Now that the Nathaniel Rochester Community School is changing its name, the John James Audubon School needs to be considered.

Now that the Nathaniel Rochester Community School is changing its name, the John James Audubon School needs to be considered.

[John James Audubon School # 33, 500 Webster Avenue. Photo: David Kramer, 6/25/21]

Submitted to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in June 22nd, 2021 by David Kramer. See Should the RCSD change the names of some schools? The Alexander von Humboldt Academy instead of the Henry Hudson School?

A few weeks ago, I submitted a letter to the editor proposing a name change for the John James Audubon School # 33 on 500 Webster Avenue. The Democrat and Chronicle chose not to publish the letter.

The editorial editorial decision of the D & C was not without merit. The letter is flawed. The initial topic is the proposed name change of the NRCS, one set to be made in July, but the text abruptly swerves to another RCSD school and its namesake, the John James Audubon School.

The intent is to be provocative. Most readers probably do not know there is a John James Audubon School in the RCSD, and if they think about Audubon they might think of ornithography but not race slavery. The quick boom-boom of potentially unfamiliar information is hoped to startle the reader into feeling the significance of my proposal to rename the Audubon school as the Michelle Obama Academy. Apparently, the editorial board thought its readers would be more confused than provoked, or that the topic itself was unlikely to sufficiently capture reader attention.

For context missing in the letter, in a June 22nd front page article, “RCSD looks to rename Nathaniel Rochester Middle School 3; suggestions solicited”, Justin Murphy reported that the Rochester City School District is soliciting new names for Nathaniel Rochester Middle School Number 3, a response to student and faculty concerns about honoring the city founder given his extensive participation in the trade of enslaved people. The NRMS student body is overwhelmingly Black and Latino.

Nathaniel Rochester Community School # 3, 85 Adams Street [Photo: David Kramer 6/18/20] from Should the RCSD change the names of some schools? The Alexander von Humboldt Academy instead of the Henry Hudson School?

Murphy notes that students and faculty members have been calling for a name change for several years. “The community, parents, students and teachers are trying to change the name of the school to anything but that,” one school counselor told the school board in 2020. “They all believe that the name Nathaniel Rochester … needs to go.”

John James Audubon School # 33, 500 Webster Avenue. Photo: David Kramer, 6/25/21 See Should the RCSD change the names of some schools? The Alexander von Humboldt Academy instead of the Henry Hudson School?

I am not a member of the NRCS community, but feel the name change is more than valid. Each generation should determine who it wants to honor. I think that, clearly, changing of the NRCS has deeper consequences than changing the name of the Audubon School. Nonetheless, if slaveholding is to be considered as a criteria for naming or renaming schools, then the Audubon School need be considered.

Earlier this year, in Should the RCSD change the names of some schools? The Alexander von Humboldt Academy instead of the Henry Hudson School?, I discussed various name change possibilities, including re-naming the Audubon School, the Michelle Obama Academy.

At that time, I discussed Audubon’s racist legacy with one of the school’s house administrators, Thomas Pappas. Given Audubon’s time period, Tom was saddened but not shocked by Audubon’s slaveholding, adding that after the pandemic, the issue will be addressed.

The height of a pandemic is not a moment when school name changes are paramount. That said, the upcoming July RCSD board decision on NRCS is a moment to also decide on Audubon.

Recent scholarship on Audubon 

Academic and public interest in Audubon’s racist legacy can to the forefront in 2020 when the Audubon magazine and the Audubon organization began a reexamine the life and legacy of the organization’s namesake as [the Audubon society] “chart[s] a course toward racial equity .”

In “The Myth of John James Audubon”(July 31, 2020), historian Gregory Nobles, a Contributor to the Audubon Magazine and author of John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman (UPenn Press, 2017) writes of Audubon:

The National Audubon Society’s namesake looms large, like his celebrated bird paintings. But he also enslaved people and held white supremacist views, reflecting ethical failings that it is time to bring to the fore.

Furthermore, Nobles refutes claims that Audubon’s slaveholding can be ignored or excused:

Audubon was also a slaveholder, a point that many people don’t know or, if they do, tend to ignore or excuse. “He was a man of his time,” so the argument goes. That’s never been a good argument, even about Audubon’s time—and certainly not in this one—because many men and women in the antebellum era took a strong and outspoken stand for the abolition of slavery.

In his recent article “What Do We Do About John James Audubon?” (Audubon magazine, Spring 2021), Professor J. Drew Lanham, a Black ornithologist, directly addresses a name change:

The founding father of American birding soared on the wings of white privilege. The birding community and organizations that bear his name must grapple with this racist legacy to create a more just, inclusive world.

While Lanham does equivocate as to whether the Audubon society should change its name, he is clear that decisions should be made one way or the other: “The organizations bearing Audubon’s name must press forward in this new light and decide who and what they want to be.”

If the Nathaniel Rochester School is being renamed because Rochester owned slaves, then the John James Audubon School must equally decide on its name.

The John James Audubon School.

Originally as four room building, the school opened in February 1891 on Grand Avenue between Stout and Carmichael Streets in the Beechwood neighborhood.

Swan Market, 231 Parsells Ave. Some of the flavor of Beechwood’s German community lives on at Swan Market, German Deli and Catery, in business for over 80 years. [Photo: David Kramer 6/29/21]

During that time period, Beechwood was home to large numbers of German immigrants.

Democrat and Chronicle, Nov 21, 1923

Over time, the Audubon grew in size. Finally, in the early 1970s the school was razed and moved to its nearby location on Webster Avenue, and its former home became Grand Avenue Park.

250 Grand Avenue at Chamberlain.  According to The Story of The Historic Parsells Church in Rochester, NY in the early 1970s the old School #33 building on Grand Avenue (around the corner from the Baptist church) was razed. The land where the school once stood, with the help of Parsells Church, became Grand Avenue Park in 1976. [Photo: David Kramer 6/29/21]

A 1929 Democrat and Chronicle article explains why the founder of the school, Lottie C. Hoppe, chose Audubon:

Audubon School was named for the great naturalist, Miss Hoppe being a nature lover and disciple of the man whose name aha chose for the school. She encouraged children to study nature and especially birds, and through her leadership bird houses were erected in the trees In front of thn building,

In addition to Miss Hoppe’s personal interest in ornithology, naming a school after a nationally known American was in keeping with the times. In 1891, when the school opened in neighborhood with many German immigrants, Americanization was considered an important educational function. Hence, students were taught to honor American heroes like Audubon, known for his art and explorations.

Audubon and the Rochester connection

In the letter, I say that Audubon had no connection himself to Rochester. Actually, in August 1824, Audubon spent  two or three days in Rochester on his way to Canada and the Midwest. His diary makes a short reference to the visit, including that he made a sketch of the Genesee River falls.

A 1940 Democrat and Chronicle article on Audubon concludes that  Rochester “attracted little attention from John James Audubon.” The article suggests the most noteworthy part of the trip was when Audubon was robbed of nearly all his money when of the north shore of Lake Erie, apparently in Canada.

A 2003 article by Bob Marcotte on the names of city schools alludes to Audubon’s visit, as well as the very dubious possibility that Audubon sketched the city founder Nathaniel Rochester the later turned into a formal painting.

Democrat and Chronicle (left) 13 Oct 1940; (right) 24 Jun 2003

That John James Audubon possibly made a portrait of Nathaniel Rochester either adds or detracts from the name of school, depending on your perspective.

However, recent scholarship by Peter Ogden Brown, Unknown American Artist Portrait of Colonel Nathaniel Rochester (before 1831), has shown that Rochester family myth that Audubon was the artist is almost surely that, a myth.

Colonel Nathaniel Rochester before 1831 30 x 25 in. (76.2 x 63.5 cm) Unknown, American American John James Audubon American (Les Cayes, Santo Domingo [now Haiti], 1785 – 1851, New York, NY) Previous attribution Object Type: Painting Medium and Support: Oil on canvas Credit Line: Gift of Thomas J. Watson Accession Number: 1934.1 Link to this object Location: Not currently on view This formal gentleman was the founder of the city of Rochester, New York. His portrait was originally thought to have been painted by John James Audubon, but current scholarship has weighed in against that opinion.

SEE

Should the RCSD change the names of some schools? The Alexander von Humboldt Academy instead of the Henry Hudson School?

About The Author

dkramer3@naz.edu

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. 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, and the CITY.  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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