6/18/20. Reflecting by Pepsy Kettavong, Nathaniel Square, 62 Alexander Street. See Reflecting on Reflecting with Pepsy Kettavong. All photos by David Kramer except where indicated. See all articles on the recent rallies at end.
Today, when cycling down South Avenue, I discovered that Reflecting, Pepsy Kettavong’s statue of Nathaniel Rochester in Nathaniel Square, is defaced. The Colonel’s arms are spray painted blood red; his glasses, nose and strands of his hair now pink. His brow reads: SHAME.
His top hat says JERK. His back is marked by WHITE SUPREMACY.
His seat yokes together SLAVERY and CAPITALISM and the stealing of indigenous lands.
The defacers left no manifesto, but their objections to the statue are clear: the undeniable fact that Colonel Nathaniel Rochester once owned slaves and made much of his wealth in the slave trade.
The sight first reminded me of an October 2017 conversation with Pepsy that became Reflecting on Reflecting with Pepsy Kettavong. We talked about the creation of the statue in 2007 when Pepsy met with representatives from then Mayor Johnson’s office to discuss the appropriate way to honor Rochester:
Pepsy was well aware of Rochester’s slave ownership. At the same time, Pepsy thinks we have to look at the historical context and understand the good and the bad. Like many in his time, Rochester owned slaves, but he was also an officer in the Revolutionary War and was exceedingly generous with his resources.Most importantly was Pepsy’s choice of presenting Rochester in Reflecting. Pepsy avoided a heroic pose such as Rochester on horseback or having the statue dominate the Square. The statue is not a glorification. Instead, we see a pensive Rochester leaning on a cane next to his hat. Pepsy’s goal is to allow viewers to reflect on their own lives and where they are at this historical moment. The statue opens up — rather than closes off like the most offensive statues of slave holding Confederate generals — the viewer’s interpretations. One can imagine Rochester looking out on the world and seeing the progress we have made. For Pepsy, the statue is a place for quiet meditation in a little urban oasis in a busy neighborhood.
I called Pepsy but have not yet heard back. Surely, as was I, he is saddened by how the defacers reflected on Reflecting. I understand why some want to make vividly visible Nathaniel Rochester’s position as slave owner and trader. But there are less destructive ways to convey the message: a mini-rally in the Square emphasizing Rochester’s legacy, a billboard spelling out the objections, rotating groups of protesters holding signs in a days long vigil.¹
I then proceeded to search out Nathanielania around town. On the Broad Street Bridge a plaque honors Rochester.
The plaque misleadingly mentions that Rochester freed his slaves when moving from Maryland to Dansville. Rochester did free his slaves, more from practicality than a deep affinity with the abolitionist movement. But, as importantly — not noted on the plaque — Rochester continued to trade in slaves.
As seen in Portrait of a slave trader: Confronting the real Nathaniel Rochester (Ron Netsky, CITY, 2/11/04) and “We Called Her Anna:” Nathaniel Rochester and Slavery in the Genesee County (Rochester History, Vol. 71, Spring 2009, No. 1), in the last 15 years, close inspection of multiple documents reveal the depth and success of Rochester’s slave trading dealings. While the plaque was written before the new information came to light, enough was known for the plaque not to be silent on the subject.
I doubt the owners of The Nathaniel deeply considered Rochester’s legacy of slave owning and trading when naming its upscale luxury apartments.
I returned to Nathaniel Square where I met LT and Trish. LT knew all about Rochester’s legacy; he knew of the plaque on the Broad Street Bridge and its misleading statement.
LT was clear in his opinion. The Square should not have been Nathaniel Square in the first place. With Harriet Tubman soon to be on the twenty dollar bill, now is the perfect time to rename the park, move Reflecting and install a statue of Tubman.
LT had his say on The Nathaniel. He walked by the complex every day during its construction. When realizing the building would be named after Colonel Rochester, LT thought, first they name the city after him, then they name the park after him, then there he is sitting in the park. And now they name a building for rich people after him? As LT said, he was born here, lived here his whole life and this is bullshit. LT mused that if the vandals want to make a show, they could spray paint the fancy windows on the entrance to The Nathaniel . Both Trish and LT said defacing the statue was wrong, but LT added, people are gonna feel what people are gonna feel.
In LT, I could see the intersection of what might be called the “Two Colonel Rochester’s:” one Colonel Rochester the founding father on a plaque, on a school wall, in a city park and a symbol of gentrification on The Nathaniel; the other Colonel Rochester bearing the legacy of slavery.
I then went to Mt. Hope Cemetery to take pictures of Rochester’s grave site. I also wanted to see again the fallen and dilapidated grave of Dr. John Van Evrie that lies a few paces from Nathaniel.
In search of America’s “first professional racist” in Rochester tells the story of Rochestarian Dr. John H. Van Evrie — called by historians one of America’s “first professional racists.” A popular racial propagandist, Van Evrie married into the Rochester family. While Van Evrie’s was particularly virulent and vocal in his racist attitudes, he was not out of place in respectable Rochester society, hence meriting burial alongside the first family of Rochester
Upon arrival was a startling coincidence. Working under the auspices of the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery, two men were repairing grave sites in the Rochester family section.²
All year the men repaired graves, most recently in Rochester family area.
And who was on the repair easel: none other than John H. Van Evrie, M.D. The two images jarred my imagination. A few miles away, protesting vandals branded in vivid colors Nathaniel Rochester an emblem of white supremacy. Here, on the genteel slopes of Mt. Hope, the fallen and dilapidated grave of a professional racist is being restored, under the auspices of the Daughters of the American Revolution, to its rightful stature near the grave of Rochester’s founding father. I saw a continuity between Nathaniel Rochester, Van Evrie and the systemic racism that drives the Black Lives Movement to not rest until justice comes.
¹ At the end of my trek I saw neighbor and Nazareth College English Professor Ed Wiltse struggling, with a distant look on his face, to pull out a stump in his front yard. Ed pleads guilty to “leaning into” the archetype or stereotype of the absent minded professor doing his yard work while pondering, say, Melville. However, Ed claims he was pondering nothing deeper than the hole he was digging.
Ed offers an insightful take on my day and what he calls “creative disruption as protest:”
Where you saw a statue “defaced,” I see us brought face to face with white supremacy, the necessity of that reckoning underlined by The Nathaniel around the corner, in the brutality of its gentrification and the stupidity of its name.
I don’t disagree with Ed’s trajectory. As long as the spray paint can be removed without permanent damage, the defacers points are well taken (given the inevitable bluntness of certain street graffiti art). The SHAME on Rochester’s brow will long endure on instagram accounts.
² Although the Daughters of the American Revolution and the Friends of Mt. Hope Cemetery may be aware of the awful history of Dr. John H. Van Evrie, I doubt they are aware his grave is currently under restoration. The time has come for an explanatory text explaining Van Evrie’s thoroughly debunked “scientific racism” and its effects.
UPDATE: On Friday, I was interviewed on the Bob Lonsberry Show. (Interview with Bob Lonsberry, 6/20/20) The interview went well. Bob carefully explained to his audience that during Rochester’s era, slave owners often freed their slaves not from pangs of conscience but as cost cutting measures. UPDATE: An open invitation to a conversation in Nathaniel Square
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