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Will the New York Thruway be renamed after Frederick Douglass? Lawmakers consider doing so

Joseph Spector
New York State Team

ALBANY - The New York State Thruway has been named after late Gov. Thomas Dewey since 1964. State senators want that to change.

A bill in the state Senate poised to pass Monday would rename the 570-mile thoroughfare after human-rights leader Frederick Douglass, who lived for 25 years in Rochester.

"The renaming of the New York State Thruway after Frederick Douglass is a fitting tribute to a man who changed American history and was a key figure in New York's ascension as a center for abolitionist movements and women's rights," the bill states.

The measure was first introduced in April by Senate Transportation Committee chairman Tim Kennedy, D-Buffalo, but was moved to the Senate's active committee list for Monday as the Democratic-controlled Senate is expected to vote on a package of bills dealing with civil rights and police brutality.

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The bill, though, doesn't yet have an Assembly sponsor, and it is unclear whether it would pass the Democratic-led Assembly and be signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The Thruway opened in the late 1950s and was named in 1964 for Dewey, the three-term Republican governor and two-time candidate for president, by then-Gov. Nelson Rockefeller to honor Dewey's role in getting the superhighway built.

As he signed the bill into law, Rockefeller said it was Dewey's “leadership and perseverance that brought the Thruway from an idea to a reality,” according to The New York Times.

Frederick Douglass, social reformer, abolitionist, orator, writer, and statesman lived in Rochester.

The bill said Douglass was an eminent human rights leader of the 19th century, with his speeches and writings putting him at the forefront of the U.S. abolition movement.

After escaping slavery, Douglass fled to New York City and then to Massachusetts, publishing his autobiography in 1845.

One of his most memorable quotes, the bill states, was prescient for the current tumultuous race relations in the nation amid protests over the death of George Floyd by Minneapolis police: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress."

Douglass lived in Rochester from 1847 to 1872, the longest of any place he lived. A statue is there in his honor, and he is buried in Rochester's historic Mount Hope Cemetery, where suffragist Susan B. Anthony is also buried.

In 1848, Douglass attended the Seneca Falls Convention in upstate New York as the only African American person to attend the first women's rights convention.

The Thruway is now nearby.

The bill drew sharp reaction.

Jarred Jones, whose family has owned an African-American funeral home in Rochester since the 1920s, said there are other ways to honor Douglass.

"We do not need to disgrace the legacy of Fredrick Douglass by naming a highway, a vehicle of Black destruction, after him," he said in an email.

"I am in full agreement that we need to name more public spaces after prominent Black leaders, however this is an insensitive, and frankly an offensive, proposition."

Dewey helped the Thruway get built and should continue to be honored for it, as well as for his civil-rights record, said E.J. McMahon, the founder of the Empire Center for Public Policy, an Albany-based fiscally conservative think tank.

"No governor in NY’s modern history — no governor in the post-WWII era, pre-1960s —had a stronger civil rights record than Thomas E. Dewey, who in 1945 signed first-in-nation state anti-discrimination bill, now the state Human Rights Law," McMahon wrote on Twitter.

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Joseph Spector is the New York state editor for the USA TODAY Network. He can be reached at JSPECTOR@Gannett.com or followed on Twitter: @GannettAlbany

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