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Bello Under Fire for Frederick Douglass Airport Renaming Event

Patti Singer

Monroe County Legislator Vincent Felder said the Feb. 14 naming of the Frederick Douglass — Greater Rochester International Airport was not inclusive. Pastor Jeffrey Melvin is at left. Photo by Patti Singer/Minority Reporter Media Group

Monroe County Executive Adam Bello is being criticized for the way he announced and celebrated the naming of the Frederick Douglass – Greater Rochester International Airport.

“It was done improperly, it was unfair, it was harmful,” Monroe County Democratic Legislator Vincent Felder said at a Feb. 17 news conference in legislative chambers. “There are a lot of hurt feelings, a lot of outrage.”

Felder called on Bello to apologize to residents of Rochester and Monroe County for having only a few people present at what he and Pastor Jeffrey Melvin said should have been a community celebration.

Felder said the county executive needs to remove himself from anything else having to do with honoring Douglass. He said Bello needs to let the airport advisory committee do its work of creating and placing educational materials in the airport.

The committee was created in bi-partisan legislation a few weeks after a bill to rename the airport. In September, Bello signed the legislation for the committee. The committee members were approved by the legislature in November but as of Feb. 16, Felder said they had not met. He said the first meeting would be held in the next few weeks.

Frederick Douglass – Greater Rochester International Airport joins a handful of airports named for a Black man.

“This is a big deal and so it needs to be treated as such,” Felder said. “What happened on Sunday cheated it.”

Media were notified around 7:30 a.m. Feb. 14 of an 11 a.m. news conference during which Bello, “community members and advocates will commemorate the official renaming of the airport.”

Felder said he first learned of the event at about the time it was taking place. Republican Majority Leader Steve Brew, on the board of the airport authority, said he was not aware that a sign has been designed and was ready to be unveiled.

“Renaming the airport in honor of Frederick Douglass, one of our community and nation’s greatest citizens, was intended to reflect the grassroots community support that led to this change,” Monroe County spokesman Steve Barz wrote in response to a request for comment about Felder’s news conference.

“We were limited in the number of people we could invite because of COVID-19 restrictions, and did not intend to slight or exclude anyone who was not invited,” Barz wrote.

“A Monroe County Legislature committee was created to serve as a renaming advisory committee and did not hold a single meeting or take any action in months,” he continued. “Therefore, we decided to announce the renaming on the day recognized as Mr. Douglass’ birthday. Attendance, which was limited to comply with COVID-19 guidelines included Mr. Douglass’ family, a representative from the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives, the Re-energizing the Legacy of Frederick Douglass project, and other members of the grassroots movement leading the call to rename the airport. A larger community event will be planned to celebrate this historic renaming and the placement of a bronze Frederick Douglass statue at the airport later this year when we are in a post-COVID environment.”

Felder said his criticism of Bello’s handling of the ceremony was not about politics.

“Everybody should have been included,” he said. “We need a redo on this.”

Michelle Daniels, who taught schoolchildren about Frederick Douglass and donated two of the statues that are around Rochester, attended the news conference.

Felder and Pastor Jeffrey Melvin of Powerhouse Church of God in Christ said they’d been contacted by more than a dozen people, some representing many others, saying they were upset at how the ceremony was handled. They mentioned the exclusion of people such as Dr. David Anderson and Andrew Williams and that the ceremony diminished Douglass’ legacy of equity and inclusion.

Williams, who said he has spent more than 20 years researching Douglass and was at the news conference when Felder proposed legislation to change the airport name, said he felt slighted by being left out of the Feb. 14 ceremony. “How could they not go back and see the people who had been involved in keeping Frederick Douglass’ life and memory alive?”

Williams was contacted after the news conference. He said he understood the issues around COVID, but added, “There are ways to do large events. They’re doing it all over the country.”

Rev. Julius Jackson, right, was among Douglass supporters at the Feb. 14 airport event. File photo

The Rev. Julius Jackson, who had been campaigning for the airport name change for more than a decade and was the force behind having the Douglass monument lit and moving it to a prominent place in Highland Park, was at the Feb. 14 ceremony.

He said it’s unfortunate that the naming became divisive rather than unifying.

“My main view is moving toward forgiveness and reconciliation and just unity in general,” he said.

Jackson said he proposed a community event Nov. 13 to celebrate the renaming of the airport and the illumination of the monument.

“Let’s come together, celebrate moving forward,” he said.