Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
The name of the president who signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law can be found all over the city he helped build.
One of this country's least relevant historical political leaders, 13th U.S. president Millard Fillmore, is remembered differently in Buffalo, New York, than he is anywhere else. That is to say, he's remembered differently there by being remembered at all.
And now the NAACP would like Buffalo to ease up on the Fillmore nostalgia.
As reported by the Buffalo News, the organization is asking city council members to "resist and deny any request to name any structure and/or areas" after the Whig and Know Nothing party member who signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law as president in 1850.
Fillmore lived in nearby East Aurora and in the city of Buffalo for many years. He may not have been a very good president, but he played a fairly significant role in Buffalo's transformation into a major city in the 19th century.
If you're from Buffalo, there's a chance you were born in Millard Fillmore Hospital, raised in the Fillmore district (where Fillmore Avenue runs through), or educated at Millard Fillmore college. You may even have a burial plot reserved for yourself in the same cemetery as the man sometimes known as "The American Louis Philippe."
Vice President for a little more than a year, Fillmore "accidentally" became president after Zachary Taylor ate a snack and died. Even Fillmore biographer Paul Finkelman says he "belongs in the bottom five" on the all-time list of American presidents.
The NAACP's letter, written by Buffalo branch president Frank B. Messiah, cites Fillmore's signing of the Fugitive Slave Act as grounds for a permanent moratorium on naming anything else after the former president. Fillmore signed the controversial act into law on September 18, 1850, in hopes of appeasing Southern slave owners. Part of the Compromise of 1850, the law required the return of all runaway slaves to their former owners. Messiah points out in his letter that the law also affected "free blacks in the North who could be and oftentimes were claimed without proof as a runaway slave.”
Fillmore failed to gain the Whig party's endorsement for the 1852 election.
David Franczyk, current Fillmore District council representative, tells the Buffalo News that Fillmore "was a better ex-president than he was a president.” After his presidency Fillmore helped get many of the city's intellectual and cultural institutions get off the ground, including the University at Buffalo and the Albright-Knox Art Gallery. He also sat on the committee that selected Frederick Olmsted to design the city's park system.
A statue of Fillmore's likeness now stands in front of Buffalo City Hall and on every January 7 (his birthday), a crowd gathers in front of Fillmore's grave at Forest Lawn cemetery to honor him. (That cemetery's biggest star these days, however, is definitely Rick James.)
In the same city where McKinley was assassinated, Teddy Roosevelt inaugurated, and where Grover Cleveland presided as county sheriff and mayor, Buffalo has a strange but significant presidential history. Yet as the NAACP memo reminds us just before this President's Day weekend, having a history doesn't always call for a celebration of it. According to city council president Darius Pridgen, there are no current requests to name anything in the city after Fillmore.