Occupy Rochester protestors await arrest in Washington Square Park, about 20 minutes before midnight on Friday, October 28, 2011. The park closed at 11 p.m. from Reporter Online
In keeping with our Presidential visits to Rochester series, this Memorial Day Weekend, we revisit Benjamin Harrison’s May 30th, 1892 trip to Rochester.
As described in Today in History: A historical journal of life in Rochester, NY
The 23rd President Benjamin Harrison, New York Governor Roswell Flower, and Frederick Douglas gave speeches at the dedication of the Soldiers’ Monument commemorating civil war veterans in Washington Square Park, accompanied by a parade of 10,000 people. The monument includes bronze statues of infantry, cavalry, marine, and artillery soldiers with a central figure of Abraham Lincoln.
No doubt the percentage of Rochesterians who know that Harrison visited in 1892 is statistically insignificant. On the days I took pictures at Washington Square Park, in unscientific canvassing, not one person knew — without looking closely — that it was Abraham Lincoln atop the Monument.
Some of the ignorance of Harrison is due to his apparently undistinguished term as President (1889 – 1893).
In the last 18 presidential rankings by historians and political scientists, Harrison was in the fourth quartile 3 times, the third quartile 14 times, and only once in the second, at # 19.
Harrison’s sub par ratings were influenced by his two elections against Democrat Grover Cleveland. In 1888, Cleveland, the incumbent President, won the popular vote but lost the electoral vote to Harrison, a result that limited Harrison’s incoming political capital. In the 1892 rematch, Cleveland regained the Presidency by 46% to 43% in what was a referendum on Harrison’s term.
It looked like the people wanted Cleveland all along. Harrison did win Monroe County in both elections.
Harrison’s Memorial Day Speech itself was undistinguished standard fare.
Given 27 years after Appomattox, Harrison’s Speech exuded conventional post-Reconstruction sentiment. The Civil War was fought for the restoration of the Union by those “who [Southerners] had mistakenly sought to destroy it.” Rhetorically skipping over Reconstruction, Harrison extolled that, “We [the North] brought into full participation [the South] in the glories of restored Union.” And now, in 1892, the “love of the old flag is so revived in these Southern hearts that they would vie with martial ardor to be in front of the charge if we should ever be called to meet a common enemy.” Even with Frederick Douglass seated next to the podium, Harrison did not, of course, mention that slavery or its abolition had any bearing on the history of the Civil War.
But, despite his commonplace nationalist rhetoric of North and South once again as brothers, Harrison was, in fact, noticeably progressive on racial issues. When we look closer at his presidency, we might hold Harrison in higher esteem, and might better see his visit to Rochester as worth remembering.
In “Benjamin Harrison and the Matter of Race” (1969), George Sinkler describes the vexed post-Reconstruction response of the Republican Party to the “Negro Question.” How far should the Republican Party go — if at all — in protecting black franchise in the South, extending Federal law to protect southern blacks against lynchings, and to offer Federal aid for black education? Or should the South be left alone and southern black Republicans subordinated to a white dominated party.
Sinkler’s claim is that, at least rhetorically, Harrison “unlike many “Presidents] before or after him, took the position that the Negro problem should not be sidestepped.” In his first annual message to Congress:
Harrison also had much to say on the subject of the Negro in American life. He absolved the Negro of any blame for his presence in the United States, his poverty, and his ignorance. These were “our shame not theirs,” he told the country.
Assessing Harrison’s statements during the 1888 campaign and in office, Sinkler concluded: “A stronger plea for the Negro would be difficult to find in the presidential rhetoric of the period.”
Then there is Frederick Douglass.
According to Sinker, Douglass was initially skeptical that Harrsion would at all carry the mantle begun by Lincoln:
Frederick Douglass, former Maryland slave turned abolitionist, orator, and political spokesman for his race, was not pleased with the thought that Harrison might give his blessing to white men’s parties in the South. In an interview granted approximately one month after Harrison’s inauguration, he spoke of the administration’s “lack of vigor and courage in enforcing the law.
But Douglass seems to have changed his mind. In June 1889, Douglass accepted Harrison’s offer — a bold move — to serve as ambassador to Haiti, a post Douglass held until July 1891. True, Haiti was a black Republic and Harrison had not been bold enough to appoint Douglass to a white nation. Nonetheless, Douglass became the first African-American to serve as a U.S. Ambassador.
Upon returning from Haiti to Rochester, Douglass worked hard for Harrison’s hoped for re-election, employed in 1892, as Sinkler says, “to keep colored delegates in line for Harrison’s attempt for a second nomination and was apparently successful.”
So what did Douglass think of Harrison that Memorial Day as he listened to the dedication speech with Lincoln standing atop the Monument?
Perhaps Douglass agreed with Sinkler’s concluding words:
Although Harrison considered himself powerless in the face of violation of Negro rights on the state level, further investigation might well show that in his strong advocacy of the Federal Elections Bill, the Blair Education Bill, and anti lynching legislation, Harrison exerted greater leadership, no matter how unsuccessful, in matters of race than any of the post-Reconstruction Presidents prior to the twentieth century.
No doubt, Douglass — like Harrison himself — knew the Harrison administration could never match the transformational martyr peering down at the dedicators.
But perhaps Douglass reckoned — as we might 124 years later — that Harrison can be said to have stood on the right side of history.
And so much more history in Washington Square Park. In The WWI Austrian cannon is back — or not — in Washington Square Park you read of the-then mysterious reappearance of the Austrian cannon last summer. And then More on the Austrian canon monument including from Rachel Barnhart. And the now good news is that the Military History Society of Rochester is advancing a capital campaign to restore and return the cannon.
The Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument itself has some interesting features. The panels represent key moments in the Civil War: Ft. Sumter, Gettysburg, Appomattox. Also included is the 1862 naval engagement between the ironclads USS Monitor and CSA Virginia. The battle itself was dramatic but fought to a standstill. But, in those first two ironclads, the monument architects might have seen the precursor of their own times. In 1892, the USS Texas was christened as the first U.S. dreadnaught, or today’s battleship.
And culture too. Atop the granite block honoring Franklin Delano Roosevelt is one of our theater critics.
And cupid’s arrow can strike in Washington Square Park. During our Monument photo-op visit, a bride was having wedding pictures taken.
And in Washington Square Park — a topic soon to be covered extensively by those who were there — was Occupy Rochester, a protest movement begun in October 2011, allied with and part of the international Occupy movement. By March 2012 Rochester was the last Occupy encampment still active in New York State and possibly the longest operating one at 139 days.
For most Rochesterians, the most vivid memories are brave souls weathering the winter, candlelight vigils, and the ubiquitous 1% and 99% signs of many types. Those numbers — 1% and 99% representing the powerful and the people — became the signature slogan or phrase of the movement whose multiple meanings still permeate political discourse.
Not to credit, I did not participate deeply in the Occupy, wimping out on a vow to stay overnight under the imperfectly propane warmed tents. To the lending library consisting of both heavy duty political tomes and light reading by the propane fire, I did donate my undergraduate copy of Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts (1844). I remember one highlighted passage:
The less you eat, drink and read books; the less you go to the theatre, the dance hall, the public house; the less you think, love, theorize, sing, paint, fence, etc., the more you save-the greater becomes your treasure which neither moths nor dust will devour-your capital. The less you are, the more you have; the less you express your own life, the greater is your alienated life-the greater is the store of your estranged being.
In his analysis of capitalism’s narrowing of the soul — alienation, estrangement — maybe Marx was pointing exactly to the 1%: “the less you are, the more you have.”
On a couple of occasions my friend who worked at Xerox — snarkily referred to as the Dark or Black Tower — joined me in the Park for lunch. While sheepish about telling his colleagues where he had been and calling the encampment inhabitants hippies, my friend was not averse to their cause.
I recall telling one inhabitant that my friend looked down upon the encampment from the Dark Tower, pointing to Xerox. Wincing, my friend reported that his office did not even have a window. The inhabitant suggested that Occupy was actually entirely sympatico with my friend, the windowless, servant to capitalism on the mouse’s treadmill.
Later my friend, asked, but what would the inhabitant have me do? My friend too liked eating, drinking, reading books, the theatre, the dance hall, the public house, thinking, loving, theorizing, singing, painting and fencing (maybe not fencing), but he had a Brighton mortgage to pay and three daughters nearing college age. What would he do, quit his job and move to Shangri-La?
Five years later on the day I was there, I met two workers from Xerox Square. When asked what he had thought of Occupy, the man said it was awful. Mud, dirty snow, trampled grass, street drugs, petty crime, parking problems, noise. Even teenage girls lured into ill advised sleepovers by silver tongued revolutionaries. The city had to hire extra police and security just to maintain a little order. And it was it middle of winter, for God’s sake. The encampment presented a bad image of Rochester. And, saying it twice, as far as he could see Wall Street was still in business and still making lots of money. The woman — whose memory of the encampment was dimmer and her impressions less vivid — just said she never thought the whole thing had a point, if not pointless.
I spoke with a few other people who had spent time at the encampment and know a fair number of the participants. As one said of those two Xerox Square workers, Occupy wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s ok.
Another saw in Occupy an expression of democracy in action. The encampment at Washington Square Park was not mean to be a precise focal point, but a place where the terms 1% and 99% “clicked” for people from a wide range of viewpoints: progressives, libertarians, grass roots Republicans, proponents of single payer health care, even people who want to return the U.S. to the Gold Standard!
It wasn’t about politics-as-usual or electing this or that President. It could be messy and confusing, but so was democracy.
He also emphasized that Occupy wasn’t at all just about college students or street people. Many of those involved were small business people and artists, themselves small business owners. Fundamentally, those few months fostered networks still going strong. Out of Occupy grew a host of mutually-supportive small businesses and start ups– like Tea Witch Tea and Smugtown — that value environmental and social sustainability. The grass in the Park may have grown back, but grass rootedness is here to stay.
But the full history of Occupy Rochester is a subject for another day.