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

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

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

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Harrison would also tour Kodak Park with George Eastman. See “Booker T. Washington’s surprise visit with George Eastman.”

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.

1892 cropped

from History of Rochester and Monroe County, New York (1908); Peck, William F.; page 107 – 108 Provided with invaluable help from the RPL’s Local History Room

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.dedication

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.


Come On Boys! Battle of Resaca, May 13th to 16th, 1864 This lithograph depicts Colonel Benjamin Harrison charging into the Battle of Resaca on horseback, leading the Seventieth Indiana Regiment. It was published by Kurz & Allison in 1888 during Harrison’s campaign for the presidency. Source: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

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:

Also named Marron Inconnu or Runaway Slave

“Neg Mawon” Also named “Marron Inconnu” or “Runaway Slave” Port-au-Prince, Haiti

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.


Battle of the Monitor and Merrimack, also called Battle of Hampton Roads, (March 9, 1862), in the American Civil War, naval engagement at Hampton Roads, Virginia, a harbour at the mouth of the James River, notable as history’s first duel between ironclad warships and the beginning of a new era of naval warfare. (one of the Soldier’s and Sailor’s Monument panels)


USS Texas, photochrome print c. 1898

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.

Bride and one of her wedding photographers. Father of the bride on the steps. 5/27/16

And cupid’s arrow can strike in Washington Square Park. During our Monument photo-op visit, a bride was having wedding pictures taken.

Salute to Marriage. May the happy couple prosper. [Photo: John, who enjoyed his lunch on a park picnic table. 5/26/16

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:

Karl Marx

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.”

Abraham Lincoln staring down the Dark Tower. 5/26/16

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.


Andrew Supor, “Occupy Rochester general assembly”

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. 


In Washington Square Park remembering the first March for Woman’s Lives, April 1989

On the rally in Washington Square Park. Would Einstein Be Welcome in America Today?

Frederick Douglass returns to Washington Square Park

About The Author

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.


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