As Cities Tear Down Statues of Conquistadors, Confederates and Cops, Could Rochester Statue Be Next?
by DARIEN LAMEN
(WXIR-Rochester) For many neighborhood residents, the little square at the corner of South Ave and Alexander Street is just a shaded place to pass the time.
Most people don’t pay much attention to the hulking statue of Nathaniel Rochester that sits facing the entrance to the square.
But at some point in the last week, the sculpture of the city’s founder was, shall we say, redecorated in a way that made more people take notice.
Kawanais Smith lives just across the street in EL Tower. She says most of her neighbors haven’t heard the full story of Colonel Nathaniel Rochester.
"You know he was an oppressor? A slave owner and a slave trader? In school they only tell you a little bit about it. You really have to read about Black history to find out," Smith says.
"I was talking to somebody the other day, and they were asking me about it. And they said, 'Well they didn't have slaves in Rochester.' And I said, sure they did! They had them all over the country!"
The sculpture of Rochester’s founder has been repainted with red and white paint, and surrounded by graffiti annotations that read, "Local founder of land theft, slavery, land speculation, rent" and "Why is our city still named after a white supremacist?”
This comes as a renewed push to remove statues honoring conquistadors, confederates, and cops has swept cities nationwide. Some of those statues have stood for over a hundred years.
Here in Rochester, however, the sculpture of old Colonel Nate was put up in 2007 with both state and city funding.
Laotian artist Pepsy Kettavong has reportedly said that his sculpture, entitled “Reflecting,” wasn’t intended to heroize Rochester, hence his depiction of the city's founder as an old man, seated and pensive.
Kettavong did not respond to our requests for comment.
Since the city’s founding, Nathaniel Rochester has often been depicted as a repentant slave owner, as a man who left Maryland to escape the evil of slavery. But that narrative has shifted over the years, as the Colonel’s long-lasting connections to slavery and the slave trade have become more widely known.
In 2004, a few years before the statue was built, CITY Newspaper published an article challenging the revisionist history of Rochester. And in 2009, an article in the journal Rochester History further detailed the extent of Rochester's ties to slavery.
"Not only did Colonel Rochester own slaves and actively participate in the slave trade while he was living in the South,” the authors of that article wrote, “he brought slaves with him and continued to own and profit from them until New York State no longer permitted him to do so."
That was in 1827. Rochester died 4 years later.
Our past is our present
Rochester’s ability to profit from both owning and trading in enslaved African-descended people in the years following the American Revolution enabled him to buy up land in Western New York beginning around 1800.
And lest we forget, this type of so-called "investment" on a so-called "newly opened frontier" was made possible in part by General John Sullivan, who, barely 20 years earlier, had led a genocidal campaign against the Haudenosaunee in Western New York and beyond.
The anonymous graffiti annotations that now surround Nathaniel Rochester's statue connect the dots between our current system of real estate speculation, rent, and overpolicing with the history of land theft, slavery, and genocide.
Kawanais Smith says she doesn’t know who repainted the statue in Nathaniel Square. But given the current climate in the United States, she thinks it may be time to retire the old colonel.
"I don't want to walk by and see this man [Nathaniel Rochester] every day. Why glorify a slave owner?" Smith says.
And while we’re at it, could it be time to rethink the name of the city as well?
So far, City Hall has been silent. We'll let you know if we hear anything.
Darien Lamen is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.