Frederick Douglass was the first Black American to have a monument erected in his honor.
Now, more than a century later members of the Re-Energizing the Legacy of Frederick Douglass committee are working with local officials, artists and community leaders to create 13 life-sized monuments, all coming together to create a city-wide interactive tour.
“Most people know of the monument in Highland Park,” said Carvin Eison, project director with the Douglass committee. “It was the first monument erected to recognize the life of an African American in the country’s history and that monument is in Rochester so that says something about our social justice foundation.”
Sculptor Olivia Kim was chosen to design the monument and says she was heavily influenced by the one in Highland which was created by Stanley W. Edwards. To get the job done, she says she relied on the help of more than four dozen local artists, all of whom donated their time.
Kim is originally from Rochester, and attended the School of the Arts before attending SUNY Alfred University, where she majored in ceramics. Her work has been shown all around the nation and in Europe and she was also part of the “No Soil Better” exhibit, inspired by Douglass and held at the Rochester Contemporary Art Center earlier this year.
“Being part of this project really forced me to search deep inside of my heart as to what kind of message we need today,” Kim said. “To look at and ruminate over Douglass’ words and what he must have gone through really made me think we are one song.”
Kim’s statues differ in that the castings use the hands of Kenneth B. Morris Jr, Douglass’ great-great-great grandson. Committee members say this allows them to unite the past with the present while also pointing towards the future.
Eison says many of the things Douglass fought for continue to be an issue today and won’t go away tomorrow:
“Long before Frederick Douglas , the country had a policy of separating children from their families. This happened to Frederick Douglass. He was separated from his mother and never knew who she was. Now cut to 2018 and it’s the policy of the government to separate children at the Southern border and we just can’t stand for that.”
Eison is referring to President Donald Trump’s clamping down on families seeking asylum and crossing the border.
NY Assemblyman Harry Bronson, (D-Rochester), agreed. He is one of the first openly gay representatives in the state.
“I think that as a gay man who has fought for equality throughout my adult life this has special meaning to me. It’s about the struggle,” he said.
The first three statues will be placed outside of the Hochstein School, the Anne Murray Douglass Academy (School 12) and the Talman Building, where Douglass published the North Star, his flagship newspaper. The other 10 will be placed over the coming months, including at the intersection of Central Avenue and St. Paul Street where the Highland monument used to be located.
The original Edwards sculpture, is going to be moved to a spot in Highland Park where it will be more visible.
Organizers also announced the start of a four-day marathon read aloud of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Local officials, artists and other community leaders will participate by reading sections of the book at local libraries. Anyone is able to participate and any students who decide to read out loud get a free copy of the book.
These activities are all part of the celebration of the 200th anniversary of Frederick Douglass's birth.