Thoughts on changing the name of the James P.B. Duffy School

Thoughts on changing the name of the James P.B. Duffy School

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.”


999 South Avenue [Photo: David Kramer]

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.


Main Office, James P.B. Duffy School. [Photo: David Kramer]

Duffy at school

Main Office, James P.B. Duffy School. [Photo: David Kramer]

at school

Main Office, James P.B. Duffy School. [Photo: David Kramer]

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.

tobin morrison

(left) Mrs. Morrison; (right) Mrs. Tobin. One is for the change; one against. [Photo: David Kramer]

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? duffy Ducks

duffy and eleanor 1934

Duffy and Eleanor Roosevelt in 1934. [File Photo: Democrat and Chronicle]

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.”


Candles placed outside the school in memory of Treyvon Rowe. [Photo: David Kramer]

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.

See In Search of Irishness

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.


Leon Freres studio portrait of Duffy as Judge in 1937. From the collection of the New York State Courts, Appellate Division, 4th Department Law Library, Rochester, NY

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.


Holy Sepulchre Cemetery Rochester, Monroe County, New York, USA Sec 5 East Lot: 10T01 Grave: 4N From

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


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

In Search of Irishness

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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