James P.B. Duffy’s oar from his rowing victory when at Harvard Law School, 1902. Displayed at the James P.B. Duffy School [Photo: David Kramer]
As reported by the Democrat and Chronicle, the Rochester City School District is considering changing the name of James P.B. Duffy School # 12 to honor Frederick Douglass and his family who once lived on the South Avenue site.
And, as reported by WHAM, on Monday, after 300 signed a petition favoring the change, a public meeting was held at the school. According to School Board President Van White, “overwhelmingly, people were supportive.”I could not make the meeting, but did visit Tuesday at dismissal, canvassing several teachers for their thoughts about the change.
First, I saw the display of James P.B. Duffy memorabilia in the main office, including photos, portraits and a description of his accomplishments.On a wall opposite the Main Office is Duffy’s 1902 oar from his rowing victory when at Harvard Law School.
Talking with several teachers, some wearing their green Duffy Ducks t-shirts, I found most were neutral or in favor of the change. One man noted that, given the school was on the site of the burned down Douglass home, it should have been named for Douglass from the start.
For one woman, a central theme for the area made sense. Next to Duffy are plaques describing the Douglass homestead, the Douglass Rec Center and the Douglass Community Library with its outside murals of Douglass.
Some pragmatists noted the school recently purchased new Duffy Duck t-shirts and lanyards; thus new ones would be needed. Some worried the new name will be confused with the Douglass Campus, home to Northeast and Northwest.I did meet one teacher who gave a vociferous thumbs down to the change. Part of her reasons were personal. Duffy has always been her home school and she has always known the students for what they are called and call themselves: the Duffy Ducks. The tradition spans generations of Rochestarians. Why change now? Perhaps more importantly, the teacher is concerned about Duffy’s legacy. Duffy personally had no impact on her life. But why is he suddenly less important now then when the school was named in his memory?
She has read the description of Duffy’s extensive civic contributions spanning decades, including seven consecutive terms as School Commissioner and a term as President of the Board. As the description notes, Duffy’s life constituted a “compelling persuasiveness and beautiful eloquence.”Not mentioned in the description was that Duffy served his community at a time when Irish Catholics entering the highest echelons of Rochester society were still the exception. Apparently, Duffy went to Mass every day, carried a missal at all times and received numerous honors during the course of his life, most notable his designation as a Knight of St. Gregory and a Knight of Malta by Pope Pius XI.
When I mentioned to the teacher Duffy’s historical significance as — to a degree — an Irish Catholic trailblazer, for her that was another reason to keep the tradition of the school as is.
Ultimately, if I had a vote, I would vote for the change, preferring the school be named for Douglass’ wife or his son Lewis Henry Douglass, a decorated Civil War veteran. Given the 200th anniversary of Douglass’ birth, the renaming of the library and the addition of Shawn Dunwoody’s murals, the case is compelling to devote the full area in honor and memory of Douglass and his family who lived there. And, the RSCD will still have one school named after an Irish-Catholic Rochestarian, the Charles Carroll School No. 46.
Furthermore, Van White has said a name change could help the school move on from the death of 14-year-old Trevyan Rowe, who ran away from the school in March and drowned in the Genesee River. If so, the healing gesture is another pro-change argument.
I am sure School 12 will keep its Duffy memorabilia and make clear its long history as the James P.B. Duffy School. Nonetheless, it will be a little sad to see the name come down off the wall and with it a small part of Rochester history.