The City of Rochester is looking for names for a new park and street which are taking shape in part of the footprint of the old Midtown Plaza.
I would like to submit some names for consideration.
I believe that places should be named to inspire the future. Typically, they do so by honoring the past. Rochester has a wondrous past, having produced great people who did big things to make our community and our country what they are today.
Many of the great people from Rochester’s past have already been honored in the names of buildings, parks, streets and bridges.
And that is as it should be.
In naming a street or a bridge or a park, the hope should be that one day someone will look at that name and wonder about its origin, and find in the search an accomplished individual who inspires greatness.
A name should be more than a name, it should be a reminder of the potential of every human being.
That rule should guide the selection of names for this new street and park.
To that end, I recommend that the names of three individuals be considered.
Austin Steward, Lewis Douglass and William Johnson.
Austin Steward came to New York as a slave, and lived his life in selfless service to others and in passionate defense of liberty. His were the shoulders upon which Frederick Douglass stood. Today, while theatergoers and readers are rediscovering “Twelve Years A Slave,” they would do well to read Austin Steward’s memoir of the same era, “Twenty-two Years A Slave, And 40 Years A Free Man.”
Austin Steward was, throughout his adult life, elected by black Rochesterians and New Yorkers as a leader and representative. He was the voice and conscience of black Rochester when it came to matters of faith, freedom, business, responsibility and education. And when slavery in its last vestiges was ended in New York – on July 4, 1827 – it was Austin Steward who gave the Emancipation Day address.
A truly great and good-hearted man, Austin Steward endured persecution, betrayal and the challenges of a hard life to stand up for what was right. He is completely worthy of the honor of having something named after him, and his example would be inspiring to anyone.
Lewis Douglass was the oldest son of Frederick Douglass and grew up in Rochester, spending his adolescence as a printer for his father’s abolitionist newspapers.
One of Frederick Douglass’s truest teachings was that for an individual to enjoy the full benefits of citizenship, he must bear the full burden of citizenship. If a man pays the full price, Frederick Douglass felt, he is entitled to the full reward.
That was nowhere truer than in military service. As the Civil War approached and commenced, Frederick Douglass wrote publicly – and lobbied Abraham Lincoln privately – to allow black men in the Army. If black men fought for freedom, they could not be denied freedom. Black liberty could not be secured by the shedding of white blood alone, Frederick Douglass taught, it must be a partnership in which black men had active part.
Lincoln and others agreed, and black troops were organized.
The first and arguably most prominent of these was the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry – the unit upon which the movie “Glory” was based.
Lewis Douglass leapt at the chance to serve, and he immediately enlisted in the 54th Massachusetts.
He was made the unit’s sergeant major, which is historically significant. That was the highest rank black men were allowed to hold in the Civil War, and Lewis Douglass was the first black man to hold it. No black man would hold higher rank until the historic Lt. Henry Flipper graduated from West Point more than a decade later. Lewis Douglass went on to serve honorably in combat and survived the war.
His significance in the history of black Americans at arms is great. Rochester has contributed mightily in every generation to the military strength and national defense of the United States, and Lewis Douglass deserves a place of honor as part of that effort. Further, his example for others who have served or will one day serve is a good one, and he is a reminder of his father’s principle: Those who would enjoy the fruits of citizenship must bear the burdens of citizenship.
William Johnson was Rochester’s first black mayor. And though he is still alive, and to some extent still connected to politics and matters of public controversy, his significance to city history is established and will not change.
And it would be nice to honor him while he is still around to enjoy it. The city’s rule that the street and park be named after someone who is dead is not a good rule. Various local politicians still living and in power have already seen to naming things after themselves. William Johnson is out of power, he is not naming anything after himself, and he and his merits should not be excluded from consideration merely because he still has a pulse.
In addition to being Rochester’s first black mayor, William Johnson is a representative of the city’s influential non-profit and activist communities. Whereas an earlier era might have put more stock in commerce or military achievement, the age of advocacy embraces different values, and William Johnson rose to power as an advocate and practitioner of those values.
When the dust of political disagreement settles, William Johnson will remain as a worthy example to rising generations.
Those are my three recommendations.
Lewis Douglass and Austin Steward both have special connection to the commerce of Main Street – the Douglass newspaper office and one of the Steward stores were on Main Street – and William Johnson witnessed a civil disturbance on Main Street that many feel prompted his move into politics.
These are special men and this is a special place.
They are all worthy.
I hope they are given consideration.