NAACP has had its fill of Fillmore

Organization requests the pro-slavery president receive no further honors, but there's more to the past


From UB’s Millard Fillmore College to Fillmore Avenue and Fillmore District to hospitals and to statues honoring the former president’s civic contributions to Buffalo, Millard Fillmore’s name isn’t hard to find in Buffalo.

But the NAACP isn’t too pleased about his presence here.

Fillmore signed the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 – a law that required escaped slaves be returned to their masters no matter how far north they fled – and now the NAACP is requesting that no more sites bear the name Fillmore.

Fillmore’s signature on the law, which was certainly damaging to the abolitionist effort and led to the recapture of freed slaves, isn’t the sum of his political career, or even representative of his opinion on slavery.

As president, Fillmore was actually anti-slavery, but wanted to avoid a civil war and help preserve the union. He signed the Fugitive Slave Act as a part of the Compromise of 1850, allowing California to join the United States as a free state and ending slavery in Washington, D.C.

Yes, his actions did support slavery, and that’s undoubtedly problematic. But Fillmore wasn’t pro-slavery by any means.

The NAACP needs to recognize that a political legacy cannot be defined by a single action.

And nor can an entire life be represented by a presidential term. Fillmore is honored in Buffalo for his work on behalf of the city, not his presidential efforts.

After his term ended, Fillmore, who lived much of his life in Buffalo and served in the New York Militia and state assembly, returned to the area.

He was the first UB Chancellor, helped found the area’s library system, a local hospital and a citywide park system.

Fillmore played an integral role in the development of this city. His work should not be discounted by his support of the Fugitive Slave Law, especially since Fillmore was known as an abolitionist.

However, the NAACP is right to call attention to this issue. Fillmore’s political work should be represented accurately. The complicated nature of his opinions and actions regarding slavery need to be explained.

So on the many plaques discussing Fillmore’s work – like the one in front of City Hall – the Fugitive Slave Act should be mentioned. Acknowledging the complexity of the politics regarding slavery can encourage a greater understanding, with less simplistic vilification, of the past.

Fillmore made a decision that now, with the full perspective on history, can easily be criticized. But context is more useful than condemnation. The many sites named after the former president now offer an educational opportunity for the city as a whole.

The NAACP is smart not to request that any sites be renamed. Clearly, that would be an unnecessary and reactionary response to a situation that doesn’t merit extreme measures.

The request not to name any further sites after Fillmore may not be fully justifiable, but arguably, Buffalo could use some variety in its signage anyway.

The city has Fillmore Avenue already. New heroes can be found as streets are built and hospitals, colleges and businesses break ground.