Giving New Life to a Legacy
Carvin Eison is leading a county-wide initiative to honor the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass’s birth.
The catalyst for a burst of activity honoring abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a discussion of something already in place but often overlooked: the monument in his honor in the Highland Park Bowl, the first civic statue of an African American nationwide.
The statue was unveiled near the train station at Central Avenue and St. Paul Street in 1899. It was moved away from the station’s smog and into Highland Park in 1941 — and yet, 76 years later, many Rochesterians don’t know it’s there.
“It’s a well-kept secret that’s about to get out,” said Carvin Eison, associate professor of communication. Eison is shedding new light on both the monument and the man himself through the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial Commemoration Committee, which he co-directs.
The group has secured the support of Monroe County in planning to move the monument to a more prominent spot, at the corner of South Avenue and Robinson Drive, where Douglass lived in the mid-1800s.
This is just one of a plethora of events in the works to make 2018 “The Year of Frederick Douglass,” as proclaimed on January 4 by City of Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren and Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo, celebrating the bicentennial of his birth with a year of events commemorating his legacy.
The committee was born out of conversations last spring between Eison and Bleu Cease, executive director of Rochester Contemporary Art Center. As they discussed the importance of the monument and Douglass’s lasting impact on the city, they wondered what plans might be in the works for 2018; finding none, they decided to lead the initiative themselves. They wrote a proposal, circulated it to city and county offices, and soon found it picking up momentum.
“Everybody was really excited about it,” said Eison, “and so, step by step by step, we kept going, kept having meetings, and the long and short of it is what we call the Re-energizing the Legacy of Frederick Douglass Project.”
The project quickly grew to encompass more than 50 community institutions — educational institutions, churches, and arts organizations such as Garth Fagan Dance, the Memorial Art Gallery, Geva Theatre Center, and Rochester Community Television (RCTV), of which Eison is general manager — plus government representation and individual citizens. Eison and Cease gave an overview of the project on WXXI’s Connections on January 9.
“All of Rochester is involved, and I couldn’t ask for more,” said Eison.
Corresponding with the monument’s relocation, slated for June, Eison is spearheading an initiative to place replicas of it in locations throughout the city that were important to Douglass’s life, which will create a walking tour of his historical impact. A prototype is currently under construction; ultimately, there will be at least a dozen full-scale reproductions.
The rollout of so many monuments at one time will create, Eison said, “a kind of echo. It should create some very interesting synergy and connections and get people talking.”
Douglass, who lived in Rochester from 1848 to 1872, was “an extraordinary representative of this community,” said Eison. “Think about it: a man who was born into bondage, and then at the other end of his life, they’re erecting a monument to honor the life he lived. He did a great deal of good work, and he did some of his greatest work here in Rochester.”
The College is only one degree of separation from Douglass: Fannie Barrier Williams, a close associate of his in civil rights activism, was the first African American to graduate from the Brockport Normal School, in 1870.
Eison will be discussing Douglass with his students throughout the semester, and several will work with him on commemorative projects at RCTV. He hopes the campaign will also get younger students talking about Douglass, through essays and school projects as well as on social media. He also hopes to produce a documentary about Douglass’s life alongside Douglass’s great-great-great grandson, Ken Morris, Jr.
These many efforts follow in the spirit of the man they are honoring.
“Frederick Douglass is continuing, 200 years after his birth, to bring people together in Rochester,” Eison said.
Want to get involved?
Eison emphasizes that there is room on the committee for any individual or organization that wants to participate. Visit the Frederick Douglass Bicentennial website or call RCTV at (585) 325-1238 to learn more.