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True or false? Rochester and slavery 

Change the present

A friend sent us a copy of the February 10 City article on the revelations of Nathaniel Rochester's activities as a slave trader. It is appropriate that a complete history of significant people of the past should be made known.

            However, it is not enough. We feel comfortable making judgments about the character of people who lived 200 years ago. We are setting ourselves up for similar judgment from subsequent generations if we do nothing about slavery in our own time. We know that real and de facto slavery exists in many areas of the world, including the US, in the form of sex-trade workers, household workers, and sweatshop workers.

            We cannot change the past. Our knowledge of the past and the present can be used to change the future. We would do well to focus our indignation and our energy on changing conditions for real people now.

            Janet Rochester, Voorhees, New Jersey(Rochester is married to a descendant of Nathaniel Rochester)

Rochester changed

"Portrait of a Slave Trader" painted an unfinished --- and unfair --- picture of Nathaniel Rochester by neglecting to mention his transformation into an opponent of slavery and the corresponding reasons he settled here.

            Nathaniel Rochester never received any formal education and was apprenticed to a merchant at age 16. He was a self-made man, fought in the Revolutionary War, and was elected to serve in three different state legislatures during his lifetime. As noted by Ron Netsky, Rochester became a successful businessman in Hagerstown, Maryland, at least in part due to his trading and ownership of slaves.

            This experience changed his life. At age 58, in order to escape what he himself called "the debasing nature of slavery" and to rid himself and his family of what he considered "the curse of keeping slaves," he sold his imposing colonial mansion in Hagerstown, Maryland; divested himself of his prosperous businesses; resigned his position as the president of Hagerstown Bank; abandoned his many important political allies and contacts in Maryland; freed his slaves; and moved some 300 miles north with his wife and 10 children to live in a four-room log cabin in the middle of the "Genesee Country" wilderness.

            Rochester came to the GeneseeValley to create a community untainted by the past and based upon the egalitarian principles of the new Republic. He sought to build a community where industrious people would treat each other with respect and fairness, dignity and equality. Thus it seems hardly surprising that human-rights advocates and organizers such as Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony, and Saul Alinsky would later find here fertile ground for their revolutionary work.

            Peter O'Brian Dellinger, Westland Avenue, Brighton

Good and bad

I am a native Rochesterian, but I have been living and working in Mexico for the last two decades and was in Rochester recently for a brief visit. I'm curious as hell as to what the Democrat and Chronicle will make, if anything, of the evidence from which Ron Netsky so nicely crafted "Portrait of a Slave Trader" (February 11).

            "A Portrait" of Nathaniel Rochester deserves at least a short story or, better yet, a book. To be a true portrait it would have to include what was "good" about the man, which in no way, of course, diminishes the "badness" of what was "bad." And it was "bad": It's like someone passing wind 200 years ago and now someone's just raising a coffin lid to smell it. Terrible!

            "Good" and "bad," of course, are relative but necessary terms if we're to communicate at all. Unless Rochester was a conflicted and guilt-ridden man, what was evidently seen as "good" in his eyes is obviously seen as "bad" in most of ours.

            Don Carmen Schimizzi, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, dschimizzi@yahoo.com.

Different times

Regarding Ron Netsky's article on Colonel Rochester ("Portrait of a Slave Trader," February 11):

            To criticize Colonel Rochester because he kept and dealt in slaves, which was normal for his time, is unfair. You not only criticize, but damn the man according to 21st-century mores. Maybe Colonel Rochester was not an idealistic visionary but just a respectable man of his times. Maybe the 22nd century will have a standard of giving 25 percent of your income to social causes and 20 hours a week to humanitarian social work. How would you fare being judged under those standards?

            Our age loves to criticize the acts of our ancestors and ignore all they accomplished, under severe conditions; all the suffering and deprivation they bore. It's not chic to respect what our leaders in the past created and made possible for us.

            No one looks at what a hero the average American was 125 years ago. No social services. No disability insurance (except your family). Sink or swim. Work. If in the wilderness, clear land. Build a cabin. Grow enough food and cut enough wood to last the winter --- or starve and freeze.

            What heroes these people were. And where woods existed, they created a great nation. They made mistakes. They also endured droughts, Indian attacks, bandits, thieves, no food, no money, unfair treatment, no work, disease, death.

            And how effete it is 175 years later to stand where we stand and pass judgment on them; they probably have more right to pass judgment on us.

            Colonel Rochester must have done enough good things that the citizens of Rochester were willing to have their town bear his name. Had he dealt with his fellow citizens unfairly, they every easily could have found a new name for their community.

            Despite all the things that Thomas Jefferson accomplished in his life and all his actions that benefited so many others (from the writing of the Declaration of Independence to his work with the Continental Congresses), you damn him for his relations with one of his slaves --- which you perversely describe as an abuse of power, when it might have been a very caring relationship.

            You are once again being unfair and taking shots from the comfort of your desk at a man who accomplished a great deal, endured a lot in the process, and probably bore more than you or I will ever be called upon to bear.

            Jonathan Wolfinger, HubbellPark, Rochester

History lessons

Sometime in high school, whatever I learned about the American Revolution and the Civil War turned me off to learning anything more about those subjects for 35 years. What did any of it have to do with me?

            Last month I borrowed from the downtown library the National Park handbook The Underground Railroad and read that George Washington complained about how hard it was to retrieve fugitive slaves.

            Last week I read in James Cross Gilbin's book Chimney Sweeps that it was hard for reformers to get the British Parliament to pass a child labor law in 1833. The law prohibited the hiring of children under 9 in mills and factories and limited working hours of children ages 9-12 to 8 hours a day, youth 13-18 to 69 hours per week.

            At the RochesterMuseum and ScienceCenter's Fredrick Douglass exhibit, I saw more information from the Park's handbook about slavery: From the 1600s to 1808, when the sale of slaves was stopped in the US, 10 million African slaves were shipped to North and South America. Brazil and Cuba imported slaves for mining and agriculture until the 1880s.

            Brazil, 4 million; French Caribbean, 1.6 million; Dutch Caribbean, 1/2 million; English Caribbean, 1.8 million; Spanish Caribbean, 1.6 million; British mainland colony that became the US, 450,000, or 4 percent of the slave trade. Ninety-eight percent went elsewhere, mostly to Brazil.

            Ron Netzky's complaint that Nathaniel Rochester's background was whitewashed is partly valid. In Orasmus Turner's lengthy 1851 book, Pioneer History of Phelps and Gorhams' Purchase, he mentions almost in passing that the group of a dozen enterprising pioneers from Frederick County, Maryland, who came to the Genesee Country in the late 1790s, found out quickly enough that slavery was unprofitable in the North. That Maryland group included William Fitzhugh and his son, Peregrine; Col. Rochester; Charles Carroll, and Judge Daniel Dorsey.

            In the 1981 book by Margaret Schmitt McNab et al, Northfield ... on the Genesee, the Northfield census of 1810 lists a black woman as a slave owned by Alice Ray Culver, wife of Oliver Culver in the Irondequoit area. The OntarioCounty census of 1814 counts 213 slaves out of a population of about 58,000 people.

            So much for picking on somebody safe from the past. What do our local muckrackers have to say about the New York Times article of January 25 about the active sex slave trade of children, many from Mexico, that thrives with enormous profits in many US cities? What does that have to do with us?

            Rose O'Keefe, Gregory Street, Rochester

City,watched

RochesterWatch is a growing group of Rochester citizens, concerned with what we believe is socially and morally destructive, extremist, left-wing propaganda, along with the active effort to stifle mainstream opinion and traditional values in the mainstream media.

            A recent article on Nathaniel Rochester, written by Ron Netsky, professor and art department chair at NazarethCollege, was featured as front-page news by City. The paper was distributed to family restaurants and public institutions throughout the Rochester area.

            Author Ron Netsky, who does not mention having any qualifications as a historian, convicts Nathaniel Rochester of being a slave trader. He cites a single 1790 account book recently purchased by the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections of the University of Rochester's Rush Rhees Library as his source.

            In the middle of the article, Netsky mentions that "it is not known to what extent Rochester participated in the buying and selling of human beings." Nevertheless, at the beginning of the article, he suggests that Colonel Rochester's fortunes were in part built on slave trade. Moreover, at the end of his article, Netsky asks: "How much, in 1803, did his earnings from the slave trade help him purchase the tracts of land along the GeneseeRiver that would eventually become the city of Rochester? Ultimately, what does this revelation mean in a city that is 40 percent black?"

            Indeed, inquiries such as these have long had their appropriate place in the college classroom. In the controlled environment of pure intellectual pursuit, hypothesis may become theory and theory may eventually be reviewed by a group of well-informed peers and perhaps, accepted as fact. There, an informed, sober-minded professor leads eager-minded students to explore multitudes of ideas. Ultimately, conclusions may be drawn, hopefully, to better inform the general public.

            RochesterWatch believes that Professor Netsky obtained and prematurely distributed a few sketchy bits of evidence and intentionally twisted them to further a negative agenda in a city that is already struggling with its status and identity. City distributed highly questionable claims to thousands of innocent readers.

            RochesterWatch objects to those who support the spreading of lies without consequence. City does not claim to be an editorial news source. In fact, it states it is "committed to truth and fairness in journalism." We do not object to Netsky or anyone else having their own personal views. What we object to is the fact that Netsky, City, the institutions that distributed the front-page article, and perhaps NazarethCollege, through association, have participated in an offense against Rochester's legacy and on thousands of innocent Rochester readers.

            Carolyn Jackson, Spanish Trail, Greece; Mark Herrick, Holmes Road, Greece. Jackson and Herrick are members of the RochesterWatch team; they requested that the organization's website --- www.rochesterwatch.com --- be published.

From the editor

Ron Netsky made clear in his article that in Nathaniel Rochester's time, for many people there was no stigma to either owning or selling slaves. But while Rochester's slave ownership is included in some local accounts of the founding father, his slave trading is not. The trading is part of the story of the whole man.

            Regarding the letter from RochesterWatch: Netsky was not speculating about the fact of Nathaniel Rochester's slave trading, nor was he distributing lies. He was reporting facts discovered in a newly acquired document. The RochesterWatch argument might be powerful if there were no evidence, but the document is clear. And while Netsky is not a history professor, his source for the article, as he stated, was a University of Rochester professor who is an expert in the economic history of slavery.

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