Our Names are Labels

Our Names are Labels

[December 14, 2021 Rochester City Council Resolution]

Michael J. Nighan

Our names are labels, plainly printed on the bottled essence of our past behavior.

 –  Logan Pearsall Smith

On December 14, as we knew it should, and as we knew it must, Rochester’s City Council at last formally addressed the contentious issue of identifying public spaces currently named after slaveholders, and took the first tentative steps to begin the process of re-naming such spaces after individuals more representative of Rochester and more deserving of local recognition.

Christine Ridarsky, the city historian, had previously been asked to conduct, “a preliminary survey in search of public spaces named for people who enslaved others”.  The survey identified two sites already under scrutiny as candidates for re-naming; Nathaniel Square Park on Alexander Street (named for city founder, Nathaniel Rochester), and Major Charles Carroll Plaza near the Main Street Bridge (named for one of Rochester’s partners).  The December resolution asked the city administration of incoming mayor Malik Evans to, “allow and encourage the City Historian to continue her survey of public places for names that commemorate slaveholders” , and to, “survey the historical record and identify Rochesterians who, owing to their contributions toward the healing of historic inequalities and to the development of a city that is thriving based on fairness and justice for all, deserve recognition  as replacement namesakes for those public places.” (1) 

View of the Major Charles Carroll Plaza from the west side of the Genesee River. Photo: David Kramer 6/6/21 from Thanks Rochester City Council for listening to Talker about the Major Charles Carroll Plaza

Lastly, the Council authorized the preparation of the paperwork necessary for the future re-naming of Carroll Plaza; the leading candidates as a replacement being Austin Steward, an escaped slave who settled in Rochester and became an abolition leader, businessman and autobiographer; and James McCuller, who worked for the Baden Street Settlement and Action for a Better Community.  At some as-yet-to-be-determined time, public hearing(s) will be held seeking input on the next steps to take.  For reasons left unstated, no similar groundwork was initiated for the future re-naming of Nathaniel Square Park, possibly because of the added problem of what to do with the statue of Nathaniel Rochester that unfortunately was installed there several years ago. (2)

6/24/20. Reflecting by Pepsy Kettavong, Nathaniel Square, 62 Alexander Street. From: An open invitation to a conversation in Nathaniel Square

There is nothing constant in this world but inconsistency.

-Jonathan Swift

Having now initiated the re-naming process, the City Council must now demonstrate that they intend to keep forging ahead.  That being said, it needs to be understood and accepted from the start that Rochester’s re-naming project will be both controversial and inconsistent.

As to controversy, there will be those who will complain, vociferously complain, that such re-naming is “destroying history” and is merely an exercise in “political correctness”.  To them I’ll simply say, too damn bad!  I have better things to do than waste time trying to explain to such people that neither accusation is accurate and that “correcting history” might be a more appropriate short hand term.

That issue aside, by its very nature, the process of stripping the names of slaveholders and slavery apologists/defenders from public places must be inconsistent.

Across the country, public places previously named for slavers have already been re-named.   In Rochester’s case the board of educational recently removed the name of slaveholder and slave dealer Nathaniel Rochester off a city school, using the opportunity to re-name the school for Alice Holloway Young, the first Black principal in the city.  And as noted above, other local re-namings are in the offing.  But here we run head on into a blatant double-standard.

Whether on a local or national level, any discussion of whether and which individual slaveholders should have their names removed from public locations inevitably runs into what can be called the Washington Conundrum. The question of whether the moral failing of slave ownership outweighs an individual’s positive achievements (if any) to such an extent that they lose any entitlement to public recognition and memorialization.  With major American icons such as Washington, Jefferson, Madison, etc., the question becomes even more difficult to answer.

This is not the same as saying, as many do today, that it’s unfair to judge the past by the standards of the present.  While that claim might be valid when referring to those living in say ancient Egypt or Rome where slavery flourished and no contemporary voices spoke out against the practice, it in no way applies to the case of post-Revolutionary War America where opposition to slavery on religious and moral grounds existed and where manumission of slaves was a well-known practice.   Washington, Jefferson and the rest knew slavery was an evil but continued to practice it nonetheless, usually self-justifying it on grounds of personal economy and on the specious belief that African-Americans were actually better off as slaves than they would be on their own.

Painting of George Washington with some of his slaves. “Washington as Farmer at Mount Vernon,” 1851, part of a series on George Washington by Junius Brutus Stearns. (Virginia Museum of Fine Arts)

But back to George W. as the classic example.  Does his status as the truly irreplaceable man in American history grant him a waiver/partial waiver?   Do we take the moral high ground and work to chip away at his reputation, knowing full well that he can never be turned into a kind of Orwellian “unperson”?  Or do we continue to honor the positive aspects of the man while equally condemning his negative attributes?  There seems little alternative but to focus our efforts on turning the American history taught in our schools and in the media into real “teaching moments” by presenting his story fully, as Oliver Cromwell said of his own public image, with “wars and all”.  And in a different context discussed elsewhere in this article, the same approach should apply to Abraham Lincoln and others.

So what about local examples such as the slaveholders Nathaniel Rochester and President James Monroe (namesake of Monroe County and Monroe Avenue)?  While merely footnotes to American history, with their slave holding practices far outweighing the meager contribution each man made to this country, we must be resigned to the inconsistent fact that their names are simply too ingrained locally to be totally removed from the maps.

While a school named for Nathaniel Rochester can easily be re-named, we know that the City of Rochester (or the University of Rochester, or the Rochester Institute of Technology, or the Greater Rochester International Airport, the recent addition of Frederick Douglass’ name to the airport notwithstanding) are not going to be renamed.  Likewise Monroe County will remain Monroe County, just as Washington, DC, the State of Washington and the over 100 counties and cities bearing the “Washington” name will not be candidates for renaming.

At the end of the day even the most socially-conscious and politically correct (there’s that term again) public official will think twice (or three or ten or twenty times) before they vote to impose on their constituents and the public in general, the confusion and massive costs that would be necessitated by the re-naming of large political or geographic entities, and to incur the electoral wrath and political blow-back from the likely overwhelming percentage of the voters who will oppose the change.

 Not everything that is faced can be changed: but nothing can be changed until it is faced.

– James Baldwin

At the other end of the spectrum is where the glaring inconsistency kicks in with the local public spaces named for slaveholders who are inconsequential historical figures or individuals of purely local reputation, which can be viewed as low-hanging fruit ripe for plucking.  Added to them, we have minor public spaces (small parks, peripheral streets, etc.) bearing the names of national  figures who were slaveholders, many of which can be re-named without too much civic angst IF sufficient will exists to do so and should local government officers choose to bear the economic, political and social costs of the re-naming.

In Rochester’s case, that list (and my list is by no means comprehensive) includes the following local streets and parks named for slaveholding presidents and local dignitaries (3):

Washington Square Park

Washington Street

Washington Grove

Jefferson Avenue

Jefferson Terrace

Jefferson Terrace Park

Madison Street

Madison Park North

Madison Park South

Monroe Avenue

Monroe Ave in Brighton [Photo: David Kramer 12/24/21]

Jackson Street

Harrison Street

Tyler Street

Taylor Street

Fitzhugh Street (named for William Fitzhugh, the partner of Nathaniel Rochester and Charles Carroll)

Fitzhugh Place (ditto)

Fitzhugh Street and Place in Corn Hill [Photos: David Kramer, June 2021]

Carroll Place

Carroll Alley

Howell Street (likely named for Congressman Nathaniel Howell who represented part of Rochester in 1813 – 1815)

Troup Street (named for Robert Troup, local land agent who, despite being a slaveholder, was a co-founder of the New York Manumission Society seeking the gradual abolition of slavery in New York)

Getting back to the issue of inconsistency for a moment, we can quickly remove Monroe Avenue from this list.  As stated above, it won’t be re-named.  Period.

As to the rest, even those street and parks named for giants such as Washington and Jefferson are fair game.  Washington Square Park and Washington Grove could easily be re-named.  Some hot air from pseudo-patriots decrying the change can be anticipated.  But in the case or Washington Square Park, that could be mitigated by simply changing the name to Lincoln Square Park to logically tie it to the Lincoln statue already on the site.  Although some criticism of the change given Lincoln’s questionable racial views can be anticipated. (4)   

Washington Square Park, 9/1/18 From:  Frederick Douglass returns to Washington Square Park 

On the other hand, street re-namings will necessitate significant, but not insurmountable, costs and inconveniences, in particular the need for businesses and residents to change their addresses, which in turn will create confusion for business customers, friends of those residents, and for the USPS, Fed Ex, Amazon and the other delivery services.  As well as placing a burden on map makers from Google and Rand McNally on down.

But similar confusions have been successfully dealt with in the past.  In 2001 hundreds of thousands of telephone subscribers in Rochester and surrounding counties were forced to replace their “716” area code with “585”.  Loud were the wailings and gnashing of teeth over the confusion and costs this change would generate.  But the conversion was made and we all seem to have survived.

So if the City of Rochester truly wants to initiate a process of dishonoring slaveholders at the street level, one approach to the problem would be for City Hall to prioritize the changes starting with those streets with the fewest impacted businesses and residents, with financial subsides offered to offset the cost of name changes.   Such an open-ended process would yield changes over time and would demonstrate the city’s commitment to correcting the mistakes of the past.

Or the city council and the mayor could opt to sit on their hands and do nothing, taking the view that the costs (financial and political) and inconveniences necessitated by changing street names would outweigh the moral advancement inherent in the re-naming process.

Yes, truly, for look you, the sins of the father are to be laid upon the children

– William Shakespeare (The Merchant of Venice)

During the review process, the City Council and the City Historian will have to decide whether to restrict their survey to public sites named for individuals who owned slaves, or to include families who cumulatively profited from slavery.  This is not as far-fetched as it may seem.  At SUNY New Paltz there were several dormitories generically named after six of the Huguenot families who originally settled the town.  Slaveholding was not uncommon in the lower Hudson Valley in the 17th and 18th centuries, with the result that members of these families owned slaves.  Apparently using, “sins of the father” as justification, in 2019 the school’s administration, with the approval of the SUNY Board of Trustees (which included ex-Rochester mayor Bob Duffy), removed the Huguenot names from their buildings.   While I’m not aware that such an action has been taken elsewhere, or whether any public sites named for slavery-profiting families exist in Rochester, the precedent exists should city officials wish to take note of it at some point in the future.

Post Scriptum

Just to get the ball rolling, I’ll list my personal Top 5 Public Spaces for Re-naming in Rochester, excluding Major Charles Carroll Plaza and Nathaniel Square Park which are already on their way out.  Re-naming these five spaces will make clear Rochester’s commitment to the process, while at the same time incurring minimum cost and inconvenience.

    • Washington Square Park
    • Washington Grove
    • Fitzhugh Place
    • Carroll Place
    • Jefferson Terrace Park



(1) Exempt from this process will be Rochester city schools as they do not fall under the authority of the city council or the mayor’s office.   It will be up to the Board of Education to determine whether to re-name the James Monroe and Charles Carroll schools in line with their recent re-naming of the school bearing Nathaniel Rochester’s name.   As a side note, in 2019 the school board in Paul, MN voted to remove Monroe’s name from one of their schools.  A move that was initiated by the students’ parents.

(2)    On a related note, in July 2020 I contacted Mayor Warren and Council President Scott suggesting that the Nathaniel Rochester statue be “recycled” to create unique works of art as reminders of and memorials to, the devastating impact of slavery.  The statue could be cut into several large pieces.  Local artists would then be commissioned to use those pieces to create memorial artworks, the dismembered pieces of the statue being used to simultaneously symbolize the dismemberment of slave families in America caused by spouses and children being sold off to different masters throughout the country, and to commemorate the way slave ownership was ultimately dismembered by emancipation.  These memorials would 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 even protecting the institution of slavery.  I never received a response to my suggestion.

(3) Even given the penchant of Rochester’s civic authorities in the early to mid -1800s to name streets after US presidents, it’s remotely possible that some streets such as Tyler or Taylor might have been named for individuals other than the Chief Executive. Assumedly the City Historian’s office will be able to clarify this question.

(4)   Beyond the cut and dry issue of someone being a slaveholder, we have the matter of racist beliefs.  The question has been asked to what extent does Abraham Lincoln, his co-equal status with Washington as an indispensable historic figure notwithstanding, deserve honor and memorialization given his publicly-stated racist views of African Americans?


Thanks Rochester City Council for listening to Talker about the Major Charles Carroll Plaza

About The Author


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 and a Storyteller in Residence at the SmallMatters Institute. 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, the CITY, Lake Affect Magazine and Brighton Connections. 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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