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How Will the Airport Teach About Frederick Douglass?

Patti Singer
pattisinger@minorityreporter.net

Statue of Frederick Douglass, Washington Square Park. File photo

A committee is expected to begin work in December on how the Frederick Douglass – Greater Rochester International Airport will honor the abolitionist and teach about his place in Rochester and American history.

“Just renaming the airport is fine, but if nobody knows who Frederick Douglass is, it really doesn’t matter,” said the Rev. Julius Jackson, who has long advocated for the airport to bear Douglass’ name. “Educating is the key component.”

Jackson was among 11 individuals confirmed in November by the Monroe County Legislature to the Airport Renaming Advisory Committee.

The legislation authorizing the county to officially change the airport name called for educational material so that travelers can learn about Douglass.

“We want to make sure we have the things that speak to his life and legacy,” said Monroe County Legislator Vince Felder, also part of the committee.

The committee includes representatives from the Rochester Museum and Science Center, the Monroe County Library System and Visit Rochester.

Renaming the airport had been a topic for years, and one that Jackson had championed in addition to his work on illuminating the Douglass statue at Highland Park.

In July, Rochester resident Richard Glaser, who in recent years had suggested renaming the airport for Douglass and Susan B. Anthony, started a Change.org petition to have the airport bear Douglass’ name. The petition gained thousands of signatures and less than a month later, the legislature passed the bill to make the change.

Rochester’s airport is one of a handful in the country named for Black leaders. The others are Thurgood Marshall – Baltimore-Washington International; Muhammad Ali International in Louisville; Louis Armstrong in New Orleans and the Maynard Jackson International Terminal at Hartsfield International Airport in Atlanta.

No airports are named after women of color, according to Conde Nast Traveler. The magazine reported that in 2014, the Oakland airport named its main roadway after Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s license. Other efforts include renaming the Nashville airport for Oprah Winfrey.

Felder said some committee members have been brainstorming ideas, such as have a statue of Douglass cast and placed in the concourse. It would harken to the original statue of Douglass that greeted travelers at the train station and now stands at South Avenue and Robinson Drive in Highland Park.

Felder said the airport would be an educational hub and displays would include information about Douglass’ work on a range of subjects.

“When you look at all the Black leaders … Frederick Douglass was the first one,” Felder said. “He was the first one to stand up and challenge America in a public way about who they were.”

Felder did not give a timeline but said the unveiling likely would be after COVID-19, “so we can do it right. This is a big deal. It is fitting we do it in a way that allows the community to really celebrate Frederick Douglass.

Robert Benz, co-founder and executive vice president of the Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives and a member of the committee, said the renaming and the accompanying material “speaks to our appreciation for history. It speaks to our appreciation for intelligence and intellect, for freedom and justice, … entrepreneurship and diplomacy … for all these things that Frederick Douglass represented.”

Frederick Douglass Family Initiatives recently moved to 140 E. Main St. Benz said that after the pandemic, the organization plans events for the new space.

“It’s not just for people of Rochester,” he said. “But hopefully it will bring people from other places. Coming to Frederick Douglass events by way of the Frederick Douglass airport should be pretty cool.”

Here are the members of the Airport Renaming Advisory Committee and who they represent:

  • Legislator – Legislature Majority: Sean Delehanty of Fairport
  • Legislator – Legislature Minority: Vincent Felder of Rochester
  • Citizens – Legislature Majority: Robert Benz of Rochester and E. Daniel Quatro of Webster
  • Citizens – Legislature Minority: Rev. Julius Jackson of Henrietta and Carvin Eison of Rochester
  • Monroe County Library System – Christine Ridarsky, director of Historical Resources
  • Visit Rochester – Diana Rapp Keating, director of Tourism Programs
  • Rochester Museum and Science Center – Kathryn Murano Santos, senior director for Collections and Exhibits
  • Monroe County Airport Authority – R. Thomas Flynn
  • Director of Aviation – Andrew Moore