By Shanique Byrd and Dave McCleary
Anyone informed about issues surrounding education, politics, or community activism in Rochester, NY, has heard the name Howard Eagle. The local educator, community activist and race-warrior is one of the leading voices locally in matters of race and racial equity. But while revered by some for his community advocacy work, he is considered by many to be one of the most controversial members of the Rochester community.
Eagle has earned a checkered reputation, mostly for his tactics. He is not afraid of confrontation and is known to ‘call people out’ on issues. He uses social media as a platform to amplify his voice; and is often spurned for his habit of sending long emails and copying every media outlet, elected officials, and anyone else he feels his message is relevant to.
There is also a perception that he is uncontrollable and unable to work with others. An impression that resulted in his recent removal from two local groups charged at tackling racial equity.
Eagle was recently dismissed from the RASE Commission (Established by Monroe County and the City of Rochester but run by the Urban League) and the R.E.A.L team (a group operated by the Rochester City School District).
Both organizations cited Eagle’s “uncooperative behavior” as reason for his removal.
“We seek a collaborative team that can effectively work together to achieve racial equity within the District,” RCSD Superintendent Carmine Peluso wrote regarding the R.E.A.L. team.
“While we encourage participation from our community members, concomitantly, we must maintain a positive and productive environment as we work to implement the RASE recommendations,” Urban League CEO Seanelle Hawkins wrote.
However, Eagle, known to challenge the status-quo, hasn't gone away quietly. He believes his removal was unjust and a direct result of him asking too many questions and challenging the groups on some of their ideas.
“They don’t like some of the things that I say, and because they can’t legitimately refute the information, they are infuriated by it and resort to abusing their power by retaliating and trying to remove me,” he said.
The defiant advocate has pushed back, sending countless emails to the heads of the RASE Commission Seanelle Hawkins and the R.E.A.L Team, Superintendent Carmine Peluso and has threatened to camp out at the homes of Monroe County Executive Adam Bello and Rochester Mayor Malik Evans.
In an email response to Hawkins’ dismissal letter to him, he writes, "Where do you think you are (in Soviet Russia somewhere)? YOU DON'T GET TO UNILATERALLY DICTATE that my actions have [so-called] demonstrated an unwillingness to participate… Who (exactly and specifically) do you THINK YOU ARE. Did you forget that you're operating with public funds, and that folks who engage in such public-poverty-pimping as you're doing–are required to follow non-discriminatory Local, State, and Federal Guidelines???”
Another email sent to Superintendent Carmine Peluso, reads "I am absolutely baffled, but then I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by your unbelievably-condescending, paternalistic, hegemonic, offensive letter… What do you know about my knowledge and expertise regarding the Tripartite Beast And Illness of Individual, Institutional, and Structural Racism within public education, including the RCSD, and how much knowledge and expertise of the same do YOU have??? Did you know that the depth and breadth of my anti-racist knowledge and expertise is objectively deeper and broader than anyone in your six-figure-salaried-cabinet (BAR NONE)???
Eagle, who worked as an Adjunct Professor of African & African-American Studies at SUNY Brockport College, is indeed considered an expert in matters of racial equity and institutional racism.
The outspoken educator and activist was born in a segregated small southern town of Apopka, Florida in 1954. He is a prominent figure in the Rochester community and undeniably one of the most aggressive local advocates for marginalized individuals, against institutional racism and discrimination.
“I grew up in a town that was literally, literally divided by the railroad tracks. One side of the railroad tracks was black the other side was white people and I mentioned in one of the articles that if you were on the wrong side of the tracks for a black person after dark it could literally mean your life, it really could. That’s my background. So it has always been in me.”
Eagle is also a retired Social Studies teacher from the Rochester City School district and was instrumental in the Malcolm X International Academy of Leadership and Excellence at John Marshall High School.
Regarding his “war on racism”, he has had many successes. He has championed racism and discrimination on behalf of countless individuals in the community.
In 2015 he and The Take It Down Planning Committee–a group he helped start, to take on community advocacy work–were instrumental in advocating for the removal of some racially insensitive artwork at the Dentzel Carousel in Ontario Beach Park. At the top of the carousel was a painting with crude racial caricatures of two black children. The pictures had been there for years but were largely unnoticed and unaddressed until Eagle and his team began their campaign for the removal.
"We started our campaign to have it taken down. We organized demonstrations at the beach, City Hall, and the county office building,” Eagle said.
It took eight months of relentless advocacy before the “artwork” was removed.
Eagle and the Take it Down Planning Committee have since teamed up with the Rochester Museum and Science Center to use the racist art-work as a means to teach students how to become activists against racism.
Since the inception of the program in 2021, more than 1,000 students from schools in the greater Rochester area have gone through the one day-long program.
More recently Eagle and the Take it Down Planning Committee spear-headed a campaign to get Rosheada Davis, an RCSD Teacher who the group felt had been wrongfully suspended, reinstated to her teaching position.
Eagle, 69, has had three unsuccessful runs for Rochester City School Commissioner and admits some disappointment that he never made the school board.
“I never had a chance to really be a part of developing a plan of implementation of change in the city school district,” he said. “Not really, I haven’t been a part of that.”
There is a sentiment that he is unable to work with others and that he believes he is the only one with "the solution" to the problems in Rochester. However, he rejects that notion.
“I don’t even know how to respond to people who say that. It is nonsense. Anybody who knows me, and who worked closely with me will tell you Howard believes in collective leadership. I tell my colleagues that all the time. This is not about any one of us. I learned that from Minster Franklin D.R. Florence. But, what some people don’t want to accept is that we have the best ideas. The best ideas rise to the top. If others have the best ideas then why haven’t things changed? Many of the people doing the complaining had the opportunity,” he said.
Is he controversial? He certainly doesn’t think so.
“I’m not sure why (I’m considered controversial)... I don’t know, maybe I don’t accept it, I don’t accept it. If you really believe that, I guess many people do and I think basically it’s because I just tell the truth, you know and I try to tell it consistently and straight, raw without dressing it up without sugar coating it, and so forth."
“I always hear this rhetoric about my tone. It’s your tone, it’s your tone. It’s not what you’re saying, it’s how you’re saying it and so forth. But see that’s the sugar coating that I’m talking about and I have a problem with that. I reject that idea because historically Black people—Black men in particular have always been sorta expected to adjust. Adjust to the sensibilities of other people particularly to white people, right? To their fragility and so forth. You can’t speak too loud, you can’t pound on the table, you can’t do any of those things because if you do, that means your behavior is not appropriate. But I always kind of joke with people, people who I know, who I work closest with about the fact I’m offended when you speak to me in that monotone voice."
The self-proclaimed activist says his dedication to empowering others through education and advocacy has been a lifelong pursuit.
"My passion is the liberation of all human beings with a focus on Black people because just like anybody else, any other group of human beings if we don’t focus on our own specific issues and problems certainly we can’t expect anybody else will. That’s just unrealistic. So, ultimately human liberation. I’m talking about real opportunity, equitable opportunity socially, economically, politically, culturally real genuine authentic opportunity for everybody with a focus on Black people, therefore, part of my focus is Black liberation.”
“Historic black liberation struggle, which is not rhetoric but is a real thing. We talk many times I think in our community rhetorically about our ancestry. How much we worship our ancestors that we give homage to them and so forth. Well, the best way to do that is to continue the work that they did to get us to where we are now and we certainly see that future generations still need us to do that work. In some ways, we regressed. So that is my passion.” he said.
This passion has driven him to become an influential figure in the field, inspiring countless individuals to pursue knowledge and personal growth.
But, Eagle believes his intellect and fearlessness are often misunderstood.
“Oh yes, absolutely misunderstood,” he admits. “You know the rhetoric about me around town is that I don’t like white people, I bash white people I am hard to work with, and people can’t get along with me. What’s so amazing is many of the people that say I’m hard to work haven’t worked with me a day, not one day. They are believing what other people tell them and so forth. That’s one of the things that’s really frustrating for me. You hear people in this community talking about me and I know it because others come back and tell me. And I don’t even know who they are. I don’t even know some of these people. I hear the names and I’ve never met them in person. I’m misunderstood, definitely misunderstood.”
Eagle, who is known for his serious demeanor does have a playful side. He sarcastically emulates his thoughts on how monotone speaking comes across to him. He jokes, "We understand these problems are very problematic and we can’t do this overnight,” he proclaims. "That kind of language offends me. But I can’t say anything. I’m just supposed to accept that. And I think that white people in particular never even consider stuff like that. They think their way is the right way and I reject that with all my being."
When asked if his unnoticeable humor is an act to make others uncomfortable and if he laughs, he states, “No, of course not. But, what I don’t do Shanique, again, I reject categorically skinning and grinning. I hate that, I hate it with a passion and we know our people do that. We shuck and jive and skin and grin with people because we want them to like us, to appreciate us. I don’t do that, I don’t do that and I don’t like it, I don’t even like it when I see it in other Black folks. I don’t like it when I see it in anybody but Black people in particular because of the history that’s behind it, right? That’s an expectation of us.”
“So, of course like anybody I laugh. But, I am not going to laugh like the old saying, I’m not going to scratch when I don’t itch. And I’m not going to laugh when I don’t think it’s funny. But, if I believe it is something that is genuinely funny, I will laugh and we do joke as I mentioned. The people I work closest with and you kind of know this. We joke all the time. So, no I’m not trying to portray some image of always being serious and so forth, but I think I am (serious) most of the time.”
Eagle has not received much recognition for his advocacy work but says it’s not about accolades.
He and members of his coalition did receive the “Engaging Committee Award” at the 2019 Museum Association of New York (MANY) conference for their work on the Take It Down: Organizing Against Racism exhibit and related programs. The award is a part of MANY’s Awards of Merit series and recognizes outstanding and innovative programs, staff, and volunteers who have enriched New York State museums with new and remarkable projects.
Eagle says he plans to write a book about understanding how individual, institutional and structural racism actually functions specifically in the public educational system.
“I keep putting it off right,” he says. “It’s in pieces. It’s in scraps of paper here, scraps of paper there. I have it started on a couple of tablets. I need to put it together as, hopefully, a resource tool…”
He says, reflectively, that’s going to be his legacy. Regarding his advocacy work and contributions to the community he says “just put on my tombstone, ‘he tried’.