Rochester Black Freedom Struggle -- Oral Histories

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Title: Rochester Black Freedom Struggle Oral History Project 
Date range: 2008 - present 
Location: D.383
Size: 4 boxes

The University's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections is developing a collection repository and online access point for audio files and transcripts of interviews with Rochester citizens who were actively involved in the fight against racial discrimination in the 1960s and '70s. Complementary video clips are forthcoming, and links to other related Rare Books and Special Collections materials can be found at the "Collections" above.

This set of oral history interviews was conducted beginning in 2008, by historian Laura Warren Hill in conjunction with her research project, " 'Strike the Hammer While the Iron is Hot:' The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, NY, 1945-1975." Statements in these interviews are those of the interviewees alone, and in no way speak for the University of Rochester as a whole, or for individual members of the University community.   The University accepts no responsibility for the content of these interviews.

To date, twenty interviews have been completed, and transcriptions are in progress. As the project continues and a Web site is developed over the next several months, visitors to this site will be able to read and listen to the stories of community activists such as Dr. Walter Cooper, Constance Mitchell and Loma Allen, businessmen Horace Becker and Clarence Ingram, and ministers Raymond Scott, Herb White, and Robert Kreckel. Charles Price, the first African-American police officer in Rochester, describes his arrest by state police during riot patrol as a plainclothes officer. Darryl Porter, currently Assistant to Rochester Mayor Robert Duffy, recalls his former leadership of a local youth gang, the Matadors. 

This project serves as a permanent resource for continuing conversation, learning and research around Rochester's role in this critical chapter of civil rights history. Librarians hope the site will identify other participants. In addition to interviews, the Department seeks collections of personal or organizational papers, images, and ephemera related to Rochester's black freedom experience in the 1960s and '70s – especially materials related to the riots and the city's recovery.

For further information about the Rochester Black Freedom Struggle Oral History Project, contact or phone (585) 275-4477.

Please note: This project is a work-in-progress; more materials are being added as they are ready.

Interviewees in Alphabetical Order



Background – Laura Warren Hill 

In the years leading up to and concurrent with World War II, the nation experienced the second wave of the Great Migration, a twentieth century phenomenon in which large numbers of southerners, black and white, left the South for cities in the North and West. These migrants hoped to find employment in urban industries and to improve their economic positions. Rochester was no exception.  However, unlike other cities, a majority of the migrants traveling to the Flower City did not possess a high school diploma, a necessary attribute to find employment in Rochester’s highly skilled industry; instead it was the agricultural opportunities surrounding the city that drew most black migrants to Rochester. Though fewer in number, others were drawn to the city's universities, which increasingly admitted black students, particularly to their PhD programs. Between 1945 and 1960, Rochester's black population increased by more than 300%. At the same time, the overall population of the city declined as the white middle class gradually moved to the suburbs. 

Rochester had long prided itself on its history of racial progressivism dating back to Frederick Douglass. Yet, these drastic demographic changes created conflict and tension that few white Rochesterians were willing to recognize. Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, de facto segregation in housing, politics and education increased as the city's structures and institutions were unprepared for the population shifts. While the black population increased drastically, redlining and restrictive housing practices forced these black migrants into the same two city wards they had traditionally occupied. The result was overcrowding of the worst order accompanied by segregation in education and an increased police presence in black communities. Several well-publicized cases of police brutality brought temperatures to a boiling point and Malcolm X into the city of Rochester.
Yet, for all of Rochester's unwillingness to quickly and seamlessly integrate these new migrants into the culture and operations of the city, there were activists, institutions and organizations that sought to smooth their transition and mediate the circumstances they faced. By 1960, several activists had established themselves as a force within the black community. Black migrants, such as Dr. Walter Cooper who came to Rochester in 1952 to earn his PhD at the University of Rochester, demanded their civil and political rights be protected and preserved. Of the many issues they championed -- housing, educational segregation, and racist hiring practices -- by far the most immediate was an end to excessive police force and the use of dogs in their neighborhoods. Joining with white clergy from around the city, these advocates successfully called for the intervention of the federal Justice Department in the police brutality case of Rufus Fairwell, an attendant at a local gas station who was brutally assaulted by police while locking up at the service center after work.  Another important outcome, this integrated group forced the city to implement a Police Advisory Board, a citizen group charged with reviewing cases of alleged police brutality. Additionally, these community minded residents organized their neighborhoods politically electing Mrs. Constance Mitchell to a post as Third Ward Supervisor; Mrs. Mitchell became the first black Rochesterian to serve in this position. 
Despite these efforts and organizing, conditions continued to deteriorate in Rochester's ghetto. Their labors to improve the quality of life could not alleviate housing restrictions, segregated schools and neighborhoods, and police brutality fast enough. All the while, the economic opportunities most migrants hoped for remained out of reach. By the summer of 1964, conditions could not have been worse. In response to these conditions, and ignited by an alleged act of police brutality involving dogs, the third and seventh wards erupted in rebellion. One of the era's first race riots occurred in the city of Rochester, culminating in Governor Nelson Rockefeller calling in the National Guard to restore order.

In the aftermath of this uprising, Rochester faced its demons as massive organizational efforts began in all sectors of the city.  For some, the goal was to heal the raw racial wounds that had been ripped open, for others it was imperative to repair the city’s national business reputation, and still for others it became imperative to organize the ghetto community. While the Rochester Area Ministers Council, a coalition of black ministers, had been requesting funds to implement youth and employment programs in the heart of the ghetto for some time, it was in the wake of the riot that Rochester's Council of Churches raised $100,000 to bring Saul Alinsky and the Industrial Areas Foundation into the city. 

Understanding the need for indigenous organization and leadership in the black community, Saul Alinsky and his lead organizer, Ed Chambers, refused to work in Rochester unless black leaders could obtain the signatures of several thousand ghetto residents extending an invitation to organize in Rochester. Over the course of several months, dozens of meetings, and hundreds of conversations, the decision was made by the black community to invite Alinsky and his Chicago team to Rochester.  Though Alinsky’s arrival was contested by some quarters in Rochester, his team set up shop in 1965.  Alinsky insisted that community members organize and make decisions for themselves, while Ed Chambers and his staff would provide residents with the tools and skills necessary to negotiate power and economic opportunities. 

The result was the creation of two distinct organizations, FIGHT and Friends of FIGHT. FIGHT was an acronym for Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today. Over the years, Independence would replace Integration in its name and the organization’s platform. Friends of FIGHT developed as an organization of liberal white people whose sole purpose was to support FIGHT, a first in the nation. It would later evolve into Metro Act.  FIGHT became the mouthpiece for the 'hard core' unemployed in Rochester's ghetto. Led first by MinisterFranklin Florence, the FIGHT organization waged a struggle for economic rights, as much as civil and political. Leading the charge for fair employment and economic opportunity, Florence launched a campaign to force the Eastman Kodak company to hire black Rochesterians. Initially resistant to FIGHT's demands, and weary of its tactics, Kodak eventually instituted an education and hiring program that met the company’s needs. Kodak would go on to be a major funding source for the Rochester Business Opportunities Council (RBOC), an economic development organization that stimulated and supported minority business. Importantly, these initiatives had significance beyond the Flower city. Before Richard Nixon formed the Office of Minority Business Enterprise (OMBE), he sent his operatives to Rochester to study its black economic development programs. 

Perhaps one of FIGHT's most successful projects however was its collaborative effort with the Xerox Corporation. Its joint venture, FIGHTON, was one of the nation's first black-run Community Development Corporations (CDCs). The brain child of Minister Florence and Xerox CEO, Joe Wilson, FIGHTON created jobs for hundreds of 'hard-core' unemployed and served as a model for other cities' efforts to develop economic opportunities in urban communities. FIGHTON created the opportunity for employees to advance their formal education while securing industrial training and stable employment. FIGHTON would provide hundreds of Rochesterians with the training and skills to support their families; it continues to exist today as Eltrex, under the expert leadership of Mr. Matthew Augustine.

Rochester's Black Freedom Struggle Oral History Project explores this Rochester story, this national story, in depth and detail.