Anyone setting eyes for the first time on the historical marker denoting the Abner Wight Home in Fairport could have been forgiven for doing a double-take.
The marker, out front of a handsome yellow colonial on South Main Street, was one of those ubiquitous blue and gold cast-iron plaques that New York state handed out between 1926 and 1969 to seemingly anyone offering a scintilla of evidence that history “happened here.”
“BUILT BY ABNER WIGHT 1794,” the sign read in all capital letters. “MOVED HERE FROM WIGHT FARM ACROSS THE ROAD. FIRST WHITE CHILD TO SURVIVE BORN HERE. LATER HOME OF COL. HOWARD.”
Come again? Was that supposed to have read “first white child?” Or was that a typo, for which these signs are notorious, that should have read “first Wight child?”
They were questions I had after happening upon the sign about six years ago. Only then did an internet search reveal that “first white child” signs are an actual thing. Countless of them are sprinkled across the United States, each a window into the origins of our current national anxieties about race and immigration.
Once upon a time — a different time, as we say when excusing the inexcusable customs of the past — early American settlements commemorated the birth of their “first white child.” For European colonists, the occasion was the equivalent of a dog marking its territory.
“In each of these cases, it was an emblem that Euro-American white settlers have claimed the land enough to start peopling the land themselves,” said Michael Leroy Oberg, a history professor at the State University of New York at Geneseo.
Plaques marking the event can be found in cities big and small, suburban towns, and on rural roads in the middle of nowhere.
One is on the DuSable Bridge in Chicago commemorating the birth of that city’s “first white child,” Ellen Marion Kinzie, in 1805. Another is outside of the Blowers Homestead, the first settlement in Jamestown, New York, honoring the birth of the “first white child” in 1810.
And, until early September, one stood off the sidewalk outside Lynn Barber’s home in Fairport, where it had been since it went up in 1949.
“I got home from running some errands and there were three burly guys taking the sign off,” Barber said. “So I went out and said, ‘What are you doing?’ and they said, ‘We’re taking this down, ma’am, we were ordered to take this down.’ ”
QUIET REMOVAL AFTER A RAUCOUS SUMMER
Village workers hastily removed the plaque on Sept. 9 after I contacted a Village Board member to inquire about word circulating that the sign’s days were numbered.
The village had been looking for funding to swap out the sign for a new one with updated language ever since a resident complained about the “first white child” wording a month earlier.
But the prospect of the plaque becoming a news story spurred village officials to waste no time getting rid of what they saw as a scarlet letter of intolerance, even without a replacement, before the sign became another stain on the village after a trying summer.
“I feel like if people are going to start talking about it, I don’t want to proliferate any additional issues in our village,” Mayor Julie Domaratz said a few hours after ordering the sign to be taken down. “I love our village and I want more people to love our village and move here, and if more things are going to come up, right now it’s just a powder keg.”
Recall that in June, as the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, the village made news when an employee of a prominent business, Fairport Brewing Company, removed Black Lives Matter-themed artwork posted around town.
The village responded somewhat clumsily, issuing a statement supporting free speech but asking that signage not be posted on public property. Rallies that had been limited to Rochester then came to Fairport, as well as other suburbs.
Hundreds of people marched through the village on a route that went right past the Abner Wight Home sign. The spectacle was not only a symbol of a suburban village engaged in some overdue self-reflection, but also a stark reminder of just how white Fairport is, even by the standards of Rochester’s lily-white eastern suburbs.
Census data shows that 94% of residents in Perinton, which includes the village of Fairport, are white. Penfield is 93% white. Webster is 91% white. Pittsford is 86% white. Brighton is 76% white.
But at 97% white, Fairport makes some of those places look like the United Nations.
At the rallies, Black former Fairport High School students spoke of the difficulties they encountered in school — from having trouble relating to their peers and teachers to confronting outright racism.
A few weeks later, swastikas and other racist graffiti, including the n-word, were discovered spray-painted on the rental offices of the Pines of Perinton, an affordable apartment complex just outside the village border that houses a diverse clientele.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo dispatched the State Police Hate Crime Task Force to investigate. Police reportedly knocked on the doors of 600 residences.
It was on the heels of those events that Domaratz had the “first white child” taken down.
“The text on this sign is inappropriate,” Domaratz said. “It might have been appropriate for the people who were living in Fairport in 1949. It’s not appropriate for the people living in Fairport in 2020.”
‘FIRST WHITE CHILD’ SIGNS SCATTERED ACROSS NEW YORK
New York’s historical marker program began in 1926 to commemorate the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution. The commissioner of education was directed by law to arrange “markers to designate sites that are of historic significance in the colonial, revolutionary or state formative period.”
Most of the markers we see were erected between 1926 and 1939, when funding ran out. But the Office of State History and the Education Department continued approving signs intermittently through the 1960s.
Over the years, though, the state effectively ceded maintenance of the signs, and by extension ownership, to the municipalities in which they stand. That was how Fairport could get away with ripping the Abner Wight Home sign out of the ground on a whim.
The state doesn’t even keep a reliable inventory of the signs. The closest thing to a complete list is one compiled by the Association of Public Historians of New York State that details the 2,428 plaques erected during the original phase of the program that ended in 1939.
The Abner Wight Home sign is not among them, although there are six on that list that celebrate the “first white child” or “first white children” or the “first white native.” One honors Sara Rapelje, who was born in what is now Albany in 1625 and is said to have been the “first white child” in New York.
More than a dozen signs pay homage to “first white” settlers doing one thing or another, from clearing land to building homes.
It goes without saying that the United States would not be what it is today, for better or worse, without European colonization. The laying down of roots by settlers forever altered the landscape and the balance of power. That is not without historical significance.
The trouble with framing that significance in the context of race, however, is that it elevates colonists above the natives of the land and perpetuates the racist notion that white supremacy enabled them to come to dominate the continent.
Indeed, white supremacists have claimed Virginia Dare, the “first white child” of America’s 13 colonies, as their own. She is the namesake of the Vdare Foundation and its media arm, vdare.com, which The Southern Poverty Law Center describes as an “anti-immigration hate website” that publishes works by prominent white nationalists.
“There is a point in time when ‘white’ doesn’t mean much,” said Oberg, who is the author of several books on Native American history. “By the time Mr. Wight is having his progeny, the notion of whiteness is well understood by Euro-American settlers, and it certainly meant something by the 1940s.
“By the time those signs are going up, whiteness has a very clear definition of something that is not indigenous, not African, not un-American.”
PROUDLY CARRIED 'FIRST WHITE CHILD' LABEL TO THE GRAVE
The land on which the Abner Wight Home sits was once occupied by the Seneca, one of six nations of native people that made up the Iroquois Confederacy.
By the late 18th century, though, the land was known to settlers as Township 12, Range 4 in the governmental unit of Northfield. It was settled primarily by the Perrin family, from which Perinton is derived.
Town history has it that Wight, a Revolutionary War veteran, and his wife, Huldah Perrin Wight, were the first couple to have a child that would survive to adulthood.
Their son, Asa Wight, was born in 1797 and carried the distinction of being the “first white child” to his grave. He is buried in nearby Mt. Pleasant Cemetery under a headstone that reads: “THE FIRST WHITE PERSON BORN IN PERINTON.”
The 1800 census shows 71 people lived in what would become Perinton. By the time Asa Wight died in 1865, there were more than 3,000.
I imagine Asa, like Dare and other “first white children,” assuming a social status of almost mythical proportions, walking around town trailed by fawning whispers of “Do you know who that man is?”
For Barber, who is the third generation of her family to live in the Abner Wight Home, the “first white child” distinction and its prominent notation on the historical marker outside her house has been a source of embarrassment.
“I think for people who are conscious of racist language, it has been for some time,” said Barber, 73, who remembers her grandfather mocking the phrase. “It’s just pretty clear it was dismissive of the Seneca, whose births and deaths were of no concern to probably most of the white settlers.”
Barber, whose bumper stickers on her car project her liberal leanings, has had a homemade Black Lives Matter sign on her lawn for months, a few paces from where the Abner Wight Home stood. She said she never attempted to have the historical marker taken down because of the bureaucratic red tape she feared would be involved.
“I’m sorry to say I did not push for it,” Barber said. “I wish I had because I think it would have been the right thing to do.”
As Barber recalled, the marker was championed by a friend of her grandmother who lived in another historic house in town and was involved in the local historical society. That friend, she said, wrote the text for the sign.
“Talk about sign of the times, that’s what seemed important to her and the people that she knew,” Barber said. “But my grandfather was not impressed with it.”
He would not be alone in his distaste today.
SIGNS OF CHANGING TIMES
Around the country, “first white child” historical signs, so often overlooked, are being rediscovered with fresh eyes and their implications reconsidered.
Two years ago, officials in Mankato, Minnesota, removed a “first white child” plaque from a state park, citing new guidelines that prohibited the posting of text that could be interpreted as favoring one culture over another. Descendants of that child donated the plaque to a county museum.
“People are starting to recognize that that’s kind of insensitive,” Bill Poray, historian for the town of Perinton and village of Fairport, said of “first white child” signs.
Poray is working with Barber, village officials, and the local historical society to arrange and write the text for a replacement sign.
Because the state abandoned the historical marker program, most municipalities that want to repair signs or erect new ones either find the money in their budgets to have them cast or rely on grants from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation.
The foundation launched a historical signage program in New York in 2006 whose plaques resemble the original blue and gold markers. The city of Rochester went through the program to erect a sign last year at a house where Frederick Douglass once lived.
“In this case,” Poray said of replacing the “first white child” verbiage on the Abner Wight Home sign, “the Native American experience in this part of New York state wasn’t so great when pioneers came west and I don’t think it’s necessary or even communicates what I think they were trying to say, that a pioneer child survived and we’re rejoicing this.”
Barber said she looks forward to a new sign that accurately captures the historical significance of her home and pays tribute to the native peoples who were on her land long before the Wight family.
As an aside, local historians have argued for decades that the house was inaccurately dated when the sign went up nearly 70 years ago and could not have been built as early as 1794.
Most historical markers tend to blend into the scenery unnoticed. If and when Fairport residents learn this story of the Abner Wight Home sign, Barber said she suspected the reaction will be mixed.
“I think some people will say, as it should be, that that sign was racist and offensive,” Barber said. “But I think some people will fail to see that and maybe just be upset that it was taken down for at least no reason they would understand.”