Pride and shame: Millard Fillmore’s controversial legacy at UB
Students, faculty, question Millard Fillmore’s slavery record
Asli Ali finds it disconcerting that she has spent a semester studying the black struggle for freedom in a building named after a man who helped persecute slaves.
Her class is in Millard Fillmore Academic Center (MFAC) and Fillmore, who was UB’s founder, first chancellor and 13th United States president, signed the Fugitive Slave Act, which required governments and citizens to capture and return runaway slaves, even ones who had made it from the South to new lives in the North.
The act, part of the Compromise of 1850, was one of the most controversial pieces of legislation of the 19th century.
Ali, a sophomore social sciences major, had no idea about Fillmore’s complex legacy when she enrolled at UB or walked the halls of the building named after him.
Few UB students do.
“I always heard it being called MFAC, I never thought [about] what that abbreviation was,” Ali said. “I did know Fillmore was a president but I did not know about the act.”
Fillmore’s name appears on signs around campus, a portrait of him hangs in Capen Hall and a mirror in Abbott Hall hangs in his honor.
But the university does little to inform students about who Fillmore was or about his ambiguous presidential legacy.
Other campuses are handling their university founders’ complex histories more directly. Yale, for instance, in February renamed Calhoun College after students protested the white supremacist and pro-slavery views of former U.S. Vice President John Calhoun. Georgetown University renamed Mulledy and McSherry Hall in 2015, after historians discovered that the two early presidents, Thomas F. Mulledy and William McSherry, sold 272 slaves to pay off the university’s debts.
UB Spokesperson John Della Contrada said buildings are named after Fillmore because of his seminal role in founding the university. The naming does not endorse his presidential legacy, he said.
“The university certainly understands Fillmore’s complex role in the history of slavery in the United States, which includes the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act,” he said. “We acknowledge this role publicly during the city’s annual commemoration of Fillmore as a way to be true to Fillmore’s legacy as president of the United States.”
The annual commemoration, which occurs every January, is the only time UB acknowledges Fillmore’s involvement in the act.
Erin Swain, a senior DMS major and African American studies minor, wonders why UB – a premier institute of higher learning – doesn’t better educate students about the people whose names are an everyday part of their academic lives.
“I’m paying to go here and other students pay to go here, so I should probably know the history of who made the institution that I’m learning in,” Swain said.
If people walk through MFAC or the downtown Millard Fillmore College (MFC), they will see nothing – not a sign nor a plaque – that informs them about the former president.
Associate Director of Capital Planning GroupCheryl A. Bailey said the group is unaware of any signs or plaques that note Fillmore’s legacy in MFAC. MFC Associate Dean Larry Gingrich, doesn’t know of any markers that offer a detailed account of Fillmore in or outside MFC.
Fillmore is not the only chancellor whose history is not spoken about on campus.
“The university does not have a strong tradition of placing special plaques or markers at spaces named for former presidents or chancellors, such as Samuel Capen, William Bissel or Fillmore,” he said. “This does not mean the university purposely chose not to recognize these former leaders. It’s just not something the university traditionally did when these facilities were named.”
He insisted the lack of information about Fillmore it is not an attempt to “ignore his legacy.”
Some former presidents and chancellors do have campus markers or plaques, even if they are brief.
William Greiner, 13th president of UB, has a bust in his namesake Greiner Hall, and a note recognizing “his leadership, vision and forty two years of service” at UB.
Robert L. Ketter, UB’s 11th president, has a set of photos and a description of his life inside his namesake building.
UB’s website is also light on Fillmore’s history. His past is briefly – and at times inaccurately – mentioned on the “Timeline of UB History.” It mentions his vice presidential inauguration as occurring in 1848, when it occurred in 1849. The timeline notes that Fillmore became president in 1850, but does not offer details on his legacy.
UB news and press releases mention the Fugitive Slave Act when it’s included in the annual commemoration ceremony.
Other schools have felt the need to rename buildings after founders whose legacies ran counter to the universities’ values.
At Yale and Georgetown, administrators renamed the buildings in the wake of student protests over the names.
Georgetown invited over 100 descendants of sold slaves to the school and issued a formal apology for the school’s role in the slave trade. The Georgetown buildings are now named after Isaac Hawkins, the first slave on the Georgetown registry and Anne Marie Becraft, who founded a school for black girls in Georgetown in the 1820s. The renaming also highlights an attempt to include more women and people of color, as most historic buildings were named for white men.
The Yale building is now named for Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist and Naval admiral.
UB has buildings honoring people of color and women on both North and South Campus. Talbert Hall is named after Mary Burnett Talbert, a civil rights leader and one of the organizers of the NAACP Buffalo branch. Red Jacket Quadrangle is named after Seneca chief and orator Red Jacket.
Residence Halls like Goodyear Hall and Clement Hall are named after Ella Conger Goodyear and Carolyn Tripp Clement.
“The university has not received a lot of expressions of concern about the name over the years,” Della Contrada said. “The university is careful to explain to those who express concerns that UB’s recognition of Fillmore is based on his role in founding the university. It is not an endorsement of Fillmore’s acts as president. Most people seem to understand this distinction.”
Renaming MFAC and MFC would need approval from university officials and could take years.
Deidree Golbourne, a senior African American studies major, thinks university administration has to be more upfront about the history of Fillmore.
“We have to think, just as much as Fillmore did for the UB community as a whole, what he may have done to hinder the lives of people and that’s just an issue that Buffalo has as a whole,” she said.
Raising the question
It’s not entirely true that nobody knows about Fillmore’s legacy.
The NAACP Buffalo branch has been questioning it for more than two years and in January 2015 the branch sent a letter to county and city officials to stop naming anything further after him.
Madeline O. Scott, a former branch member, began the process and brought up the concern at an NAACP monthly meeting.
“Every year I get irritated when I see Fillmore’s birthday celebrated in the paper, all the ceremonies and everything,” O. Scott said.
Frank Mesiah, former president and current executive board member of the NAACP Buffalo branch, asked local officials to attach a “statement on Fillmore’s role in maintaining slavery” to all places named after him, which includes MFAC and a statue of Fillmore outside Buffalo City Hall, according to The Buffalo News.
“Here’s somebody that they show his picture – a big statue of him – and nothing adjacent or near that shows he signed the Fugitive Slave Act, the negative impact that had on African Americans and how it increased the ability of white people to do better and, at the same time, was reducing the effect of how people of color benefited,” Mesiah said.
Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital in Williamsville is also named after Fillmore as is Fillmore Avenue.
Inside City Hall, Fillmore is simply labeled as the 13th President of the U.S. Outside, Fillmore’s statue calls him a lawyer, educator, philanthropist and statesman.
His letter, Mesiah said, achieved nothing.
No one from the city or UB responded.
O. Scott takes the slight personally.
Some of her family sought freedom in Haiti due to the Fugitive Slave Act. Others, she believes, lived in fear and lied about their births in order to avoid capture.
O. Scott isn’t asking UB to rename its buildings. But, she does want the city and the university to stop celebrating Fillmore. She also doesn’t want any more public buildings named after him.
“I wasn’t saying ‘OK, you have to rename all these places,’ that was unrealistic and it wasn’t going to happen,” O. Scott said. “I was saying just stop naming stuff after this man when he had affected millions of people and didn’t even believe in the [act] himself.”
Understanding the past
Fillmore has a compelling early story and Buffalo has celebrated him since the 19th century.
Born into an impoverished Cayuga County family, Fillmore excelled at school and was a lawyer by age 23. He founded UB and served as its first chancellor in 1846. He then won the U.S. vice presidency in 1848 and – after the death of President Zachary Taylor in 1850 – he became president.
During his time as U.S. president, he remained UB chancellor and passed the Fugitive Slave Act. As president, Fillmore inherited huge North-South tensions and thought the Fugitive Slave Act would help appease southerners. The act, said Carole Emberton, director of undergraduate studies in the history department, was a “kind-of legalized kidnapping for free African Americans in the North.”
Fillmore knew its dangers, she said. And he personally was opposed to slavery, calling it “an existing evil that must be endured.”
Yet, he believed the act was politically necessary.
“Millard Fillmore tries to ride [the fence] and he ends up in history looking morally weak, he wants to claim that he’s neutral but in fact by trying to claim that neutrality he ends up really working in favor of slaveholders and the ‘slave power’ as it was called in the 1850s,” Emberton said.
His handling of slavery – an issue that would eventually push the nation toward civil war – cost Fillmore the support of his party, the Whigs, and the next election in 1852.
He thought of slavery as a side issue – one that he could ignore, Emberton said.
Instead, it killed him politically.
He tried to run again in 1856 with the American Party – an anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic party best known as the Know-Nothing Party.
Fillmore never became president again. He remained at UB and served as chancellor until two weeks before his death in March 1874.
Congress repealed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1864.
Representation and celebration
UB has been the lead host of Fillmore’s birthday commemoration at his grave in Forest Lawn Cemetery ever since January 1966, according to William Regan, director of university events. The Buffalo News last year included the ceremony in its list of “Top 100 Things to Do in Western New York.”
Regan said many groups, including the Buffalo History Museum, the Albright-Knox Art Gallery and the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library, support the event and that the Fugitive Slave Act is always mentioned. Fillmore helped found these groups.
“By any standard, then or now, this piece of legislation was controversial,” Regan said in an email. “Fillmore’s apparent personal opposition to slavery was clearly at odds with his political actions. Speakers at our commemoration program over the past 50-plus years have addressed this divisive piece of legislation, given its prominence in American history and especially to Fillmore’s tenure as U.S. President.”
Larry Gingrich, associate dean of the Millard Fillmore College, said he has only seen external signs leading into the building.
But no one has ever publicly criticized the name of the school.
“There were times when maybe the university might have considered taking a look at the name of the college, whether it was appropriate or not based on its mission and purpose,” he said. “But that, very informally, has been mentioned in the past - that’s never been a major topic of discussion for the college.”
He said Fillmore had a formidable story as a self-starter and he thinks the college’s name is “appropriate.” Gingrich did not respond to whether or not he thinks the name has a negative connotation. Gingrich finds Fillmore had "humble beginnings," from apprenticing as a wool carder in his early teens to practicing law in his early life.
Sparking the conversation
Emberton addressed the Fillmore legacy in April at a DifCon session sponsored by the Vice Provost’s Office for Equity and Inclusion. Provost Charles Zukoski and President Satish Tripathi attended the event and heard Emberton speak. Tripathi left before the discussion portion of the event.
“I think the university as a whole is not really in touch with its history and in many cases, like Mary Talbert and Gregory Jarvis, it’s a very illustrious history,” Emberton said. “It’s something that we should make known and make aware, for incoming students and prospective students, but I also think the same is true for someone like Millard Fillmore because it does show how deep UB’s historical roots are. Even though they’re not everything we want to celebrate, it’s a great opportunity to have those kind of discussions.”
Dr. Keith Griffler, an associate professor in the transnational studies department, has taught about slavery and other black freedom struggles in his “Liberation Struggles of the African Diaspora” class this spring.
Tavaine Whyte, a junior African American Studies major, is in Dr. Griffler’s class and called the lack of historical acknowledgement on buildings like MFC and MFAC “at best, willful ignorance and at worst, calculated.”
“I believe it’s unfair and I believe that it’s then damaging to students by withholding information from them, selectively giving them information,” Whyte said. “This is constant in many different values that UB holds but it’s only a symptom of a greater problem that UB has when it comes to sensitivity toward people of color and the history that Buffalo holds when refusing to identify, to recognize the history when the time comes. When it comes to naming buildings, that is the perfect time to recognize and validate that history that African Americans have but instead they chose to navigate it in a much more patriotic, America-first way.”
Whyte thinks Fillmore’s birthday commemoration distances students from the school’s history and leaves them out them since it takes place between semesters.
“Granted, we’re having it during his birthday but at the same time, if they’re so involved in wanting to celebrate his memory, then they would try to inform the students more about his legacy but that’s not what happens,” Whyte said.
Golbourne understands Fillmore impacted the city in a positive way, but she said students should know about his role in slavery.
“We definitely do look more at the positive and may not notice certain things in the city, certain things that may have been done historically in the city have not been the most impactful or fruitful for other people that are not the majority,” Golbourne said.
Student Association President Matt Rivera said he was surprised to learn of Fillmore’s past and only found out because he looked him up after watching an orientation video mentioning Fillmore’s presidency.
Rivera said Fillmore’s policies are along the lines of “racist acts that hurt the country and its diversity.”
“I think, ultimately, it’s up to the university and the city to sort-of shun him for those portions and keep it that way,” Rivera said. “Remember that he was chancellor and shun him for the individual that he was.”
Rivera later starred in a similar orientation video and said he regrets not being fully informed on Fillmore, but he doesn’t regret the video. The video briefly mentions Fillmore’s role as chancellor, lawyer and president.
“Honestly, just not emphasizing him in the welcome video might be better in general,” Rivera said.
Ali would like to see MFAC and MFC named after figures who fought against slavery. “If you changed it from Millard Fillmore to ‘John Brown’ or ‘Shields Green’ or ‘Frederick Douglass,’ kids will ask what prompted this name change and seek the information themselves,” Ali said.
Dr. Griffler said the university could honor the “other side of the Fugitive Slave Act” by honoring an influential member of the Underground Railroad, which has a history in Buffalo.
“We can’t change the past or what he did, but we can recognize the other side and people who he negatively affected,” Dr. Griffler said. “The lives he directly made worse and honor their memory as we honor his.”
*Editor's note: The original article said Mary Burnett Talbert was the first woman to be in NAACP.
Benjamin Blanchet is the asst. arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org