6/26/20, Mt. Hope Cemetery. Nancy O’Donnell Hale at the gravesite of Nathaniel Rochester [Photo: David Kramer]
Since we first broke the story of the spray painting of the statue of Nathaniel Rochester in Nathaniel Square, On the defacing of Reflecting, Talker has provided in depth-coverage, most recently with On the Spray Painting of Reflecting by John Hoffman.Today, Nancy O’Donnell Hale joins the conversation.
If Nathaniel must stay, add Ned to South Wedge Monument to City Founder
The statue of city founder Nathaniel Rochester, now identified as an owner and trader of enslaved men, women and children, today sits on a precarious perch in the South Wedge pocket park on South Avenue. Recently, as his life has become better known, his hands were painted blood red and his actions as a “white supremacist” were written on his coattails.
The news media turned up after the story of his defacement broke on David Kramer’s magazine Talker of the Town. Sculptor Pepsy Kettavong was interviewed. So was Frank Logan, now board chair of the South Wedge Planning Committee (SWPC), an organization that was deeply involved in the statue’s installation in 2008. “Should the Nathaniel Rochester statue be cleaned?” (James Brown, WXXI, 6/24/20)
In the ensuing days, the City’s Defacer Eraser team cleaned off the paint, but the discussion of what to do with the statue still remains. Some argue that the statue should be removed; Rochester doesn’t deserve to be honored. Others respond that 2020 vision shouldn’t be the lens to view an 18th century sensibility; let the city founder stay. Just add an explanatory plaque that gives a fuller picture.While if given a vote, I’d vote to see him go, if the City decides he stays, another statute above him should be added. I offer as inspiration, Ned, one of his enslaved workers who fought for his freedom.
Rochester has been sitting quietly in the Nathaniel Square park for over a decade without any protest.
The trajectory of how Rochester’s statue came to be began in 2001. In an article in the WEDGE Newspaper in April 2008 a month before the statue was placed in Nathaniel Square Park, writer Allison Clark gave a brief history and writes that SWPC had joined with landscape artist Dudley Breed Jr., Eastman Kodak, the Greater Rochester Arts & Cultural Council and NBN Sector 6 in a design charette that plotted what to do with the South Avenue park. The charette came after an earlier seven-year effort by SWEEP, the South Wedge Environmental Enhancement Project, a neighborhood group who wanted to reclaim the park from disrepair and drug sales.
A statue of the city founder inside the park must have seemed like a no brainer.
Sure, people who read city history knew he brought enslaved workers with him when he moved his family from Maryland to western New York. But the story his descendants promoted was that he moved here to free them.
By 2007, Kettavong had been commissioned and created the bronze statue of Rochester. He used SWPC board member, Dave Halter (now deceased), as his model. The statue entitled Reflecting showed an elderly man sitting in reflection contemplating his life. It was “not meant to dominate its surroundings,” writes Clark.
In May 2008, the statue was unveiled. Along with Kettavong, the event was attended by Mayor Bob Duffy and former Mayor Bill Johnson, then state assemblyman Susan John, then city council member Elaine Spaull, State Senator Joe Robach, then SWPC chair Bob Boyd, local developers, community leaders, neighbors and lots of kids who climbed over the sitting statue.
It’s not clear if somewhere between the charette of 2001 and the statue’s installation anyone had read City Paper’s cover story entitled “Portrait of a slave trader: Confronting the real Nathaniel Rochester” (Ron Netsky, CITY, 2/11/04).
Netsky draws a damning new portrait of Rochester, using a 1790 account book of Rochester’s then recently acquired by the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of the UR’s Rush Rhees Library. The ledger, Netsky writes, “clearly shows the purchase and subsequent sale of human beings by Rochester and his two partners.”
In other words, Rochester didn’t just own black men, women and children, but he sold them. While the family hagiography admitted he brought ten enslaved people north, they said he did that so he could free them when he arrived in Dansville in 1810. However, records only show he freed two people in 1811. Netsky adds: “on the same day in 1810, another document shows that [fourteen-year-old ] Casandra was made an indentured servant who would learn to read and write,“ along with providing unpaid labor until she was 18.
So, what happened to eight of the other enslaved human beings who were taken from Maryland to Dansville?
The Central Library published a commemorative booklet entitled “We Called Her Anna:” Nathaniel Rochester and Slavery in the Genesee County (Rochester History, Vol. 71, Spring 2009, No. 1), a year after the statue was installed in the park. While in its earlier pages, it calls Rochester a “benevolent patriarch,” details from Rochester family papers only then recently acquired were far more incriminating.
Known for his business acumen in Maryland and in starting a new life in western New York, Rochester was equally careful in making a profit from enslavement.
The authors write: “he merrily described a 1790 slave buying and selling expedition as an ‘Adventure to the Eastern Shore.” A memorandum they attribute to Rochester gives “background information on the persons sold: names, relationships, ages, approximate values, and in some cases, their dispositions and attributes… the memorandum also encouraged buyers to keep husbands and wives in the same neighborhood.” When Rochester wasn’t benefiting from their work at his homestead, he also rented them out to others and pocketed those payments.
In revisiting Rochester’s life, the publication concludes with the horrific truth that “he brought slaves with him and continued to own and profit from them until New York State no longer permitted him to do so.” Slavery was outlawed in New York State on July 4, 1827. Additional evidence shows he continued to own human beings until that day. Either they were hired out to make him money or they worked for his relatives.
In the closing pages, the authors of “We Called Her Anna..” tell the story of Ned, who was brought to western NY with Rochester’s sons William and John in 1809. His enslavement continues unrecorded, until while living with William in Bath in 1814, Ned “began agitating for his freedom.”
Several documents and letters in UR’s collection outline Ned’s story and the problems he was causing the family. A Canandaigua lawyer writes the family that Ned had come in to talk about claiming his freedom. (The lawyer was unsympathetic). Eventually, Ned pleas for freedom became more urgent and despite “threats to sell him,” he remained “difficult to control.” Son William writes his father that he plans to send Ned back to Dansville because he is “under the influence of free people of color in Bath.” Ned was sent away but returned to Bath. Next, William had Ned jailed while he waited for his father to make a final decision. In jail, Ned still refused to go back to the family home in Dansville, and William writes his father to say that Ned ‘would never be of service’ and he should be freed “conditionally, that is assess payments of such price in installments as you may require of him ….” Ned would have to pay for his freedom.
A happy ending for Ned isn’t assured. The publication ends the story with Ned with “we have not yet been able to learn about Ned’s life post-slavery.”
So, what happened to Ned? The authors don’t include any record of his being manumitted. Did the elder Rochester agree and free Ned? Did Rochester refuse and send Ned out of New York and sell him?
I’d like to believe a more just, happier outcome for Ned. Perhaps, he shed his “slave name” after being freed and that’s explains his disappearance from recorded history. Maybe he worked a while longer for Rochester, and then fled to true freedom in Canada. Could his descendants be today living lives free from racism and oppression? If they remained in the U.S., that scenario is unlikely. Ned’s enslavement and fate brings us back today to this long overdue societal day of reckoning, to a defaced statue of Nathaniel Rochester to a discussion of whether he deserves a statue of recognition for his role in founding a city in the wilderness.
In any case, I’d argue that Ned’s intractability in demanding his rights and his refusal to accept bondage in western New York is far worthier of a monument in a South Wedge pocket park. So, if Rochester must remain reflecting in the park, place above him a statue of a young black man who stands emboldened, staring North into freedom.
Nancy O’Donnell Hale is a freelance writer in Rochester, NY. She is also an adjunct professor of English at Monroe Community College and Nazareth College.
In 1934, Bryant Baker designed a model statue of Rochester to be 9 feet tall and made of bronze. The statue was never constructed, probably due to the Depression, and ultimately destroyed by Baker many years later. Note the masterful and upright pose, including what might be Rochester’s Revolutionary War rifle, in sharp contrast to Kettavong’s rendering of a frail Rochester, positioned at or below the level of the viewer, and inviting us to consider his failures.