by DARIEN LAMEN
ROCHESTER, NY--On a cold winter night two years ago, hundreds of people came out to get their picture taken with one of the city’s larger-than-life residents--the 12-foot-tall monument of Frederick Douglass in Highland Park. At one point, the crowd spontaneously broke into dueling renditions of "Happy Birthday."
It was February 14th, 2018, the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s chosen birthday.
The photo shoot was one of the first events in a year’s worth of festivities, many of them revolving around that famous monument, the first ever civic monument to an African American.
The statue of Douglass went up in 1899, at a time when other cities were starting to put up monuments to Confederate soldiers and leaders.
Richard Newman is a scholar of abolition history at the Rochester Institute of Technology. He says civic monuments were weapons in an ongoing ideological battle over the past and how it’s remembered.
"Confederates from the moment the Civil War ends are engaged in an ideological battle over the things which the Confederacy was dedicated to, which of course relate to state’s rights, agricultural economies… but at their core revolve around bondage and slavery and a certain place for African-descended people," Newman says.
"So when you see these people in the 1870s and the 1880s, building memorials to confederate leaders, publishing histories of the confederate cause, and trying to, in a sense, relitigate the war, what they’re saying is, we’re battling for the future memory of the past."
In Rochester, it was the African American community that led the way in making the Frederick Douglass monument a reality. And there’s one very persistent man in particular who stands out as one of the unsung heroes of the entire undertaking. His name was John W. Thompson.
Richard Newman describes Thompson as a working class figure who works in the hotel and hospitality industry. "In many ways he’s an heir of the tradition Douglass fought for, that abolitionist vision of the United States which saw African Americans as equal citizens," Newman says.
Thompson believed African Americans were being left out of the memorial tradition of honoring Civil War fighters.
"Even in the North," Newman says, "some of the monuments that are going up in the 1880s, 1890s, are of white soldiers, white leaders. The histories are emphasizing white leaders, white heroism. So [Thompson] wants to have this statue in Rochester as a kind of parallel memorial to what Black soldiers did in the Civil War and he really doesn’t get a lot of traction."
Thompson reaches out to Douglass, who responds in a letter saying,
"I shall be proud if I shall live to see the proposed monument erected in the city of Rochester, where the best years of my life were spent in the service of our people, and which to this day seems like my home."
Andrew Williams is a local history buff who, like Thompson before him, has spent much of his adult life trying to put the history of Western New York's African American civic leaders back in front of people.
Williams recalls visiting the State History Museum in Albany decades ago.
"They had an exhibit on life in New York, and I said, 'There’s not much history about African Americans in New York State.' And they said to me, 'What are we missing?' And I said, 'What are you paying?'" Williams says, laughing.
That was his entrance into museums. Williams went on to work as outreach specialist at the Rochester Museum and Science Center. That's where he first became interested in J.W. Thompson.
"I found another photograph with this elderly gentleman standing next to the Frederick Douglass monument and I wanted to know who it was. And fortunately the librarian already knew the story. And she said, 'That’s John W. Thompson. He wrote a book about the monument.' And I’m like, 'Oh! Do we have it?' She says, 'Of course we have it,'" Williams recalls.
He was instantly hooked.
"I tried to imagine someone in their 20s conceiving of this idea, and working it to completion," Williams says.
Thompson had worked tirelessly to raise the $10,000 needed to build the monument. It wasn’t easy. And as day of the dedication approached, there was a “little” snag.
The statue was actually en route to Rochester on the day it was supposed to be dedicated.
Williams says Thompson wanted to cancel the dedication. But thousands of people were already planning on being there.
Among the many prominent individuals who attended were journalist and activist Ida B. Wells, who had grown close with Douglass toward the end of his life. Susan B. Anthony was a guest of honor. Douglass’s family was there. His grandson Joseph performed selections from Verdi’s Il Trovatore on his violin.
It was the culmination of 5 years worth of work by Thompson and his planning committee.
The monument was a metaphor for Black contributions to America and the Civil War, and as Richard Newman explains, "John W. Thompson was fighting far more than for just a memorial for a Black leader. He was fighting against a culture which was trying to again segregate and marginalize African American people."
Andrew Williams believes J.W. Thompson is a profile in persistence and that he should be more widely recognized today.
Among the projects Williams is working on to that end, is a children’s book about the monument, and about the role of J.W. Thompson and the rest of Black Rochester in making it a reality.
"You can have an idea that can inspire people to do what has never been done before, and if he could do it then, I can do what I need to do now," Williams says.
DARIEN LAMEN is news producer/director for WXIR Community Radio. He can reached at firstname.lastname@example.org