6/19/20. Nathaniel Square Park, 62 Alexander Street. To the right of the sculpture, David Kramer, Syracuse and Pepsy Kettavong. See Reflecting on Reflecting with Pepsy Kettavong and On the defacing of Reflecting in Nathaniel Square and restoring the grave of “America’s first professional racist” in Mt. Hope Cemetery
When cycling down South Avenue on Thursday morning, I discovered that Reflecting, Pepsy Kettavong’s bronze statue of Nathaniel Rochester in Nathaniel Square, is defaced. Somewhat to my surprise, I later learned the act was done in the early hours of Tuesday morning. For two days, no one reported the incident to the police or the city; neither had the perpetrators/protesters alerted the media.
I left a message on Pepsy’s voice mail. That evening, with the help of neighbor and Nazareth College English Professor Ed Wiltse, we published On the defacing of Reflecting in Nathaniel Square and restoring the grave of “America’s first professional racist” in Mt. Hope Cemetery
Early Friday morning, I talked with Pepsy. My voice message was the first he had heard of the defacement. We arranged to meet that afternoon at Nathaniel Square. From the time of our call to the meeting, Pepsy was contacted and interviewed by several local newspapers and tv stations. I was interviewed on the Bob Lonsberry Show (Bob Lonsberry interview with David Kramer, 6/20/20), as was Pepsy on Monday, 6/23. (Bob Lonsberry interview with Pepsy Kettavong, 6/23/20)
The local media followed our lead with “Nathaniel Rochester statue defaced,” (CITY), “Nathaniel Rochester sculpture in South Wedge defaced,” (Democrat and Chronicle), “Statue of Nathaniel Rochester defaced,” (WHEC) and “Nathaniel Rochester statue painted over with messages of ‘white supremacist,’ ‘slavery capitalist,’” (WROC).
As reported by CITY, when asked about the vandalism Friday at a morning news conference, Mayor Lovely Warren said she understood Rochester’s historical significance as the founder of what was in his day known as Rochesterville.
“It is also my understanding that he was a slave owner,” Warren said. “That’s something we have to talk about as a community and what would be the best way to deal with those figures.” To that end, the mayor added, the new Commission on Racial and Structural Equity that she and Monroe County Executive Adam Bello announced a day earlier could facilitate those conversations.
In reporting of similar calls to remove statues, the national press picked up the D & C article. Suddenly, Rochester is part of the debate.
As seen in Reflecting on Reflecting with Pepsy Kettavong, in October 2017, in the midst of the dismantling of Confederate monuments in Charlottesville, VA, I spoke with Pepsy about his statue and Rochester’s legacy of slave owning and trading.On several levels, I see the statue as registering differently than Confederate monuments. First, Pepsy’s creation is very much a sculpture rather than a war monument; its aesthetic value exceeds that of often generically rendered monuments to Confederate generals.
Significantly, the sculpture was made over two centuries after Nathaniel Rochester settled here. We can imagine an early nineteenth statue of Colonel Rochester: on horseback with a commanding mien, wearing his Revolutionary War uniform (although in actuality Rochester’s Revolutionary War resume was very thin). Pepsy never considered such a representation that would feel anachronistic, absurd, and to some, offensive.
Rather, from the outset of the project, Pepsy took pains to avoid glorifying Rochester, casting him in a non-heroic pose. A May, 2008 Democrat and Chronicle article describes the unveiling in Nathaniel Square:
The statue, in which Rochester is seated and slightly hunched over with his hands clasped beneath his chin, avoids a heroic portrayal of the city’s “Founding Father” often displayed in public monuments. Nor is it surrounded by standard brass-and-marble trimmings intended to give a quick dose of civic pride.
During our 2017 conversation, Pepsy said it was crucial that the statue did not dominate the Square. By contrast, I find the 2008 Democrat and Chronicle headline –Rochester like a monarch overseeing his territory — to be a mischaracterization of Pepsy’s vision.
As Pepsy told me, fundamentally, his 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.
In recent interviews, Pepsy reiterated his points, telling the D & C it would have been easy for him to simply put Rochester on a pedestal or a column. In the CITY, Pepsy further amplified his point about not seeking to create a larger than life figure; instead, we can see Rochester, leaning on his cane, as a kind of weak, elderly man. Rochester imagined as an Everyman.
Upon my Friday afternoon arrival at the Square, Spectrum News was interviewing Pepsy. Pepsy retold what he said all day. He felt bad for the community and the neighborhood. The sculpture — which doubles as a bench — was designed as the centerpiece of Nathaniel Park, created by a group of volunteers working to revitalize the neighborhood that had been a drug-transaction corner. Pepsy called the protesters short sighted by failing to take into consideration the many uses of the popular park, as well as “the blood, the sweat and the work of the volunteers in trying to beautify that neighborhood.”
A mild-mannered, friendly and thoughtful man, Pepsy and I talked at the statue after the Spectrum interview. Touching the spray painted areas, Pepsy was relieved that the paint could be removed with soap and wire brushes, rather than sandblasting or using chemicals that could harm the patina.
At the same time, Pepsy was quick to say that his role or place is not to spearhead or push for any cleaning on his own behalf. The South Wedge community could collectively come together for such a cleaning project. We envisioned a Saturday afternoon with music, pizza and buckets of hot soapy water.
Furthermore, Pepsy said it’s pretty much irrelevant to him if the spray painters are caught. If they are, Pepsy would not advocate for a punishment. If the spray painters wanted to sincerely engage with Pepsy in an open dialogue, he is more than receptive.
Pepsy is well aware of the contexts that drive people to revisit public monuments. Beyond a collective cleaning — if that transpires — Pespy envisions gathering all interested parties at the Square for an evening of dialogue, sharing ideas and perspectives (throw in pizza for the hungry masses like myself).
To me, such an evening sounds like Athenian democracy at its purest, the populace gathering in the athenaeum. The number one agenda of the Commission on Racial and Structural Equity should be this: an open invitation to the citizens of Rochester for a conversation in Nathaniel Square.
The original article sparked fruitful and productive conversations on Next Door and the Highland Park Neighborhood Association site, as well as my facebook page. Let’s take the online dialogue offline — in Nathaniel Square.Before he left, Pepsy warmly interacted with people in park. We met Syracuse. Syracuse told how about 12:30 or 1am on Tuesday morning, he had gone to the park to have a beer, mellow out and just think about life. Pepsy interjected, that’s exactly what the sculpture is about, reflecting. Later that morning, Syracuse returned to discover the spray painting. Syracuse was impressed that Pepsy was the creator of the park, inviting his friends to meet his new friend. When the others asked Pepsy about “his” statue, Pepsy repeated, it’s not mine, it’s yours.
The next day I met two men who would eagerly join an evening of dialogue, Isaiah Brinkley and Antoine McDonald, Youth Services Librarian I at the RPL’s Central Library. The two were on Saturday’s celebration of Juneteeth neighborhood bike ride that explored Black spaces and places in Rochester with conversations about Black lives at each stop.
The ride began at ten, but because I was slow to get organized, I figured I missed it. However, by good fortune, when I went to the park for more pictures, I found the riders gathered at the Nathaniel Square Convenience Store. (I later joined the last legs of the well-organized and highly informative trek.)
Isaiah had not heard about the spray painting. When I mentioned that Rochester’s back was tagged with “White Supremacy,” nodding in support, Isaiah said that was all he needed to know. At the statue, Isaiah’s scanning of the scene confirmed his opinion. As Isaiah said, with all we know about Rochester’s legacy, it’s time for the statue to go.As a librarian who works on historical exhibits, Antoine was well informed on Rochester’s legacy. At the statue, I explained how Pepsy very purposefully avoided glorifying Rochester, instead casting his figure in a non-heroic pose.
Antoine said he understood where Pepsy was going and found merit in the aesthetic choices. However, for Antoine, what Rochester the man symbolized and embodied was paramount: the legacy of owning and trafficking in human beings. For Antoine:
Given the current climate and because Rochester perpetuated slavery, the statue should come down.
Antoine thinks Rochester is commemorated enough. Look at the name of the city. Antoine added that the 2007 commission that oversaw the construction of the park should best have avoided representations of Nathaniel Rochester.
I fully respect the perspectives of Isaiah and Antoine, just as I do Pepsy’s. Revisiting public monuments is important and complex; all voices must be heard in the public square — in Nathaniel Square.
On Wed, 6/24, I went to the park and discovered much of the red paint on the hands and face of the sculpture had been removed. LT was there. (See On the defacing of Reflecting in Nathaniel Square) LT explained that a few days ago, a man and his children cleaned off the paint, left on the ground and later washed away during the recent strong rainstorms. Roses were left in the crook of Rochester’s arm.
LT asked the man if he thought black lives matter. Unfortunately, according to LT, the conversation became tense and unproductive. LT also offered his interpretation of the red paint. To him, red represents the blood of Christ who died for our sins.
The less than productive interaction points to why we need an open and public discussion to share perspectives.
Unrelatedly, someone left a trophy on the sculpture: AMERICAN POOLPLAYERS ASSOCIATION, 2019 WORLD QUALIFIER, 8 BALL 2ND PLACE
see Tim Wood’s thorough and thoughtful comment in the COMMENT section below.
Today I received two response essays to the original article, from Michael J. Nighan and George Cassidy Payne. As usual, Nighan and Payne offer provocative, no-holds-barred hot takes. In alphabetical order, Nighan comes first.
WHAT DO WE DO ABOUT NATHANIEL?
Depending on one’s personal and political persuasions, the multi-colored coats of paint recently splashed on the South Wedge statue of our city’s Founding Father, Col. Nathaniel Rochester, are either:
1. vandalism, or
2. an acceptable deed of political activism.
I think I fall somewhere in between. I’m not a fan of vandalism, but it must be admitted that this act propelled Rochester off its collective backside and into the current national debate over whether society should continue to allow the commemoration of individuals whose actions in retrospect are acknowledged to be racist and barbaric.
There is of course no question that Nathaniel, born and bred south of the Mason and Dixon line, was a slave owner. And a dealer in slaves. And although he is said to have emancipated some slaves upon arriving in the Genesee Country in 1810, he also retained a few slaves while living in what became the City of Rochester, and continued to buy and sell human beings until just a few years before his death in 1831.
And excellent history of his involvement with slavery, and slavery in general in the Genesee County, can be found in the Rochester History magazine:
“We Called Her Anna:” Nathaniel Rochester and Slavery in the Genesee County (Rochester History, Vol. 71, Spring 2009, No. 1)
So what do we do about Nathaniel? Here’s my proposal as to where to start.
Although removing the statue from Nathaniel Square Park will doubtless cause angst in some segments of the community, the city should nevertheless work to have it taken down. The park could then be reconfigured as a memorial to the slaves owned by Col. Rochester and others within the then-village of Rochester. A suitable acknowledgement of slavery’s existence in the area might be carved into the large rock currently serving as a bench for his statue.
The next step will be far more controversial and dramatic but will serve to generate much attention, locally and nationally, on the issues at hand. I would urge the city to obtain the statue of Col. Rochester (who actually owns it now I have no idea) and arrange for it to be cut into several large pieces. Local artists would then be commissioned to use those dismembered parts to create memorial artworks, artworks designed to simultaneously symbolize the dismemberment of slave families in America caused by children and spouses being sold off to different masters throughout the country, as well as the way slave ownership was ultimately dismembered by emancipation.
These memorials would be then be placed at or near City Hall, the Monroe County Office Building, the Federal Building, and the local office of some appropriate New York State agency, to remind the public that all levels of government were at one time complicit in maintaining and protecting the institution of slavery.
In a similar vein, it must not be forgotten that Nathaniel Rochester had two partners in the creation of this city. William Fitzhugh and Charles Carroll. Both also slave holders, and both also memorialized here, albeit to a lesser degree than Col. Rochester. In the case of Fitzhugh, we have the city street named after him. In Carroll’s case, we have Major Charles Carroll Plaza and the Charles Carroll School No. 46. I suspect there may be other local memorials to either man of which I am unaware.Renaming the Carroll school, as well as the Nathaniel Rochester Community School No. 3, could, and should be, accomplished in short order with new school names selected to commemorate more deserving individuals, perhaps “conductors” on the local Underground Railroad, in a manner similar to the way the James P. B. Duffy School was recently renamed to honor Anna Murray-Douglass. As to Carroll Plaza, I doubt any would mourn its renaming since so few even know it exists. (see A Frederick Douglass statue and the naming of the Anna Murray-Douglass Academy) Regarding Fitzhugh Street, while potentially inconvenient and possibly expensive for all involved, its renaming should also be taken under consideration. Perhaps it could be “re-branded” in honor of Fitzhugh’s daughter, Ann Carroll Fitzhugh who, despite being raised on a slave plantation, became an opponent of slavery, an Underground Railroad “conductor”, and a suffragist after marrying Gerrit Smith, one of America’s leading abolitionists and social reformers.
Certainly the renaming of a city street for political reasons is not unprecedented in this city given that part of State Street was originally named Carroll Street, the name being changed by the village trustees in a fit of pique after losing a property suit to one of Charles Carroll’s sons in 1831.
But even if we accomplish all the above, we still have the Elephant in the Room problem, the question of what to do about a city, a university named after that city, and uncounted other facilities and organizations named in honor of Nathaniel Rochester.¹
And what do we do about a county named for slave-owning president, James Monroe?And ultimately, what do we do about all the real estate named for Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc? All the great leaders of American history who nevertheless suffered from a moral lapse of judgment when it came to claiming a right to own their fellow human beings?
What do we do?
Complicity and Modern Slavery: A Response to the Defacing of Nathaniel Rochester’s Monument
As I sympathize with those who want to knock down and deface statues representing former slave owners, I realize that modern corporations are involved in the slave trade today. For example, children in some Bangladeshi factories are not allowed to leave their post without suffering severe repercussions, including physical beatings and worse. There are garment factories in India where they chain workers to their sewing machines and mines in central Africa where “workers” are shot on the spot if they try to flee. Do we think about how we are actively involved in the slave trade every time we turn on our computers (think silicon and quartz), tie our running shoes, or purchase a new pair of blue jeans at Target?
It is easy to look at someone from the past such as the slave-trading Nathaniel Rochester and contextualize him for his period. Rochester’s statue was recently tarnished in a downtown park. It is also easy to point fingers at him and call him an evil capitalist and racist. But to take a long hard look at our own lives and see how many of us are all too willing to turn a blind eye when it comes to slavery today, that is more difficult.
The reality is, slavery is no less entrenched, pervasive and vile today than it was 400 years ago. In the 18th and 19th centuries, there were customers all over the world who had no idea what type of brutality existed on an American plantation. They just preferred the feel of their American made vest. Likewise, slavery in Pakistan or the Congo does not feel real to most Americans, for many of us do not want to know how the products arriving on our doorstep were produced. This goes for clothing, electronics, jewelry, food, and more than we could imagine.
As I said, the slavery is entrenched and pervasive. It dawns on me that every year I watch the Super Bowl, this event brings thousands of forced sex slaves to the host city. The women and men and children come from places such as Malaysia, Taiwan, Morocco, Atlanta, San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, and all over the world, to have sex with paying customers. If they do not perform this task, they are beaten, maimed, drugged, raped, sold to a more vicious owner, or point-blank killed. As I eat my chicken wings and care to pretend about a man holding an inflated ball across an imaginary line, I am partaking in the modern industry of slavery.
Dr. King once said: We must develop and maintain the capacity to forgive. He who is devoid of the power to forgive is devoid of the power to love. There is some good in the worst of us and some evil in the best of us. When we discover this, we are less prone to hate our enemies.
That spiritual fact cannot be erased with a slogan or a good job or a protest or a powerful desire to make others just shut up about their rights or even legislative reform. This is a truth that pierces our hearts. It is an arrow that cares nothing about pigmentation or privilege and possesses the poison tip of universal truth. It also has little to do with letting anyone “of the hook” or looking the other way when injustices occur. On the contrary, it is about taking full responsibility for our own life and being courageous enough to take responsibility for each other as well.
King understood that we are all guilty of doing terrible things to one another or finding a way to have someone else do it for us without needing to know the gory details. If I am honest, I am no less complicit than Nathaniel Rochester or any other slave owner or trader. That is my truth. It is an ugly truth that makes me accountable in ways that I do not always want to be held. In light of this truth, perhaps paint should be thrown on my hands, just as they did to Nathaniel Rochester’s statue on the corner of South and Alexander. My hands are thick and bright red with the blood of my brothers and sisters in Angola, Mogadishu, Singapore, Haiti, Guatemala, El Salvador, etc. If not recently, then certainly at some point in my life as a 39-year-old American consumer. And what have I done lately to combat slavery in those places? Perhaps those protestors should write on my forehead. Deface me. Call me a monster because I am no less a monster than Rochester.
But they should also call me a human being who is not ready to give up the journey of self-awareness, not yet. Was Rochester any less entitled to that right? Are the protestors who vandalize his statue any less entitled to that right? Are police officers? Are innocent unarmed black citizens?
I am here to learn and to grow. I am here to be challenged by others and to be free and to be loved and to be my best self. I am here to breathe, just like every other human being. And I need others to figure out who I am destined to become. Without them, I am lost. I am living a lie. King said a lie is impossible to survive. I will go one step further and say that we are dead already if we do not want to know the truth about who we are and what we are capable of doing. For better and worse, we are human. We are as deserving of forgiveness as we are freedom, and we owe each other our lives.
George Cassidy Payne is a freelance writer and adjunct professor of philosophy. He also works as a full time social worker in Rochester, NY.
¹ One reader offers a solution to the problem that the city of Rochester is named after a slave owner. Drawing an analogy between the shift from the Flour City to the Flower City, the reader posits that we should again re-brand ourselves. From now on, “Rochester” should say we don’t refer to Colonel Nathaniel Rochester, but instead to “Rochester, England.”
The argument is not without historical merit. While our city’s antecedent “Rochesterville” was apparently named for the colonel, some local historians see no definitive proof that the city of Rochester was named after Nathaniel. Some evidence suggest a valid claim can be made for the Rochester, England naming. The Timeline Piece in Highland Park leaves the case unsettled, referring to “settled by” but not named after.
Nighan offers a rebuttal:
For anyone to seriously attempt to circumnavigate the problem by claiming that Rochester is named after Rochester, County Kent, England (which by the way technically no longer exists having been merged with the town of Medway in 1998) strikes me as a fool’s errand and a lame attempt to avoid dealing with reality. Naturally I will defer to the Local History Division folks at the RPL, and/or the folks at Rochester Historical Society, but I have never read or heard the slightest indication that this city was named for anyone or anything other than Nathaniel. Nor have I ever heard of “local historians” who claim that to be the case. Indeed the city histories all quote the same story about the three partners arguing over who the then-village would be named after with Nathaniel reluctantly agreeing to give it his name. I suppose the story could be apocryphal. But why make up such a story if it was known that the English city was the source?
Editor’s note. I didn’t reveal the identity of the “local historian,” but I’ll see if he will come out of the shadows.