‘This seems really strange': Frederick Douglass statue is toppled in Rochester on anniversary of his famous speech

This photo provided by WROC-TV shows the remnants of a Frederick Douglass statue ripped from its base at a park in Rochester, N.Y., Sunday, July 5, 2020. The statue of abolitionist Douglass was ripped on the anniversary of one of his most famous speeches, delivered in that city in 1852.
This photo provided by WROC-TV shows the remnants of a Frederick Douglass statue ripped from its base at a park in Rochester, N.Y., Sunday, July 5, 2020. The statue of abolitionist Douglass was ripped on the anniversary of one of his most famous speeches, delivered in that city in 1852. (Ben Densieski/AP)

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — When Lawrence Jackson got the news that someone had toppled a statue Sunday of the famed Maryland-born abolitionist Frederick Douglass in Rochester, New York, several possible explanations leapt to mind.

The act might have been carried out by “vigilante racists,” the Johns Hopkins University professor said, in retaliation for the recent removal and defacement of monuments to Confederate leaders and other perceived racists.


It might have been overzealous left- or right-wing activists who are terribly ignorant of history. Or it might have simply been drunks playing a mindless prank.

Whatever the explanation, Jackson, a professor of English and history at Hopkins and a scholar on Douglass’ years in Baltimore, said whoever was behind the act could not have picked a less appropriate target.


“I don’t think we’ll ever find a figure who combines public dignity, personal authority, leadership and civic goodwill more than Frederick Douglass,” Jackson said. “This all seems really strange to me. It’s very difficult to get a handle on it.”

Douglass, after all — as Jackson has explained in his courses and writings — was born enslaved on the Eastern Shore, escaped to freedom in Baltimore, and went on to become one of history’s most eloquent voices on racial equity.

Many are pointing to the very views Douglass espoused as a divided America seeks to heal in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing by a then-Minneapolis police officer who knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

What police do know about Sunday’s incident is this: sometime over the weekend, someone entered Maplewood Park, a site in Rochester where Douglass and his fellow Maryland-born abolitionist, Harriet Tubman, once shuttled slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

The assailant or assailants knocked the life-sized resin statue off its pedestal, dragged it to the brink of the Genesee River gorge about 50 feet away, and left it there in severely damaged condition.

The act took place 168 years to the day after Douglass gave one of his most famous and influential speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”, a few miles away in Rochester.

In it, even as he praised the aspirational vision of the Founding Fathers, Douglass called the celebration of liberty a sham in a nation that enslaves and oppresses its Black citizens.

To a slave, he said, Independence Day is “a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim.”

Carvin Eison, a leader of the project that brought the Douglass statue to the park, told the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle another statue will take its place because the damage is too significant.

“Is this some type of retaliation because of the national fever over Confederate monuments right now?” Eison said in an interview with a WROC, a Rochester radio station. “Very disappointing, it’s beyond disappointing.”

As of late Monday afternoon, police in Rochester said they had no suspects and had made no arrests.

The uncertainty has spawned considerable speculation in the upstate New York city and on social media.


On Sunday night, Donald Trump Jr., the son of President Donald Trump, used Twitter to tie the act to a nationwide anti-statue movement that has led to the the removal of many Confederate monuments and damage to monuments to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Christopher Columbus.

President Trump blamed the destruction on “anarchists” Monday, and former NAACP president Cornell William Brooks later cast the destruction as a form of right-wing revenge.

Jackson, however, raised another likely possibility. He pointed out that two college students toppled another Douglass statue in Rochester in December 2018, and later described the act as an intoxicated prank.

Sunday’s vandalism “could be just a a combination of boredom and drunkenness, some vandals’ reckless way of expressing themselves,” he says.

Kenneth B. Morris, Jr., goes a step further. He believes Sunday’s incident, painful as it is, almost amounts to a yardstick for progress.

The great-great grandson of Douglass and the president of Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, an anti-racist educational nonprofit, Morris was used as a model for both vandalized Rochester statues (the sculptor of both used his face and hands as models). So he said the first incident felt “very much like a personal attack.”

But awareness about racial issues in the United States has improved so much over the past two years, Morris said, that he has moved beyond personal hurt.

“My ancestor’s words are as relevant today as they were then, and [the vandalism] is a clear signal regarding the continuing need to change,” said Morris, who came to Annapolis in February to give a speech shortly after a life-sized bronze statue of Douglass was unveiled at the Maryland State House. “I feel more energized, more motivated than ever to continue the work of [our] Initiatives.”

If the perpetrators do turn out to be “racist vigilantes,” Jackson said he won’t be surprised, since Douglass was such a powerful and high-profile voice for change.

But he’s confident no modern effort, by vandals or anyone else, can undo the Maryland native’s legacy.

“He’s one who can withstand the scrutiny,” Jackson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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