BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) — Buffalo's celebration of former President Millard Fillmore as a hometown hero is evident throughout the city and suburbs — in the street, college and hospital that bear his name, in the statue that rises outside City Hall and in the landmark status of the house he built.
That's enough, according to the NAACP.
The Buffalo branch of the nation's oldest civil rights organization has asked elected officials to deny any future requests to attach the 13th president's name to places or things, citing his signing of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that allowed for the capture and return of runaway slaves.
"We didn't ask them to destroy anything or remove anything," Buffalo NAACP President Frank Mesiah said. "Just don't do anything to enhance his presence in western New York because, from our perspective, he was not a friend."
Mesiah said to continue to raise Fillmore up also is contradictory to efforts elsewhere in the city to highlight Buffalo's role in the Underground Railroad that helped fugitive slaves reach Canada.
"While he was trying to keep people in slavery, there were people, black and white, who were trying to free slaves," he said.
His Jan. 28 letter to the Buffalo Common Council and Erie County Legislature, first reported in The Buffalo News, was prompted by the belief that another Fillmore naming might be in the works, Mesiah said, though he had no specifics.
Buffalo Common Council President Darius Pridgen told the newspaper he has not received any such requests.
The University at Buffalo commemorates Fillmore's January birthday with an annual ceremony at his gravesite at Buffalo's Forest Lawn Cemetery, where celebrants praise his role in establishing UB, the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library and the Buffalo History Museum, as well as his securing, as a congressman, funding to expand the Erie Canal.
In suburban East Aurora, the 1826 house Fillmore built for his wife, Abigail, is a National Historic Landmark, and fundraising is ongoing for installation of a sculpture of the president at the site and a re-creation of his former East Aurora law office.
Aurora Historical Society Director Robert Goller said Fillmore's signing of the 1850 act is a complicated issue and just one part of his legacy. Fillmore was an abolitionist and just the third president who did not own slaves, Goller said, but he signed the act to try to stave off the Civil War and prevent the spread of slavery.
"It didn't work," Goller said. "The compromise actually just made the North mad because it kept slavery and the South mad because it prevented its spread to California and out West."
The NAACP's stance is understandable, Goller said, "but I think all of the accomplishments (Fillmore) made in Buffalo is why there are streets named after him and places named after him. You have to take the person as a whole."
UB said its recognition of Fillmore is based on his role as a founder of the university and its first chancellor.
"It is not an endorsement of his policies or legacy as president of the United States," the university said in a statement. "That said, the university is certainly aware of Fillmore's complex role in the history of slavery in the United States and the sensitivity around his actions as president. We acknowledge this role publicly during the city's annual commemoration as a way to be true to his legacy."
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(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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