism at Fisher, and that they bear no responsibility whatsoever, I want you to answer this question: What if they were not two white kids with crew cuts? Imagine instead that they were two black students with cornrolls and tattoos coming from a club in the 19th Ward rather than a bar on East Ave. Imagine that the two black students destroyed a statue of Susan B Anthony instead of Frederick Douglass. Imagine that the two black students were using misogynistic language while they were doing it. If this were the case, would the students be expelled or suspended? Imagine if the two black students said they didn’t even know who she was.

  10. Anonymous

    George, thanks for the apology. You guys need to rent a ring or an octogon, and settle your differences once and for all. At least it would be a quicker resolution than your wordy back and forth. Michael: The higher ed. institutions are the next in line to educate young people, after their parents and k-12 schools. Assuming that these schools and homes (especially those in mid-westesque NYS), are bastions for promulgating a pro-white, pro-western, anti-other sentiments and curriculum (except for teaching (curating) MLK, then YES, private institutions of higher learning have a responsibility to TRY and undo the lifetime of default unchecked white privilege. Why? Because being steeped in ones whiteness is to live with a certain myopia that only perpetuates the pain of racism for all who come in contact with the offenders. For a college to NOT try to at least address the inherent white privilege and racism that is systemic disease of every incoming, white student, is to fail to attempt to develop the whole student, not just their knowledge bank and employability. Young white Americans that clear 21 or 22 years old without ONE institution or individual attempting to guide them on their biases and racist beliefs is how we still cannot kill this zombie of racism in America. They grow up to be mature and older adults who carry around with them this under-developed piece as it concerns any race outside of whiteness. In too many white Americans, that under-developed piece stays raw and sensitive, causing knee-jerk and fragile reactions when conversations of race arise. In an increasingly brown and black country, this cannot stand, and has been the norm for too long. I will say that there is light on the horizon, though. Many many white people, of all ages, (like George…and fyi…I have never even met him….but just based on his writings) have begun to realize that addressing their attitudes on race, and their biases, is deep, personal work, and many are beginning that difficult but important work. All of that to reiterate, colleges and universities should absolutely have a responsibility in graduating racially-aware and hopefully even racially-sensitive people. If not them, then who?