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Vandalism of Douglass Statue Underscores St. John Fisher College’s Lack of Diversity

George Payne

Op/Ed by George Payne –

Speaking as a St. John Fisher alumnus, I felt embarrassed and angry when I heard that two Fisher students vandalized one of Olivia Kim’s Frederick Douglass statues at 1 Tracy Street., the site of a seminary where Douglass enrolled his eldest daughter, Rosetta, only to withdraw her after she was being placed in segregated classes.

John Boedicker, 20, and Charlie Milks, 21, pleaded not guilty to criminal mischief charges, and they told a local news station they were drunk when they took the statue early Sunday morning. Apparently they were heading home from the bar when they got a “bad idea” to take it.

The following day, SJFC President Gerard Rooney issued the following statement:
“Effective immediately, two students allegedly involved in vandalism of a Frederick Douglass statue have been suspended from the College. The suspension will continue until the legally mandated student conduct hearing addressing this matter is completed.  We have taken the strongest possible action available to us at this time. In addition to continuing to follow the College’s own Student Conduct Process, the administration will cooperate fully with members of the law enforcement community.”

Mayor Lovely Warren also issued a statement:
“The vandalism and theft of the Frederick Douglass statue on Tracy Street is a sad event that demonstrates remarkable disrespect for the citizens of Rochester, especially those who have worked so hard to celebrate the legacy of Douglass during the 200th anniversary of his birth. I am grateful to the citizens who reported this incident as it unfolded and for the immediate response of the RPD, which resulted in a successful arrest. I have also spoken with Dr. Gerard Rooney, President of St. John Fisher College, who shares our community’s contempt for this type of behavior. We should all use this opportunity to consider the wisdom and continued relevance in Douglass’s own words when he said: “The soul that is within me, no man can degrade.”

Compounding matters, a witness who called 911, claims that the two students were yelling the N word, an accusation the students deny. One stated: “This was not racially motivated. We had no idea who the statue even was, we were just two idiots walking home from the bar that had a bad idea, I’m sorry for my actions and want to apologize and I’ve already reached to the original artist of the sculptor to talk. I would just like to say we were blindsided by these racial allegations as we only found this out when reading the article this evening, there was no mention of it all during processing and this is all a big drunken misunderstanding.”

I think there is a larger issue at play here, one that is not being talked about yet in the media.

Let’s say the students did know it was Douglass and they assaulted the statue out of racial animus. If that is the case, this incident constitutes a hate crime, and they have no business being enrolled at the College.

But let’s assume that they are telling the truth about not knowing who the statue represented. If that is the case, then the crime was not motivated by hate but rather ignorance. As a former student of the school, I am not sure which situation is worse. For how can it be that these two young men made it all the way through high school and then a private liberal arts college without knowing who Frederick Douglass is? Douglass is the most significant and famous abolitionist in United States history. For these two self- proclaimed “idiots” to not know who he is, shames not only their families and friends, but the educational institutions that failed to properly teach them. Their ignorance about the African-American experience in this country is a crime in and of itself.

Put another way, if these young men are telling the truth about their real motivation, it would be an indictment against St. John Fisher College. For again, how is it that two upper-class students did not know Douglass when they saw him? I simply refuse to believe they were so drunk that they knew about Douglass but did not know that the statue depicted him. Assuming that they truly had no clue who he was, what does that say about the level of diversity education on Fisher’s campus?

Let’s not beat around the bush. Does Fisher have a problem hiring instructors of color? Yes. Has Fisher neglected to make the curricula more responsive to the learning needs of minority students? Yes. Does Fisher need to do a better job connecting the student body with initiatives and programs based in communities of color within greater Rochester? Yes. Can the school, in general, be more racially and ethnically sensitive to the needs and perspectives of non-whites? Yes.

According to College Factual, an organization that obtains their data from the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) and the National Center for Education Statistics, Fisher’s college faculty is 85.5% white. Just 5% of the faculty is African American. 84% of the undergraduate student population is white. Only 3.8% of the students are African- American. Not surprisingly, the college is ranked 1,964 in ethnic diversity nationwide with a student body composition that is below the national average. It should not take the destruction of a beloved Frederick Douglass statue to make those statistics appear unacceptable.

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the president’s swift and forceful statement condemning the student’s actions. But the bottom line is that his College has a lot of work to do. When the president says, “We have taken the strongest possible action available to us at this time,” that may be true to an extent. What matters far more is how the school decides to look within and acknowledge its own failures over the years to diversify its staff, faculty, and academic programming. What actions will the president initiate moving forward to make sure that no other student under his watch has the impudence to say they do not know who Frederick Douglass is?

George Cassidy Payne is an independent writer, social justice activist, and adjunct professor of philosophy at SUNY. He lives and works in Rochester, NY. George’s letters and essays have been featured in a wide range of domestic and foreign outlets including The Toronto Star, The Havana Times, The South China Morning Post, The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Buffalo News, and the Albany Times Union. Locally, George is a frequent contributor to Rochester indymedia, City Newspaper, the Minority Reporter, and the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle.

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