[View of the Major Charles Carroll Plaza from the west side of the Genesee River. Photo: David Kramer 6/6/21]
As discussed in Now that the Nathaniel Rochester Community School is changing its name, the John James Audubon School needs to be considered., a significant decision to change the name of the Nathaniel Rochester Community School is being finalized this month
In a June 22nd front page Democrat and Chronicle article, “RCSD looks to rename Nathaniel Rochester Middle School 3; suggestions solicited”, Justin Murphy reports that the Rochester City School District is soliciting new names for the 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.
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.”
Murphy also notes that many buildings and places remain that memorialize those who owned people in slavery. They include RCSD’s Charles Carroll School 46 and the Major Charles Carroll Park in downtown Rochester, as well as Nathaniel Square Park on South Avenue and Rochester Institute of Technology’s Nathaniel Rochester Hall. Even more so than Nathaniel Rochester, the Carroll family of Maryland derived immense wealth from slaveholding.
Currently, Rochester is in the midst of the Charles Carroll Plaza revitalization project on the Genesee Riverway where slow but sure progress is being made on renovating the Sister Cities Bridge and refurbishing the Greenway Trail. Right now, the Plaza is closed to the public.
As seen in NRCS decision, a clear community interest exists for revisiting local names that memorialize those who engaged in slavery, including Carroll. Before the Plaza re-opens, now is an appropriate moment for the City Council to discuss and perhaps change the name of the Plaza.
I support such a public discussion. My own suggestion for a new name is the Captain Charles Price Plaza. As seen in Democrat and Chronicle prints “Pioneer for Black police officers guarded King one night in 1958” and much more on Captain Charles Price (1923 — 2021), we recently lost Captain Charles Price who contributed so much to Rochester. Certainly, Price deserves honoring, and the Plaza when re-opened is an ideal, high profile location for such an honor.
History of the Major Charles Carroll Plaza
In 1973, Father Robert F. McNamara of the Diocese of Rochester was the preeminent historian of the Catholic community of Rochester and had written about Carroll. Although Carroll’s role was rather obscure, McNamara knew that Carroll was a trustee for the first Catholic Church in upstate New York, located in Geneseo. Wanting to honor Carroll, McNamara urged the City Council and Mayor Stephen May to rename the Crossroads Plaza West, the Major Charles Carroll Plaza.
At that time, the decision was without controversy and no mention was made of Carroll’s slave owning.
Seven years later in 1980, McNamara wrote what is considered the definitive monograph on Carroll, Charles Carroll of Bell Vue Co-founder of Rochester (Rochester History, Vol. XLII, October 1980, No. 4). The essay is probably the first publicly documented account of the slaveholding of Charles Carroll.
McNamara provides telling details. For example, the Hagerstown, Maryland 1803-1804 tax roll lists 28 slaves among Carroll’s taxable possessions. Furthermore, when living in the Genesee Country, Carroll brought his slaves with him from Maryland. In 1799, New York State had passed a law providing for the gradual abolition of slavery. Carroll never manumitted his slaves. Actually, he acquired more. When Carroll left the Genesee County for good in 1815, he put his slaves on the market, advertising “about FORTY VALUABLE NEGROES, among whom are some excellent house servants, good wagoners, prime farm hands, & a good carpenter, suffice it to say there are few such Slaves at Market.”
Nonetheless, the issue of Carroll’s relationship to chattel slavery seems to be of limited interest to McNamara. A “Control F” search of Charles Carroll of Bell Vue Co-founder of Rochester reveals that “slave” and “slavery” are mentioned only seven times.
Two years after the monograph, in 1982, the Monroe County Division No. 7 Ancient Order of Hibernians in America added a plaque to the Plaza. At the dedication, McNamara gave a brief talk.When it comes to the plaque, I think McNamara as a scholar acted in bad faith. Only two years earlier, if somewhat haltingly, McNamara had brought to public light Carroll’s slave holding.
To me, the key word on the plaque is Patriot. It’s hard for me to see a man so enriched by the ownership of other human beings as an American Patriot. We don’t know McNamara’s role in creating the plaque, but he should not have approved the wording.
All this said, any decision to change the name of the Plaza is not completely clear cut. Carroll’s role as a trustee for the first Catholic Church in upstate New York is laudable. At the same time, we view the legacy of slavery differently today than in 1973 when the Plaza was named and in 1982 when the misguided plaque was dedicated. Today — as seen in the case of the NRCS — we often think slave owning is a disqualifying factor in public namings.
Any renaming by the City Council should be done now before the Plaza reopens. I ask the Council to consider the matter.
At the park across from the Plaza, John (left) was the most enthusiastic about a name change. As he said, time for a new bridge and a new name. Unc (center) didn’t think a name change will change anything, but was open to the idea, saying it couldn’t do any harm. The man on the right was mostly against the change. He didn’t know anything about Carroll, but thought he must have done some good things to be originally honored.
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