Rochester Black Freedom Struggle -- Constance Mitchell

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Interview Subject: Constance Mitchell
Date(s) of interview(s): 7/12/2008
Interviewer: Laura Warren Hill


Constance and John Mitchell have been active in the Rochester community since 1950, the year of their marriage and the year Mrs. Mitchell moved to Rochester from her childhood home of New Rochelle, New York.  Mr. Mitchell's family migrated from New Iberia, Louisiana in the 1940s and Mr. Mitchell joined them in 1948 after completing three years in the Air Force, including two years in Guam.  The Mitchells decided early in their marriage that they wanted to make a difference, and they committed themselves to lifetimes of active participation in social, civic, political and industrial arenas. 

Soon after her move to Rochester, Mrs. Mitchell volunteered in the Baden Street Settlement outreach program to better living conditions for migrant farm workers in Sodus, New York.  Her subsequent involvements were a blend of her interests in civil rights, education, job creations and employment. Between 1961-65, she served two terms on the Monroe County Board of Supervisors (currently called the Monroe County Legislature) — the first woman and first Black to be elected thus— and with this service she became established as a leader in the community. From 1964 to 1968 she was Director, Neighborhood Development, Montgomery  Neighborhood Center.  From 1968 to 1978 she served as Manager, Job Development & Training, Rochester Jobs Inc.  She recalls as one of her most rewarding services her work, 1978  to 1989,  as Program Director, PRISM (Program for Rochester to Interest Students in Science and Mathematics).  From 1964 to 1989 Mrs. Mitchell worked to develop the first citizen-controlled block clubs: Favor Street, Cady Street, and Champlain Street Block Associations. Over the years Mrs. Mitchell has participated on many civic and business-related boards including the United Way, Rochester Community Savings Bank, Rochester Gas and Electric Co., and Urban League of Rochester. 

Mr. Mitchell began to work for Rochester Products Division (RPD) of General Motors in 1953.  Before his retirement in 1988, his responsibilities ranged from machinist to Coordinator of Hourly Personnel to Coordinator of Salary Personnel, and Coordinator of Attendance Control.  From 1967 to 1973, Mr. Mitchell served as GM's Loaned Executive to the community which included his serving as the first Executive Director of the Housing Council of Rochester. Over the years he has served on boards of many community organizations including  Rochester Rotary, Men's Service Center, Hillside Children's Home and Boys and Girls Club.

Both the Mitchells were co-founders of Action for a Better Community and held leadership roles with the Urban League of Rochester and United Way of Rochester.  Each contributed through numerous additional community involvements. They have long been members of St. Monica's Church.  Among their most memorable honors was that of Goodwill Ambassadors of the United States.  In 1964 they traveled to England and spoke before a variety of groups including Rotary International, missionaries, students, and  industrialists. For many years, the Mitchells have been widely recognized for their common dedication and mutual supportiveness in their lifetime of leadership and outreach to the community.

In their interview, the Mitchells recall some of the challenges of Mrs. Mitchell's election campaigns as Third Ward Supervisor, 1958-1960.  They remember their participation in the 1965 Selma to Montgomery march to support voting rights, including their interactions with Dr. Martin Luther King.  They describe opening their home in the 1960s to Malcolm X  and other Rochester visitors, together with invited townspeople, to discuss local and national concerns around race relations and civil rights. They recount their realized expectation that Rochester would "never be the same" after the hiring of Chicagoan Saul Alinsky as community organizer following the '64 riots.

Transcription Policy

The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has made every effort to transcribe the oral interviews as recorded. It is standard in transcriptions of oral histories to retain dialect, grammatical idiosyncrasies, and the natural rhythm of the spoken word. The transcript is meant to reflect verbal conversation as recorded rather than a polished written document. Our transcription policy adheres to this protocol. While each interviewee was asked to read and edit his/her interview transcript to ensure the proper spelling of people and places, all transcriptions retain their original wording. Any post-interview content additions or corrections are placed in footnotes. Occasional interviewee requests to remove selected passages have been honored, and the point of such removal has been designated. We believe this policy preserves the integrity and spontaneity of the original interview.


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


Transcription of Interview: 7/12/2008;

Laura Hill: I'm Laura Hill, here in Chili, NY, with Mrs. Constance Mitchell and Mr. John Mitchell. Today is July 12th, 2008. If you could, both, tell me about your first experiences with activism. How old were you? Where were you? What were the circumstances?

Mrs. Mitchell:[1]Well, I guess, I have to go back to 1950, when John and I first got married. And I was standin' on the corner of Main and Clinton and Father Quintin Primo, who had a church on Oregon Street, came up to me and said, "You're new in town." And how he knew that, I don't know, but I said, "Yes, I am." And he started askin' me 'bout where I was from, and if I liked Rochester. And I said, no, I didn't—people here didn't know how to smile and they weren't friendly at all. And I guess he detected that I was lonesome, that I really hadn't met that many people, except for John's family. And next thing I know, he told me about they gave dances at Baden Street Settlement, and that he was lookin' for chaperones for the dances, and so, next thing I know, I volunteered. And after that, I joined a group that was at Baden Street, called the Delta Ressics, which was a civic group. And um, we used to go out to the migrant camps on Saturday mornin's. We tutored the children, and they had a program set up where they worked with the parents and the children, but primarily the children.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: They just didn't have the facilities out there to really work with the parents. The only thing you could talk to them 'bout hygiene and problems that they were havin' out there, but it was just so congested. And they lived in those old, abandoned busses out there. Living conditions were deplorable.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: But I think that was really my first exposure to really becoming active in the community.

Laura Hill: Okay. And Mr. Mitchell?

Mrs. Mitchell: Same time.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, same time. I, uh, when I first came to Rochester, my dad was employed at Whiting Buick, at 30 Norton Street.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: No, North Union Street. And, uh, I guess the, Eye Bank or somethin'—Eye Institute—is there now, but that was the Buick place. And I worked there for 'bout three years.

Laura Hill: What did you do there?

Mr. Mitchell: Well, I started off as a polisher, moved to the paint shop. And Art Woolworth, who lives out in Webster now—has a junk yard out there—taught me how to do body and fender work. So I went right up the ladder. And then, uh, in all this I was gettin' sick to the stomach all the time, couldn't figure out what was wrong. So, I went to my doctor, Dr. Pincus Sobie  and he said to me, "You have painter's colic, and you have to get away from your job," so I left and went to General Motors.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mr. Mitchell: Rochester Products. And stayed there for thirty-six years, and moved from the factory, after two years, into a salaried job, and moved in  the salaried job, to the, uh, benefit area, to hourly employment. Hourly employment to hourly, um, what to call it? Benefits, and from benefits right on into employment. Then I became supervisor of hourly employment and salary, and we moved down to Sibley's. And we were down there for ten years, on the fifth floor at Sibley's. And I was there, as the supervisor of hourly employment and salary employment. And I moved everything else from there to my involvement in the community, at all levels. My wife was involved with ABC, then I got involved with ABC. Then, I became on the Board of Directors of Baden Street. My friend Bill Hall, who was the Executive Director, became Executive Director during my time. And Bill lived right up here on Paul Road, until he passed away about a couple of years ago.

Laura Hill: Okay. Now, neither of you are Rochester natives, then. You both came here at some point. Tell me the circumstances surrounding your moving to Rochester.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, mine is very simple. I met John when John was stationed in my hometown of New Rochelle, NY, at Fort Slocum. And the YWCA used to—on Sunday afternoons—used to have what they called afternoon tea dances, out at the Fort. So they'd come and pick the girls up from the Y, take us out to the Fort for the dances, then bring us back after the dance. And that's how I met John. We could give them our first name, but we couldn't give them our last name.

Laura Hill: [Laughter]

Mrs. Mitchell: But New Rochelle was so small, that, um, there was a black man that worked out at the Fort, and Johnny asked this man if he knew me. And he said, "That's Aunt Lilly's granddaughter."

Laura Hill: [Laughs]

Mrs. Mitchell: He knew my grandmother, and that's how he called my grandmother up and, um, my grandmother invited him to dinner. So that's how we met, really, at the dance.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, she said that – I called her and asked her, 'cause I said, "Your granddaughter said to me that she couldn't go out without a chaperone." And I said, "Coming from Louisiana, I'm used to having chaperones." And so I said, "Would you like to come to the movies with us?" "Well, yes, I would." And so—

Mrs. Mitchell: My grandmother—. [Laughter]

Mr. Mitchell: —and so the reason I went to see 'em—.

Laura Hill: You asked her grandmother out on a date before you asked her?

Mr. Mitchell: No, I asked her. She told me she couldn't go out with me because she had to have a chaperone.

Laura Hill: I see.

Mr. Mitchell: I said, "Who is your chaperone?" She said, "My grandmother's usually my chaperone." And she told me that, I guess, just to throw me off.  And I said, "Oh, that's fine." So I called her grandmother and asked her grandmother if she'd go to the movies with us. So, I took her to the movies. I never forgit, we went to the movies on, uh, what is it, Lincoln?

Mrs. Mitchell: North Avenue.

Mr. Mitchell: North Avenue. And Jordan, what's the guy's name?

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh, John, I can't remember. Louie Jordan.

Mr. Mitchell: Louie Jordan was playin' as a black cowboy in the black cowboy movie. [Laughter] And we went to the movie, and afterwards we walked down, about a block and a half, to the soda fountain place. And had ice cream soda, and then I got a cab and dropped her off home. And she said to me, "What are you doin' next Sunday?" And I said, "Nothin'." And so she said, "Would you like to come to dinner?" And when I came to dinner, she says to me, "Well you know, I told my granddaughter, those knuckleheads that she's messin' around with—she should leave them alone. You're a very nice man."

Laura Hill: So you listened to your grandma?

Mr. Mitchell: So, you know, two years later we ended up gittin' married. I met her in '48. I was—the reason why I met her is because I worked for the General. I was at Mitchel Field, Long Island. And he said to me, "We're movin'." And I said, "Where're we moving to?" And he says, "Some place in New Rochelle. It's called Fort Slocum." And I said, "How do we go there?" And I thought we were gonna get a plane, you know, 'cause I'm in the air force. And he says, "No, there's no airbase there. The only thing you can land there is a helicopter," helicopter pad. So we went over on the helicopter pad, from Mitchel Field, Long Island. And working for the General, he said to me, "You have to go and git these ladies, and you have pick the gentlemen soldiers, because I want these girls to come, have a dance. I want everything to go fine."

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: "You pick out the men." So, I had to go in and talk to Mrs. Capinelli, and then I said to her, "How many black girls and how many white girls?" you know. And she says, "Oh, there're only three white girls and the rest of 'em are all black. There were about twelve of 'em." I said, "Okay." So I went and I asked my friends to come and meet these girls and to dance with 'em for a couple hours. And then we took 'em to the chow, and they had the mess hall food that you usually eat on a Sunday afternoon, you know, cold cuts and all the other stuff. And uh—.

Mrs. Mitchell: Honey, 'scuse me, but you're gonna talk all day long. She's got pages of questions there.


Mr. Mitchell: Oh, okay.

Laura Hill: No no, that's okay. So you, you came from Louisiana, then. That's where your people are from?

Mr. Mitchell: New Iberia, Louisiana.

Laura Hill: Okay. Now, I have heard that a large population of black folk came from New Iberia, to Rochester.

Mr. Mitchell: Yes.

Laura Hill: Why?

Mr. Mitchell: No employment.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mr. Mitchell: My dad tried to get a job in the shipyards in New Orleans, and because he was black, they wouldn't hire no blacks in the shipyards in New Orleans. So he had to leave New Iberia, which we were about one hundred miles from New Orleans, to go to California. And stayed out in California and had two jobs. 'Cause he used to get off of one job at five o'clock in the evening, go across the channel on the ferry, over to the Catalina Islands.  And go over and work on the second shipyard job until twelve o'clock at night.

Laura Hill: Sure. I've been on that ferry; it is very unpleasant. [Laughter]

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah so, you know, employment. Then when my dad, in '46, when the shipyards closed up in California, after the war was over with, my dad was out of a job again and came back to Louisiana. And I got a letter from my mother saying—I was over in Guam, stationed in the air force—and said, "Well, your dad is goin' to Rochester, New York, 'cause my brother, Uncle Bill, said there's a lot of employment in Rochester."

Laura Hill: And they had found jobs there.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, so my father came first, stayed here 'bout four months, got a job and was doin' well. And then my mother and brother wrote me a letter, and said that they were coming to Rochester. So when I came home—we still owned the property in Louisiana—but my home was Rochester, so I came here where my folks was.

Laura Hill: Sure. If you both could tell me a little bit about civil rights activism in Rochester before 1964—I understand that you were both members of a group called the Young Turks?

Mr. Mitchell: Young Turks?

Mrs. Mitchell: No, the Non-Partisan Political League, and the—what was the other group, that Gus was head—I'm trying to think, it wasn't Young Turks.

Laura Hill: That's Gus Newport?

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, did you interview him?

Laura Hill: I haven't. He's on my list.

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh, good.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, he's out in California.

Laura Hill: Yep.

Mrs. Mitchell: I'm tryin' to think of the name of the group. Well, anyway, it was a group of young people in the community that primarily—we were looking to do some voter registration, and really—the housing conditions in the Third Ward at that time were so deplorable. And it was just community issues that we were really—petitions, go take 'em to city council meetings, you know. And, and—but it was a way of getting us active in the community. Actually, my involvement in the whole political arena came through Walter Cooper.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, Walt Cooper was responsible for me getting involved—and Dick Wade. Dick Wade was a professor at the U of R. And, um, they were lookin' for someone to run for supervisor in the Third Ward, and he came to our meeting, of the Delta Ressics and said that they were lookin' for someone. And he said, "You know, we recognize that we're not gonna get that many men that are gonna volunteer to do this." Primarily the men were concerned about their jobs, because Rochester was a Republican city, and they were really lookin' for Democrats. And they knew that the men weren't gonna jeopardize their jobs. 'Cause there was a lot of intimidation during that time, I mean, I can tell you, you know, a long story about what I went through, just bein' a Democrat—.

Laura Hill: Tell me.

Mrs. Mitchell: The threats, you know. We owned a house on the corner of Grieg and Berkeley Street, over in Corn Hill. And—I never forgit—we had this huge, what, five-car garage out back, and on top of the garage was this huge chimney, which really was a beacon for the airplanes; it had a light on it and everything. And, uh, we had heard rumors that the Republicans were gonna use that against me when I ran for office. That it was a big eyesore. So we said, "Well, to hell with it, we'll tear the beacon down." So what we did, we went to—

Mr. Mitchell: Central Trust, and—I'll never forget—man at Central Trust said to me, "What do you want the money for?" And I said, "I need to tear this garage down. My wife is gonna run for political office and I hear the Republicans are gonna make a big stink over it." And he says, "Well, I'm a Republican too, you know." And I said, "Oh yeah? Well, then maybe you oughta talk to the people so that I don't have to tear my garage down." He said, "No, it'd be better for me to let you have the money."

Laura Hill: Hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: So I got fifteen hundred dollars to tear the garage down.

Mrs. Mitchell: So we tore the garage down, with the chimney and everything else and we said, "Well, that won't be a campaign issue."But I mean, we received so many threats. Every day the phone would ring and people just were so mean and evil. And you just—.

Mr. Mitchell: They're gonna blow the house up. They're gonna do this, they're gonna do that.

Laura Hill: Do you think—and I recognize that this is probably difficult to separate—but do you think it was because you were a Democrat, or because you were black, because you were a woman?

Mrs. Mitchell: I think it was a combination of all three of 'em. I think that, uh, first place, they hadn't had any really viable candidates, you know, that really went after them, really serious candidates—that was number one. Number two, I just feel that they thought thatthey could threaten us and we'd just walk away from it. But they didn't know how dedicated, committed we were to what we were doin'.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: I think all of us had enough foresight to see that change had to come. We were livin' in a community that was bursting at the seams because there was not open housing. When John and I bought our house on Grieg Street, the real estate agent told us, said, "I can't show ya houses west of Jefferson Avenue. It's just not open to blacks."  So that we were confined, from Jefferson Avenue back to the river, to look for a place to live on the west side of the city. And so that's how we wound up over on, um—

Mr. Mitchell: Grieg Street.

Mrs. Mitchell: —Grieg Street. But I think it was because I was black. You know, there hadn't been any blacks. And lemme just say this to you, it wasn't just the Republicans. The Democrats were just as adamant about me runnin' for office and bein' involved too. When I first got elected, I went to the first meeting, and I'm sitting there—I walked in and I got—. No one said, "Have a seat," or anything, so I said, "I'll just sit down here in the back of the room." And I'll never forget, I think his name was Harold Gonner.

Mr. Mitchell: No, Harold Knauf.

Mrs. Mitchell: No, it wasn't Knauf.  It was the other one, who was the majority leader for the Democratic—well the minority leader for the Democrats. And he says, "I see we have a nigger in the wood pile." That was his statement, and I just, you know, I just sat there. And I said, "Well, take this Connie. Keep your mouth shut. The time will come when you can tell him off." [Laughter]

Mr. Mitchell: They didn't even have a bathroom upstairs for the county legislators.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, they didn't have a restroom for women.

Mr. Mitchell: Women. They had a restroom for men, 'cause all those supervisors were men.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mr. Mitchell: Okay? So, the men used to have to stand outside the bathroom, to keep men from goin' in, while she was going in to use the bathroom. They didn't even have a ladies room up there.

Laura Hill: Right, right. Were there other—were there ways in which you felt being a woman benefited you in your political career? In your activism?

Mrs. Mitchell: If I reflect back, I'm gonna say no. I think bein' a woman, there was a lot of resentment from men period, black and white men. You know, it was just men. You know, they had this feeling that women had a place and it certainly wasn't at the table with them. And I ran into that for a long time until I—you know, you had to almost—you had to prove yourself over and over and over again, that you could do what you were set up to do. And, uh, eventually—and you almost knew when you were accepted, when the curtain went down, you know. And, uh, but you, you eat it. You go—and I'll never forget—John said to me one day, he said, "You know, you put yourself in this position, you've gotta take what these people put on you. And so don't complain, you're in it now. So either stay in it and bear it or get on out of it." And that was it. And so you just—and if you're stubborn like a mule you just decide to stay in it and bear it and fight 'em tooth and nail. And really, I thinkmy going in opened the door for men.

Laura Hill: Yeah.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, to come through, so that it benefited the men in the long run. Where, uh—.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, I'll never forget the first time Connie ran for office. Lester Peck who was the druggist on Plymouth Avenue.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, he was the supervisor too.

Mr. Mitchell: Supervisor, but he was also the druggist. He had a drugstore on Plymouth Avenue, a business, for years. He got the sole contract for all the people who were on welfare—they had to go to git medicine from him.

Laura Hill: Sure.

Mr. Mitchell: And his wife and he would plug 'em all day long, about voting for Lester. And the first time we ran, we said to them, "You oughta be ashamed of yourself, sellin' yourself for a bottle of wine or two dollars, or something like that." And then we said—we lost the election—and then my wife said, the reporter asked her that night, "What are you plannin' on doin'?" She says, "First thing, I'm gonna send a telegram to my opponent, congratulatin' him on his win, but I'm lettin' him know that I'm startin' my election tomorrow, for two years from now."

Laura Hill: What year is this?

Mrs. Mitchell: That was—I first ran in '59.

Laura Hill: In '59, okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: And I got elected in '61.

Laura Hill: In '61.

Mr. Mitchell: So we said, "Well, we found out what we should do." We said to him, "You shouldn't just sell yourself for a bottle of wine.  You should ask him to give you"—what he'd been giving you, two dollars? "Ask for five."

Mrs. Mitchell: And then still go in there and vote for me.

Mr. Mitchell: And he used to stand outside with a little light, showin' like this, you know, and saying, "Yeah, yeah. You're all right, you voted." And I said, "There's no way in the world he can tell you how you voted."

Laura Hill: Right.

Mr. Mitchell: I said, "This little light is just a gimmick that he has. Lester Peck's brother-in-law Charlie, well, it was Charlie sump'in—but anyway, I said, "This is a gimmick he's got. No way he can tell." So the guy, a couple of 'em, we convinced to go in. And when he come out, you know, Lester shone that light on him. And Charlie shone the light on him and he says, "Yeah, yeah, you're okay." And he says, "I'm tellin' you, I know. The man told me I was okay. He don't know what the hell he's lookin' for."

Laura Hill: Right. So you had to expose them?

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: We had to expose them, we had—.

Mrs. Mitchell: It was a whole education. You know, people, at that time, you had to take the literacy test.

Laura Hill: In New York State still?

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, at that time.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: To register to vote. And, um, many of my voters, you know, were just one step off the migrant train and had very limited education. Some of 'em only had first, second, third grade education comin' out of Florida, because they were bean pickers.

Laura Hill: Sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: So we said, we gotta find a way to teach these people. So what we did— and I can't remember her name—but this lady that lived over on Eagle Street, we went to her and said we knew that she taught the Lauterbach System.  And said, "You know, if you teach us what to do, and get a group of us together, we will go and teach."  So what we did—we started a school right in my living room.  And what we did—we'd show people how—.  [Laughter]

Mr. Mitchell: All they would ask you is that, "John Paul Jones was a man in the navy. What year was John Paul Jones a man in the navy? In 18-so-and-so." And the same question was asked over and over again.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm

Mrs. Mitchell: We tutored the people on how to—to really draw, they didn't know how to write, they drew the answers. Um, so that they knew how to draw the answers—'cause a lot of 'em couldn't read and write. And we even did that to help people learn how to git New York State drivers' licenses; we tutored them on how to pass the test. It was amazin'. The thing about that was, once a person found that they had a little bit of knowledge, they wanted more.

Laura Hill: Sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: So it was just interesting how we got the City School District I think to open up Number Three School, or one of the schools, for some classes. So that it opened up doors for people.

Mr. Mitchell: Everybody wanted to get educated.

Mrs. Mitchell: And, but it was amazing how we could—what we would do is give them a little certificate, once they completed the Lauterbach System.  You'd swear to God  they'd went off and got a Ph. D. [Laughter]

Laura Hill: Right, 'cause that certificate meant a lot to them. It meant somethin', sure. Who is working on these projects with you?

Mrs. Mitchell: At that time, there was Dr. Cooper, uh—

Mr. Mitchell: Dr. Knox.

Mrs. Mitchell: —Dr. Knox, Dr. Bill Lee, um, David Anderson, Lakie Ashford, Glenn Claytor, um, Obadiah Williamson—Jesus, how many of those are dead now?

Laura Hill: Most of 'em.

Mr. Mitchell: Yep.

Mrs. Mitchell: But that's, you know, that was really the group. It was really funny, when I finally won—.

Mr. Mitchell: And Chris Lindley.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, and Chris, yeah.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mr. Mitchell: Chris was going—he was teaching at the University of Rochester.

Mrs. Mitchell: And Dick Wade.

Mr. Mitchell: And Dick Wade.

Mrs. Mitchell: 'Cause I think Dick was Chris' mentor.

Mr. Mitchell: Right.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm. These are all men.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah. And the thing about it is this: that once we got past that, and we won, they said the Republicans were beat by this huge Democratic machine in the Third Ward.

Laura Hill: [Laughter]

Mrs. Mitchell: I don't think there was twenty of us.

Mr. Mitchell: No, there was only eleven of us.

Mrs. Mitchell:  You know, there was just a handful of us.  We worked our butts off. But, they swore that we had this machine that was—.

Mr. Mitchell: Oh, they said that this machine of about two hundred people, you know, defeated the Republicans in the Third Ward.

Mrs. Mitchell: People were afraid to join up with—they said, "Connie, I can vote for you, but I can't come out openly and support you."

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell:      They were afraid for their jobs.

Laura Hill: Right, mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: So I said, "long as you vote for me, I don't care. You don't have to come out openly."

Laura Hill: Yeah. You don't actually have to do it publicly, sure. Mr. Mitchell, what was it like to be Connie Mitchell's husband?

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh Lord, here we go. [Laughter]

Mr. Mitchell: Mr. Connie. Kids didn't, even in the neighborhood—all the kids, "Hello, Mr. Connie. How are you, Mr. Connie?" I'd say, "My name isn't Connie, my name is John." "Okay, Mr. Connie, we understand."

Laura Hill:  Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: So, I just had to accept it. And after a while, you know, it got to be humorous to me, just being, you know, "Mr. Connie."

Laura Hill: What was that like for you, Mrs. Mitchell?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, I didn't like it. I really didn't. You know, and that's why I always tried to make sure that John was included in everything that I did. Because I felt that—I never wanted him to have the feelin' that he was bein' put down, you know. And you know people can be very cruel, and uh, but I couldn't have done what I did without him. I mean, I went into politics and my daughter was only, what, a year old when I went into politics? You know, and if it wasn't for John and his mother and my sister-in-law takin' care of Constance[2], you know, there's no way on earth that I could have done it. Meetin's at night, sittin' up writin' speeches, and it was just, it was a lot of work. You know, plus you had your housework to do, the cookin' still had to be done. And I come from a long line of eaters, and he loves to eat, [Laughter] so you'd better have a pot on the stove, regardless what you're doin', you know. Plus feedin' half the neighborhood, you know.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: We fed half—.

Mr. Mitchell: I'd say to her, "Honey we just bought groceries." Yeah, but she says, "You know, Mrs. So-and-so came by. Mr. So-and-so. And then their children came by," and this—and I says, "Yeah, but you're feedin' the whole Third Ward!"


Mr. Mitchell: And she says, "What else am I supposed to do? People are hungry." I said, "Okay, just keep on doin' it."

Laura Hill: Right. What was the relationship of the church organizations to politics, to activism at this time?

Mr. Mitchell: None.

Mrs. Mitchell: Um, first place—God rest her soul—Mildred Johnson—I'll never forget as long as I live.  I didn't know Mildred, except I knew that she was very vocal.

Laura Hill: Everybody knew she was very vocal.

Mrs. Mitchell: And everybody said, "Have you met Mildred?" "No, I haven't met Mildred." "Well, you need to meet Mildred." And so, she found me. And she came to my house and she said to me, "I had to come to see you. Now, I wanna tell you somethin': you'll make it." And I says, "Why?" And she said, "Well, for one thing, you're the right color—you're not too black and you're not too light. Second thing is that I understand you're Catholic, you're not Baptist. 'Cause you see, you get caught up in the churches—if you don't belong to the right church you're gonna have some real problems, so I'm glad to hear that you're Catholic." And uh, but she was really hilarious, you know. And so we became like this, because I always went to her for advice about the community that I didn't know about, you know. And I respected her because Mildred was much older than I was.  Um, and I was brought up you know, to look up to older people. But, uh, she, you know, she and I used to talk about it—why won't the church get more involved?

Mr. Mitchell: Well my church, the Catholic Church Immaculate Conception—my family started going there when my Uncle first came to Rochester in '39. And they came here to work for the people that owned the Edwards stores—that was the Slocums.  And they came here and when the war started, my uncle was told he had to go into a defense job. So the Slocums owned a car shop out in East Rochester, so my uncle worked in the car shop and then at night, he used to come home, mow the lawn, wash the cars. And they stayed right over the garage, at the Slocums on East Avenue. And then, my Uncle decided he wanted to go into business, so he bought a little store, down on Clarissa Street. And later on, he bought a bigger buildin'. And my mother and all of 'em came, and my uncles and aunts, and all of them started comin'. And after a while, we had a good portion of the family there.

Mrs. Mitchell: You had over two hundred people from Louisiana, at that time.

Laura Hill: And are they members of Immaculate Conception?

Mrs. Mitchell: They were at that time, yeah.

Mr. Mitchell: All members. And Father Reynolds, who was Monsignor Reynolds. He looked like a Kodak executive.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: Randall, Randall  – Monsignor Randall.

Mr. Mitchell: Randall. He said, "You want to get married on July 4th?" I said, "Yes." "The Catholic Church don't marry people on holidays."

Mrs. Mitchell: Now they'd be glad if you walked in there on Christmas.

Mr. Mitchell: I said, "Okay, well what about July 5th?" He says, "Yeah, well I can do it on July 5th, I just can't do it on a holiday."

Mrs. Mitchell: But they were pretty much the first—largest group of black Catholics in Immaculate. And in Rochester, you know. Because there weren't that many black Catholics in Rochester at that time. But, you know, the churches always—the Catholic Church has always been active anyway—they've been a source of activism out in the community. So that wasn't a problem, but I think that with the black church—that a lot of what they wanted to do depended on city hall.

Laura Hill: Why?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, if they wanted to expand they had to go to city hall. If they wanted to have a revival, they had to go to city hall for permission. You know, which I didn't realize all this politics took place within the church, but I guess it did, at that time.

Laura Hill: Is this because of zoning laws? Is it—?

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, yeah. But it's different today, you know, the black church is more active today. Well, I think Dr. King's—the movement forced a lot of the churches to become more active, you know, within the community. And I think voter registration did a lot to bring them out, into the community.

Mr. Mitchell: I'll never forget, when we were going to Selma. The first night we got to, what was it, Montgomery, Alabama? When we had the white citizens' group, about fifteen of 'em, and they were all involved—most of 'em with the University of Alabama.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: And the white citizen's group—

Mrs. Mitchell: No, it was the Concerned White Citizens of Alabama.

Mr. Mitchell: —yeah, and they put us in the back of the station wagon that they had, laid us down and told us to cover ourselves up, because they had had a burning on their property of a big cross the night before—so nobody wouldn't see us, see them bringin' us in. We spent the night there that night, to be able to git the bus the next day, to go out to meet Dr. King, you know, on the road from Selma.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: And then two nights we spent in the fields. We slept in—and Dr. King says, "We going to get trucks, and the trucks are going to have these honey buckets on 'em." And he says, "One of the trucks will go for the women and one truck go for the men." And he says, "Tonight we got the permission—if we go fifteen more miles—we got permission to stay in the fields." One farmer gave us permission to sleep in his field. And the next night, he says, "We should be from Selma to Montgomery, or close to it," so we slept in the fields that night. And the third night, we got to the Catholic school—

Mrs. Mitchell: In Selma.

Mr. Mitchell: —in Selma—not in Selma, in Montgomery.  

Mrs. Mitchell: No, in Selma, honey. The Catholic Church was in—.

Mr. Mitchell: Okay. Well, anyway, we—so Dr. King says, "We're gonna have several people coming. Dick Gregory and a whole lot of other folks are gonna come, and they're gonna put a show on for us tonight." So he said, "We're gonna get some lights from the school. We'll put flood lights out there."  We have to have a stage. We couldn't find nothing to build a stage with, so we went to the black funeral director and asked him to let us borrow those big wooden boxes, you know that they put people in. And that's what we made a stage out of.

Laura Hill: [Laughter] You made a stage of caskets?

Mr. Mitchell: No!

Mrs. Mitchell: No, casket holders.

Laura Hill: Casket holders, okay.

Mr. Mitchell: Those big wooden boxes that they put the caskets in.

Laura Hill: On top of—okay, I see.

Mr. Mitchell: Okay, and that's what we made a stage of.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: I'll never forget, Sarah Vaughan and Lena Horne, and all 'em was there that night. And we had a great time. And it was pourin' down raining; it was raining like mad.

Mrs. Mitchell: And we were knee-deep in mud.  [Laughter]

Mr. Mitchell: And you were knee-deep in mud, so we took our ponchos and sat on our ponchos, okay? So we wouldn't be sittin' in the mud.

Laura Hill: What year is this?

Mrs. Mitchell: This is the march to Selma.

Mr. Mitchell: The march from Selma to Montgomery.

Laura Hill: Okay, '63? Is that right?

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah.

Laura Hill: Did you all have a chance to meet Dr. King?

Mr. Mitchell: Oh yes, we met him and Dr. King said to me, he said, "John," he says, "you seem to be the one that knows everybody around." He says, "You find out, find something for us to have the show tonight." And we said, "Okay." And I said, after we looked around, looked around, I said, "Gentlemen, I know what to do. We passed this funeral director and I seen all these wooden boxes outside." And I said, "Let's go back." We went back and we asked him, and he says, "Well, those boxes are to put caskets in." And I said, "Yeah, but we need 'em for a stage tonight."

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, speakin' about Dr.—excuse me, Johnny—but speakin' about Dr. King. You know, Dr. King sent his people here, Bevel and Andy Young and all of 'em, after the riots, to work with me.

Laura Hill: I'm aware of that. I want to talk to you about that some.

Mrs. Mitchell: I worked at Montgomery Neighborhood Center at the time and they came to talk to the youth, you know. It was interesting because they had never seen no young people like we were workin' with. I was workin' with the youth gangs at the time. As a matter of fact, Darryl Porter was one of the leaders of—. [Laughter]

Laura Hill: He mentioned that.

Mr. Mitchell: Connie called up and she says to me, "Darryl said he's gonna blow up Montgomery Center." I said, "What?!"

Mrs. Mitchell: I said, "Darryl, come here. What you gonna be, the big bad wolf? You gonna huff? You've got all these people in Montgomery Neighborhood Center, the Board sittin' up there, scared to death to come out for this little black guy that's sitting out on the stairs?"  I said, "Got those people scared to death of you?" "I'll get some dynamite and blow it up." I said, "First place, you don't know where to go to get no dynamite, that's number one. Number two, got all these people scared to death." And they were really frightened half to death 'cause he could talk some foolishness, you know.

Laura Hill: Well, and this is after the uprising in '64, too.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm, okay. If we could go back a little bit in terms of time—I'm very interested in the Black Muslim presence in Rochester. How does all that come about? I understand it's a very small group of people.

Mrs. Mitchell: Very small group of people. And people that we knew, you know, personally. Walt Cooper and I knew 'em. As a matter of fact, we were the only two that  came to their defense. That's another time people were scared to death after they had the— they broke into—[3] you know—the police were wrong, you know. I mean, those people were worshipping. They were afraid of 'em. You know, there's nothin' like fear, and the white community had built up in their mind that there was all these Muslims in Rochester, NY. [Laughter] Probably, maybe ten.

Laura Hill: Like the democratic machine of the Third Ward? [Laughter]

Mrs. Mitchell: But they were, oh they were afraid of them, so—they forced, you know, they forced Brother Malcolm into Rochester.

Laura Hill: Well tell me about that. How does that happen?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, Brother Malcolm had come out to the University of Rochester. That's how I met him. Freddie Thomas had called me, and I used to—I was always interested in black history, and Freddie Thomas was really a scholar on African history. So he used to come to the house to, really, tutor me, and give me books to read and whatnot. So, he called me and he said, "You know, Malcolm X, who is very prominent in the Muslim religion is gonna speak at the University of Rochester. Would you like to go?" And I said, "Oh, I'd love to." So I went. Well, when I got there, Freddie and I, I think, might have been two of maybe eight blacks that—the place was packed with kids, you know, with students. But I don't think that there were ten blacks in the whole room.

Laura Hill: It's white students.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah.

Laura Hill: Who invited him to the University of Rochester?

Mrs. Mitchell: Some group out—from the U of R.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: Um, so anyway, he spoke. And when he got through speakin', he said—'cause Freddie and I were sittin' down front—he said, "Would you two, the two people right there, would you kindly wait?" he said. So we said, "Yeah." You know, first place, we were sittin' there with our mouths gapped wide open after listenin' to this man, absolutely enthralled by what he was saying.

Laura Hill: What did he say to all those white people that night?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, basically, he said, you know, he talked about America. And the problems of America, and how ignorant Americans were by not takin' advantage and knowing what was happenin' in this country, about the racism and how racism was gonna bring us down and destroy this country. And, you know—but he had—the students were the same way that we were. I mean, this man was throwing knowledge and statements at us that many of us never even thought about. You might've thought about it, but you'd never seriously taken it into consideration. He talked about United States and the relationship we had with Russia, with China. And it was absolutely amazing; when you go back, you realize today that we had a prophet in our midst, who forecast all this that came to pass in America.

Mr. Mitchell: He said Russia and the United States would never fight a war, because white folks don't fight each other. White folks will join up to fight black folks, red folks, do anything—

Mrs. Mitchell: Brown folks.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: —but he said, "They'll never join hands—

Mrs. Mitchell: And this country was, at that time—

Mrs. Mitchell: —to eliminate white folks."

Mrs. Mitchell: —at that time it was the fear that Russia was going to bomb us and whatnot.

Laura Hill: Sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: So anyway, to make a long story short, after we talked with him, the janitor came, the custodian, and said, "You know, I've got to close this place up." So I said to him, "Well, you know, you're welcome to come to my house." Now this was now about 10:30, eleven o'clock at night.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: So that's what we did—came to my house. And I got on the phone and called people up and said, you know, "If you want to hear Malcolm X, come on over."

Laura Hill: Who did you call?

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh, who I didn't call?


Mrs. Mitchell: I called Walt Cooper, I called Bill and Bernie—and I said to them, "You call people, call Harold'—.

Mr. Mitchell: My living room was full of people. My living room was—on Grieg Street—was thirty  by eighteen.  People were sittin' all over the living room, on the floor, everywhere.

Mrs. Mitchell: That's a fact. And we sat up most of the night. Everybody went home and it was like 3:30, four o'clock in the morning, you know.

Laura Hill: Tell me about the conversation.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, he, he, you know, people were throwin' questions.  At first, he talked about what he believed in, you know—never about religion. That was the interesting thing. He never talked about, you know, trying to convince us. Well, the thing was—and I think we set the tone, 'cause at that time I used to smoke—and I said, to him, "I smoke. I like pork. And I like a cocktail now and then, so I know I wouldn't make a very good Muslim to begin with. And I don't think most people in this room would make good Muslims, from what I know of 'em." But um, we were interested, you know, in what he had to say. And basically, he talked about America—that this country—how we let the politicians in this country destroy this country. How it's a handful of people in this country who really bring about the hatred and keep that goin'. And who, in many cases, may not even believe half of what they're spoutin' out of their mouth.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: But because it's advantageous for them to be elected—especially the Southern politicians—to talk all that junk that they were talkin'. He talked about Russia, again. He talked about the relationship with Russia. And he talked about the Middle East. He talked about Iraq and Iran and all that, and said that, you know, eventually, we had to recognize these people because we were going to have to depend on these people. And he talked about the oil crisis. And that's why I say, so many things that he talked about, we've seen come to pass. And it was just like the man had—.

Mr. Mitchell: Every time Malcolm X came to Rochester, he'd end up at our house.

Laura Hill: How frequently was that?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, let's see, three or four times. The last time he was here was the Wednesday night before he got assassinated. So that was the last time.

Mr. Mitchell: But Connie has a picture of her and Malcolm and Minister Florence and Doris Price downstairs.

Laura Hill: Now, let me ask you—what was going on in some of those pictures? I have a beautiful picture that I've got copied from the collections at the University of Rochester, where you have said something—you have kind of a startled look on your face. Malcolm is hysterical laughing next to you, looking at you, laughing. And Franklin Florence is kind of standing off to the side, looking straight at the camera, like he isn't aware of the conversation. Any recollection at all? I wish I'd brought it with me to show you.

Mrs. Mitchell:      I have no idea. That man had a sense of humor that was—he was—there was two Malcolms: there was a Malcolm that you got to know, the man, then there was the Malcolm that was out there for the public. But the Malcolm, the man, would keep you in stitches. Well Dick Gregory was the same way, you know.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: Dick Gregory was this very serious man once you got to know him. He was a comedian out there for the public, and Malcolm was just the opposite.

Mr. Mitchell: Same way with Dick Gregory. Every time Dick Gregory came to Rochester, he'd end up bein' at our house.

Mrs. Mitchell: But um, as a matter of fact, the standing joke among Irv Carter and Lloyd Stevenson, who were the two black detectives in town, "Connie, where do you meet all these crazy people?"

Laura Hill: Well you know, I was gonna ask you—this had to be politically dangerous for you.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, it was.

Laura Hill: I mean, you're runnin' around with Malcolm X.

Mrs. Mitchell: And Billie Sol Estes was under investigation, which I didn't know. And next thing I know, he's at my house, because—.

Mr. Mitchell: Billie Sol Estes, you remember the—

Laura Hill: I don't know that name.

Mr. Mitchell: —Billie Sol Estes, the millionaire from Texas?

Mrs. Mitchell: But see, I didn't—well, a lot of people don't know. He's the one that was Minister Florence's mentor. He paid for Minister Florence to go to school.

Laura Hill: Oh okay, okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: And Minister Florence brought him to our home. So Irv—and we didn't know the FBI and folks were following him. And um—.

Mr. Mitchell: Miss Brown says to me, you know what she says, "John, it's odd. Every time Malcolm X come to your house this black truck pulls up and," she says, "It stays there until, usually he pulls away."

Laura Hill: Actually, I was just looking at the FBI files on Malcolm in Rochester. And every time he was here, whatever he said is in the files. Anything that was printed in the local papers, it's in the files.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, I found out that they were recording, from my house, everything that Malcolm X said in the living room.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm. I'd like to get those files. [Laughter]

Mr. Mitchell: Oh, God. I tried to get, uh, what was the FBI man?

Mrs. Mitchell: Mark Touey.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, Mark Touey.  I tried to get Mark Touey, when he was at Kodak, to give me the FBI files. And Mark Touey wouldn't, but I called Mark and I said to him, "Look, I've got a friend of mine who came to me and said, 'Easter Sunday, sump' in' is goin' to happen to [my] wife, don't let her go out anywhere.'" And I said, "I'm concerned about it." I called him from GM.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: And I said, "I'm concerned about it." And I said—so he says, "Well, I understand Connie's from New Rochelle." I said, "Yeah." He said, "Well, maybe it's a good time for her to go see her grandmother and her mother, in New Rochelle." And so I said to Connie, "Why don't you go down and visit your mother. You know?" I said, "It would be nice for you to drop in." So she and my daughter got in the car—.

Mrs. Mitchell: No. Fishy—I knew sump' in' fishy was—because that was the first time that he had said for me to go visit my folks.


Mrs. Mitchell: I said, "Sump' in's not right in this picture."

Laura Hill: Something's wrong, yeah.

Mr. Mitchell: I'm tryin' to get her out of town because I don't want nuttin' to happen to her, you know?

Laura Hill: Sure, sure. Do you, um, do you think Malcolm influenced Rochester, or do you think Rochester influenced Malcolm?

Mr. Mitchell: I think Malcolm had a lot of influence on Rochester.

Laura Hill: Tell me how.

Mrs. Mitchell: I think Malcolm killed the stereotypes that people had of him. I think that Malcolm—because when he spoke, at Corn Hill or wherever he spoke, there was just as many whites in the audience as there were blacks. And I think people came because they were curious and they wanted to see if this man was really a maniac, or if this mad man, or what. And I think that his talks convinced people, this man's not a dummy. You know, I may not agree with everything he's saying, but he's certainly putting some food for thought out there.  And so I think it changed a lot of people.

Laura Hill: Why does that happen in Rochester and not the rest of the country?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, you know, lemme just say this about Rochester—and I say this to many people. I think that any city in America that—you know, America had problems during the '60s.

Laura Hill: Sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: And civil rights problems, and even after the riots. I mean, at least in this city, people came to the table of understanding, as I call it. You know, sat across from each other, and tried to come to grips with what took place, and how do we resolve it. I don't think that happened in a lot of other cities. I think that Rochester's—there's something unique about the citizens of this community.

Laura Hill: I'm in full agreement with you, and I'm trying to have a better sense of what that something is.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, I think it's a sense, a sense of—I think people buy into Rochester. You know, that they feel they're a part of the city. And I think the politicians make it so, that they wanna include the public in the decision-making process for Rochester. I think we're small enough that that happens where people begin to feel that way. And I think because of our neighborhood associations, uh, people take—like the Nineteenth Ward Association—that's my, my corner of Rochester and that's where I'm gonna work. You take the South Wedge area, people take that corner, the Park Avenue area. And I think that helps to develop that feeling that, you know, whatever's wrong here, we can fix it.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: And that's a very strong feeling. I was in, on United Way Board of Directors for about, almost twenty years, and, I tell you, that was the one thing I found—that we could disagree, but eventually we came back full circle to where—well how do we correct this? If this is a problem, how do we correct it?

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm. How, how does Rochester then get so far gone that you have the uprising in 1964?

Mrs. Mitchell: I think what happened, nobody wanted to listen. No, those in the—the decision-makers wouldn't listen, the mayor and those people that could have brought some of the change, the industrial leaders, they didn't believe that it could happen to Rochester.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, um, 'cause Rochester was sort of a controlled city. The, Paul Miller, you know, he considered, this is his Rochester, and how dare those people go out there and tear up my city. There was that feelin'. And I don't think the white community was aware of the number of people that had moved into this community.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: 'Cause they pushed them all over in the Third Ward, you know, people livin' on top of each other and everything. So, I think that there's no way on earth that you gonna put that many people together and not think you're not gonna have an uprising. What happened—we lived on Grieg Street—and slum lords had taken those great big old mansions and cut 'em all up. And made, what they called, "efficiency apartments," which was just a refrigerator and a two-burner little stove and a room, and that was—what was it, 48 Grieg Street? That had, what—?

Mr. Mitchell: Eighteen or twenty mail boxes on it.

Mrs. Mitchell: On the front of the house. And that's when we knew somethin' was wrong. All of a sudden, these, all these mail boxes were croppin' up on these houses. And we did a lot of voter registration, so we said, "All these people can't be livin' in this one house!" and they were. They had chopped those houses up, chopped the rooms up. They had taken a room that might have been large and made two rooms out of it, so that they could make money.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: And you just don't pile people on top of people like that, and not think, eventually, somethin's not gonna happen.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: And that's what happened—and there was not open employment for people.

Mr. Mitchell: The only Republican that I can say was really nice to us was Gordon Howe  who was the County Executive, the County Manager, at that time, and Sherriff Al Skinner. [Knocks] When Skinner came to see Connie and the riots started, he said to her, "I can arrange for you, if you can get enough toothbrush and stuff—I can arrange for you to see all the people." So Connie went down to the jail house and started givin' out toothbrushes and toothpaste to people who had been locked up. "Hey, Ms. Mitchell! How are you?" You know, everybody knew Connie.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: And Sheriff Skinner and Gordon Howe, the two honest, fair Republicans that I knew at the time.

Laura Hill: I understand that you were threatened during the riot?  You received threats?

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm.

Laura Hill: Tell me a little bit about that.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, as a matter of fact it was the night of the riot, the first threat came in. Said, "You niggers started it and we're gonna finish it. But you're gonna be number one." And so, and they were threatenin' my little girl. So I took my daughter to John's mother and father and I told 'em, I said, "I gotta leave her here."

Laura Hill: I'm sorry, now, these are white people? These are black people?

Mr. Mitchell: White.

Mrs. Mitchell: White people. Yeah, that called, said that—

Mr. Mitchell: "You niggers started it, we gonna to finish it."

Mrs. Mitchell: —and that they were going to burn up my house, what they were going to do to my daughter, you know, what they were goin' to do to me. But I had received enough threats throughout the years that, you know, after a while, it sorta bounces off you.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: And, you know, you can get so frightened until you don't get frightened anymore. And I think that's what happened during that time period, that the fear leaves you, you know. You came to conclusion that if people want you, they're gonna get you, so there's nothing  you can do about it anyway.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mr. Mitchell: I'll never forget, the riot started that night and they called us over, and we were on our way over to the Seventh Ward, Joseph Avenue. We got down there by the—

Mrs. Mitchell: Train station.

Mr. Mitchell: —the train station—that was the Central Train Station.

Mrs. Mitchell: Central Avenue.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: And we got right in there. Connie got in the police car and I'm lookin' all over for her. And they turned the hose on—you know, the fire department came, turned the hose on people.

Mrs. Mitchell: That's why I jumped in the police car, because they were hosin' people.

Mr. Mitchell: And, I said to her, I'm lookin' all over, "Connie, Connie, Connie!" And finally, she says, "I'm in here." "What the hell you doin' in the police car?" And she says, "Well that's where I thought I'd hide, they were hosin' everybody down with water." I said, "Girl, please get out of the police car—they're turning over police cars like mad!"

Laura Hill: [Laughter]  That was not the safest place to be.

Mr. Mitchell: I said, she's going to the police car, I said, "Get out of there!" I said, "Will you please, they're turnin' over cars!" Then we git down to Joseph Avenue and Lombard—he's supposedly—somebody said he was dead. And then we go up to the, to police headquarters. We get up there to the Public Safety Building, Lombard walks in and he grabs us and he hugs us. "Oh John and Connie, I'm so happy to see you. Please go down there and talk to your people"

Laura Hill: [Laughter] He wasn't glad you were safe; he needed you to do some work.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah.

[Pause for tape change]

Laura Hill: I'm going to ask you to pause for just one second, because we're going to change the tape here.

Pause in recording

Laura Hill: So, we can maybe do this a little bit later, but do you actually recall the Black Muslim trials at Attica? In '61, I think?

Mrs. Mitchell: The trial was from—that Walt Cooper and I testified at—I think was after the break-in.

Laura Hill: So there're two, two separate things. The Black Muslim inmates at Attica bring suit against the state for not allowing them to hold religious services.

Mrs. Mitchell: That's right, yeah.

Laura Hill: So, I understand that that's actually what brought Malcolm into the area, originally. And then, of course, the four Black Muslim trials in Rochester were a separate thing.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, yeah. Walter and I, I think, were the only lay persons that went—and Jane Goldman. I'm tryin' to think—it was Walter, Jane Goldman, and myself that were character witnesses for the Muslims. That's 'cause we knew Wardell   and a couple of other people, I don't even remember.

Laura Hill: And that's um—I mean one of the things that I think is so fascinating about the community's response to those trials are that they were—the incident is sandwiched between Rufus Fairwell and A.C. White. And that really seems to mean something in Rochester at that point.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, you see, Rufus Fairwell was a good friend of ours and he—.

Mrs. Mitchell: The police brutality in Rochester was terrible. At that time, they had dogs, and the police, they ran rampant with those dogs. John and I, one night on Plymouth Avenue saw the police deliberately sic the dogs on some man, you know.

Laura Hill: Hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: And they were standin' up there, laughing. And, you know, I said this thing has gotten out of hand. I mean, they were just takin' advantage of people and those dogs never served a purpose, in terms of keepin' down anything in the community. It was just—.

Mr. Mitchell: It built more resentment than anything else.

Mrs. Mitchell: All it did was just force people to hate the police more.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, I don't think it helped at all.

Mr. Mitchell: That's why, when the riots started, they didn't give a damn about the police department. The police department would show up,         (??) he was dead.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mr. Mitchell: People were bringing all the stuff—they come over and they brought a side of beef and set it on our porch and said, "Here, Mrs. Mitchell, this is your share." Then they brought about ten cases of liquor, and they brought it in and said, "This is your share."

Mrs. Mitchell: And what did Mrs. Mitchell tell 'em? "Take that stuff away."

Mr. Mitchell: Oh, she said, "I don't want it. I don't want nothin' havin' to do with it."

Laura Hill: They were trying to make up for all those groceries they'd had out of your house.


Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, they were bringin' her her share, you know, and she says, "I don't want it! I don't want it! Take it out of here!" Then they came down with Fico's safe and they went back to the house across the street and you could hear them going like that, bangbang,bang.

Mrs. Mitchell: She'd have to know what Fico's is. Fico's [4] was a store on Plymouth Avenue.

Mr. Mitchell: You could buy everything.

Mrs. Mitchell: You could buy anything, for women, the fur coats, to—anything, at that store.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: And they knew it was a lot of corruption that went on in that store and they knew there was a lot of money in that safe. They banged that safe for about two hours and finally, they got it open. Once they got it open, you could see 'em runnin', with the money falling out of their hands. But, um, it was terrible. The riots—you know, when you think back, you could find the humor in it, but it was the sadness. [Slaps] The sadness was to see kids going into the store and all they'd come out with was some bologna and some bread or somethin' to eat—you know?

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm. What were the stores like? I've heard so many contradictory reports—they were Jewish store owners, they had corrupt practices, they were actually Italians, they were good to the kids. I mean there's so many—.

Mrs. Mitchell: Like the little store that was down the corner form our house, I used to think it was a good man 'til I fell in there and he wouldn't even come and see 'bout me.

Mr. Mitchell: She fell on a bottle and the doctor said she broke her—

Mrs. Mitchell: The coccyx bone.

Mr. Mitchell: —the coccyx bone, you know? She fell on a bottle. He had all these empty bottles on the floor and she stepped on the floor and the bottle went out and she fell back on it. You know that man never even came once to house to see her, never came to the hospital to see her. And told 'em that he was only doin' it—that she was only doin' that for money.

Laura Hill: Oh, God.

Mr. Mitchell: And she got twenty-five hundred dollars and I got thirty-five hundred dollars, because I told them that my wife couldn't perform her duties!

Laura Hill: The Judge awarded you thirty-five hundred dollars?

Mrs. Mitchell: The court awarded him more money than me.

Laura Hill: Because she couldn't perform her duties?

Mr. Mitchell: That's right.

Mrs. Mitchell: That's it.

Laura Hill: Now does that show you somethin' about the times you're living in?

Mrs. Mitchell: That's right. That's right.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, I'm tellin' you.

Mrs. Mitchell: When the lawyer told him, "Well, John, you can sue too." And told him—I couldn't believe it, I said, "My back is killing me." [Laughter] But that's part of what we had to live through. We've come a long way, as a race and as women.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: I tell you, when I stop and think—and we still got a long way to go, because a lot of that mentality's still there, you know. But, I'd say this: that a lot of people depended on those stores. They kept accounts at those stores and those store owners let them build up, like little charge accounts. So, 'cause a lot of those people were on welfare and their checks didn't come in until the first of the month. So like, if they ran out of food, they could go in there and they could charge up the food and everything. So, you know, people go in business to make money; that's the bottom line.

Laura Hill: Yeah.

Mrs. Mitchell: And, uh, but it depends on how you treat people too. If you're gonna wanna take from them, then you've gotta give somethin' back. And I think that—I'd say the majority of the store owners had a good working relationship with people. There was a few that were fleecin' people, you know, but the majority of those folks really—the fact that they set up those stores in those neighborhoods, they had to have some type of rapport and feeling for that community.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: So that's my feeling, you know, but I don't know.

Mr. Mitchell: The guy at the liquor store on the corner of Edinburgh and Clarissa Street.

Mrs. Mitchell: Kaplow's.

Mr. Mitchell: Kaplow's. He would allow you to go in and buy all the wine you wanted and he'd charge you—.

Mrs. Mitchell: Which is against the law.

Mr. Mitchell: He'd write it down. He'd write it down in the book, and then if he wanted to charge you for two bottles, he'd charge you for two. If you got one and he wanted to charge you for two, you had to pay him. When they started the riot, the first place they broke into was Kaplow's. Man, they cleaned his liquor store out. That's why they brought ten cases of liquor over to my house, put it in my front yard on my porch, and said, "This is your share, Mrs. Mitchell." And my wife says, "Git it outta here! I don't want it!" So Irv called and—.

Mrs. Mitchell: The two detectives said, "We'll take it." [Laughter]

Mr. Mitchell: They're saying, "Oh, no, take it over and put it in our car."

Laura Hill: They didn't. Oh my gosh.  [Laughter]

Mr. Mitchell: Lombard had sent them over to protect us.

Laura Hill: Well, I guess that was part of their pay for that detail.

Mr. Mitchell: Oh, boy, I'm tellin' you.

Laura Hill: So you mentioned, you mentioned earlier, that after the rising, after the dust has settled, Andrew Young and James Bevel come into the community. Can you tell me how they came in?

Mrs. Mitchell: Through Mrs. Sibley—

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: —and the Council of Churches. Mrs. Sibley called me and said that she was going to contact them, and she said, "Now Connie, would you have a place for them to stay if I bring them in here to help you?"

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: She wielded a mighty hammer, and a lot of people didn't realize that, you know. That old lady worked behind the scenes and did a lot of good for people. And she's the one that arranged that through the Council of Churches, and they stayed with his[5]uncle and aunt above the restaurant, on Clarissa Street; that's where they stayed. And they came and they met with the youth, talked to the young people and worked with the young people. So, I think that they did some good, comin' into town, you know?

Laura Hill: How long were they here?

Mrs. Mitchell: A little over a week, 'bout two weeks, wasn't it?

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, they were here at least two weeks, or three weeks or something like that.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, two, three weeks.

Laura Hill: But ultimately, they say, "No, we're not gonna come back to Rochester and organize there."

Mrs. Mitchell: No, because those kids—they didn't want to hear that. First place, you know, the interesting thing about Rochester's young people, they didn't know nothin' 'bout the Civil Rights Movement.

Laura Hill: Really.

Mrs. Mitchell: When I got ready to go to Selma—"Mrs. Mitchell"—I worked at Montgomery Neighborhood  Center.  They said, "What are you going down there for?" And I said, "If I've got to explain, I shouldn't even be going."

Laura Hill: You should be staying right here in Rochester.

Mrs. Mitchell: And doing the job here. But that's when I realized that those kids had no idea what was goin' on with the Civil Rights Movement. And I think that's why the significance of Bevel and Andy Young and all of 'em comin' to help didn't faze them, because they didn't want to hear that. These kids were products of the people that went out there and pitched those bricks.

Laura Hill: How can you be—explain to me how a child can be immune to the Civil Rights Movement at this moment in time. It's all over the news, it's all over the television.

Mr. Mitchell: Oh, no—now. But then, at that time—.

Mrs. Mitchell: Those kids weren't watchin' no television, watchin' no news. And Mama wasn't talkin' about it at home, so—.

Laura Hill: Just no exposure.

Mr. Mitchell: Now, everybody's exposed to it.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-mmm, no. And then the tragedy was you went South and you saw all these young kids all involved in the movement. Because their parents lived it, you know.

Mr. Mitchell: My aunt, my uncle was black. My aunt was as fair as you. Okay? All my mother's brothers and sisters are all real fair.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: My uncle used to put his chauffer's cap on, my aunt sit in the back seat of the car. They'd stop in the hotel—at that time you couldn't get a motel or a hotel.

Mrs. Mitchell: In Mississippi or when they were goin' south.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: And he'd stop in there and they'd say, "Ma'am, my madam I'm workin' for would like a hotel room." My aunt would get out of the car, man would come, and he'd pick her bag up, take her bag to the room and do everything. My uncle would go; he'd git himself a room—because the only way that he could get a room there is to say he was chauffeuring her.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mr. Mitchell: Okay, and at night, they used sneak in and go over to her room, and he stayed wit' her.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: Now, that's husband and wife, okay? That's the only way you could get a hotel or a motel room. My mother and father travelled to Louisiana, backwards and forward, they had to drive all the way through or sleep on the road in the car, because they couldn't get a hotel. Nobody black could get a hotel or a motel nowhere in the South.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mr. Mitchell: Now you can, everywhere. So there're more people involved today in civil rights than there was then, back in those days.

Laura Hill: Right. So, for Andrew Young and James Bevel, who makes the decision that SCLC is not coming to Rochester? Is it SCLC? Is it the Rochester folks? Who decides?

Mrs. Mitchell: No, I think it was—I think it was SCLC. SCLC did come to Rochester, but Rochester never bought into it. And I think one of the things—Rochester had an NAACP active at that time, and I think there was conflict between that group and a new group coming into town. Turfism—that's all it was, you know. And, uh, except the NAACP—I hate to say it—they weren't worth two cents. Because I remember, when the mandate came down from National for us to picket Woolworth's, on a national level, my cousin called from New Rochelle and said, "When are you goin'to do the picketing?" And I said, "What picketing?" And she says, "For Woolworth's."  She says, "Your NAACP got notification." I said, "No we didn't." She said, "Yes, you did." She said, "Every NAACP in America got notification." Come to find out, our President, who was a little nice white lady, decided that she didn't want Rochester picketing Woolworth's, so she didn't let us know.

Laura Hill: Who is she?

Mrs. Mitchell: What was her name? Oh, I can't think of her name. [6]  She's dead, too. Oh help me—

Mr. Mitchell: I know who it is, but I can't think of her name.

Mrs. Mitchell: —I can see her face now, but she decided that—.

Laura Hill: She liked Woolworth's.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, she didn't want us out there picketing.

Mr. Mitchell: She didn't want us out there picketing Woolworth's.

Laura Hill: She didn't want you picketing because there would be a picket in Rochester? Or specifically something to do with Woolworth's? What was her—?

Mrs. Mitchell: She had her own reasoning. I think the fact that she didn't want that picketin' on Main Street in Rochester.

Laura Hill: Bad for the image.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm.

Laura Hill: Hmm. So, SCLC is not happening. That's not going to be the major organizing force in Rochester. Saul Alinsky and Industrial Areas Foundation comes in. How is that decision made?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, I was the only female that went out with the ministers to interview Saul Alinsky.

Laura Hill: It was an interview process.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm.

Laura Hill: Tell me.

Mr. Mitchell: Went out to Chicago.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, that was an interesting, that was a very interesting—I knew Rochester would never be the same.


Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: As a matter of fact, he put those ministers through some sharp treatment.

Laura Hill: I bet he did. Who was on that trip, Mrs. Mitchell?

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh let's see, Canon St. Julian Simpkins, Marv Chandler, Elma Lewis from the Jewish Community Center, uh, Father—what was the Father's name? Not Mulcahy—another priest from the Catholic community. 'Cause it was representing each segment of the faith community.

Mr. Mitchell: Minister Florence?

Mrs. Mitchell: No, Minister Florence didn't go, uh-uh, no. Because Minister Florence wasn't even involved—we decided on Minister Florence after we'd started up FIGHT.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: But, um, they—.

Recorder: Herb White?

Mrs. Mitchell: Herb White, yes. Herb White, but I'm tryin' to think of who the Catholic priest was—that's the only one I can't remember. But, uh,

Recorder: Finks?

Mrs. Mitchell: No it wasn't Finks.

Laura Hill: He comes later, he's '67—'66 or '67.

Mrs. Mitchell: I can see his face now.  It wasn't Mulcahy, but, uh—.

Mr. Mitchell: I was thinking Father Finks or Father Kreckel but no.

[Recorder being moved]

Mr. Mitchell: I remember him [7] leaving the Catholic Church and marrying—

Mrs. Mitchell: Christy.

Mr. Mitchell: —Christy from—.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, but I always said he was gonna leave the church.

Laura Hill: So, this meeting—what happens in that meeting?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, you know he,[8] he act like he didn't want to come to Rochester, and he wasn't interested in Rochester. You know, it wouldn't be a challenge and everything. He said, because, he said, "All we'd have to do is give everybody baked beans and have 'em go to the Eastman Theatre when they were havin' a packed house," and everything. These ministers are lookin' at him, and lookin' at each other—.

Laura Hill: Uh-huh. He was gonna have a "fart campaign" or something is what he called it. Sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, and he just got more and more obnoxious with each statement that came outta his mouth. And I'm sitting there, and I want to holler laughin', you know. So I said to myself, "Good Lord, Rochester will never be the same." Well anyway, after we left Chicago, we decided. And we had mixed emotions. Some said, "Well, I don't know if this is good for Rochester." Others were sayin', "Well, at least you can give it a try." Others were sayin', "Well, I think we need it."

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: So I said, just what I'm sayin' to you, "Well, if he comes, Rochester'll  never be the same again. We do need organizing. We do need some way to pull that community togetha'." And we came back. Well, the social agencies, like the settlement houses, like Baden Street and Montgomery Neighborhood Center, they were adamant; they didn't want this coming into the community. Well, because it was gonna rock the ship, and it was gonna change a lot of things that needed to be changed. So, it caused a lot of dissent among people in the community, because a lot of people were very eager for FIGHT to come and then others said, "No, I don't want them to come. All they're gonna do is just create—stir up a lot of trouble in the community."

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: But, I think it might've been the best thing that ever happened to Rochester.

Laura Hill: Yeah.

Mrs. Mitchell: In terms of the employment picture, especially, because they opened that door to Kodak. And once Kodak opened their door, the other companies opened the door automatically.

Laura Hill: How did black folk respond to being organized by these two white men, Saul Alinsky and Ed Chambers?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, they didn't even look upon it as being organized by Ed Chambers or Saul Alinsky, because what happened—Minister Florence was so dynamic and he was the right person at the right time when we decided on him. And he had this leadership quality, you know, and he took the helm immediately, and so you never thought about—.

Mr. Mitchell: FIGHT became more Florence than it—.

Mrs. Mitchell: It became Minister Florence's organization, you know.

[Disruption, chatter]

Laura Hill: So, FIGHT becomes Florence's baby from the start. But how did you all—what process did you go through to decide upon him?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, I think that what we had to do was to look at to see who had the leadership qualities, that could really take the helm, and who had the respect within the community. We looked at certain criterias that were built in, that this person needed to have. And could take the helm immediately and get that ship to rollin'. So, Minister Florence's name came up with everyone.

Laura Hill: What had he done to prove himself in those ways?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, he had been very active and vocal in the Rufus Fairwell situation. And one other incident, it was—.  [Tapping]

Mr. Mitchell: Well, the Kodak situation—when they went down to New Jersey.

Mrs. Mitchell: No, but that was after FIGHT was formed, honey. I'm talkin' about prior to that. But he had been active in the community workin' with the voter registration and everything, so—

Mr. Mitchell: [Speaking simultaneously]  Well,  Florence had done—he's very active in the community and very well known.

Mrs. Mitchell: —and he was well known. And the main thing, you wanted someone within the black community that the blacks could appreciate and follow.

Mr. Mitchell: Follow.

Laura Hill: Absolutely.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, and he was the person that everyone felt was ideal for it, you know. Plus, they felt that he could work well with whites.

Laura Hill: They thought that about Florence?

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah.

Laura Hill: Wow, that is the first time that I've heard that.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah. They thought that he could work well with whites.

Laura Hill: And that was important.

Mrs. Mitchell: For Friends of FIGHT, with Ed Chambers. Yeah.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm, okay. What was the relationship between Florence and Alinsky and Chambers like?

Mrs. Mitchell: They had a good workin' relationship, you know. I think, Florence never bit his tongue, you know, and neither did Saul Alinsky. I think, initially, I think it might've been some problems with Ed Chambers.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: But I think that was resolved between Alinsky and him. Because they began a good workin' relationship, you know. And, you know, a lot of people within FIGHT couldn't stand Ed Chambers.

Laura Hill: Really.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, because he came in, and they felt that he came in—and they didn't realize that he, in a sense, was Florence's boss, because he was Alinsky's voice in Rochester. But they resented the fact that he came in and sorta told Florence what to do and how to do it. And what it was, was basically to discuss new approaches and how to do it and whatnot. And they didn't understand how that whole set-up was. I mean, I could see it, you know, but—and a lot of other people could see it, but a lot of people, at the bottom rung of that ladder in FIGHT just couldn't figure it out. And they resented it, you know.

Laura Hill: So tell me then what FIGHT starts to do. I have a lot of material on the struggle with Kodak, the Flemington, New Jersey event, but on the ground, what are they doing in the community? How do they begin that organizing process?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, you know, at the time I worked for Montgomery Neighborhood Center. And part of my responsibility at Montgomery was to form block associations. So I gave them all my southwest block associations. I didn't give it to 'em, I just said to the people in the organization, "FIGHT is here now; you really need to join, to be part of this community-wide organization." And they did. I think that all of 'em joined, except one, I think the Baden—yes, they did join eventually. And that was, it wasn't so much that they didn't want to join, it was two people who didn't like Minister Florence.

Laura Hill: Right, personal politics.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, personal politics. And, but they joined, and so that's what happened. The, the—where they had block associations, they immediately joined. So that gave them a core group of people to start workin' with, and they began to do much of what I had already been doin' through Montgomery, you know. My argument has always been that if you're gonna organize people, you organize them in small groups. And you address all the issues that are at their front door and back door, before you go out to the broader community.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: People wanna know why they're not picking up my garbage and all the little issues that concern them in their neighborhood. And after that, then you can go to city council and start complainin' about something else.

Laura Hill: So FIGHT is not necessarily an organization of individuals. It is an organization of other organizations.

Mrs. Mitchell: Right, that's right.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah. And they joined. They became the Cady Street Block Association, the Favor Street Block Association, the Champlain[9]—.

Mr. Mitchell: You know how we started those block associations?

Laura Hill: Tell me.

Mr. Mitchell: We went to people and talked to 'em about joining up as a block association, but joining up primarily to be concerned about the livin' conditions that they had in their immediate residence. Then we started gettin' flower seeds and things like this.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: And we started planting flowers and when the flowers came up in the yard, the people saw what the block association could do. And they says, "Ooh, you got nice flowers in your yard." And we said, "Yes." And then the next thing you know, we were able to get 'em more involved in the other things.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm, sure.

Mr. Mitchell: And then we got 'em involved in politics and we got 'em involved in education and we got 'em involved more in the schools, and, you know, being concerned about their children. And how much their kids was learning in the schools, and the kind of teachers that the kids had.

Laura Hill: Sure.

Mr. Mitchell: And so, you know, you build on things like that. And you have to start small, in order to build those things up to those kinds of things that you want to.

Laura Hill:         And does FIGHT operate on that same basis? The starting small and then building up?

Mrs. Mitchell: You mean today?

Laura Hill: No, FIGHT the organization, in '65, when they start.

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh, well, no, they wanted to be, you know, global. But the people in the organizations did that work, the crunch work, for them.

Laura Hill: Okay. So what does FIGHT do? What's their impact?

Mrs. Mitchell: I think FIGHT became an image organization. I think that it stood for alotta things that it didn't do.

Laura Hill: Like what?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, one—it stood for opening the door to employment. And I think what opened the door to employment was going to Flemington, and bringing Kodak to its knees. And then when Kodak was brought to its knees, all of a sudden, General Motors and Strong and everybody else said, "You know, if they can bring Kodak to their knees, they can bring us to our knees. So maybe we need to open this door a little bit wider and offer some more entry-level jobs." So I think that the manufacturing community came together and said, "Let's make sure this door stays open, now that it's open." So I don't think it was so much FIGHT doin' that. I think that FIGHT forced their hand in Flemington, and I think Kodak and the manufacturers decided to open up that door afterwards.

Laura Hill: Sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: Because if they didn't wanna do it, it wouldn't have stayed open.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, Jack Hostetler[10] had a lot to do with it, too.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, sure, I know that. The Industrial Management—I worked for IMC, you know, and I know how much influence they had in terms of opening up that door, of the meetings that they had.

Laura Hill: So they opened the door because they are afraid.

Mrs. Mitchell: I think it was out of fear. They knew what had already happened in Rochester, and, you know, it took Rochester a hell of a long time to live down that riot.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, uh, because it was a community that you know, people could bet money—they said it never would happen in Rochester.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: And you know, Rochester's an image city. The fathers like to think of it as a good city and—and it is, it is a good city, you know but—it's a city that had problems and it still has problems. You know, I look right now, and I think, "Good Lord."

Laura Hill: I've been watching the local news the last couple of nights.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah. Don't even start me on Rochester today. I just—I get sick when I think about it, you know, because nobody is going out here, addressing, really, the core of the problem. Talkin' about, you're gonna clean up Conkey Avenue and all you're gonna do is send the shooters over to the next two blocks.  [Laughs]

Laura Hill: That's right, that's right.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, and that's the sad part of it, but I don't even want to get on that subject, 'cause I get really upset about that. And I said I'm too old to worry about it now.

Laura Hill: Somebody else has to pick up the banner.

Mrs. Mitchell: Let somebody else worry about that.

Laura Hill: So if FIGHT is an image organization, it sounds like what you're saying, then, is they use that image to push the doors open.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, for the good of the community.

Laura Hill: They instill some fear.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, yeah. And I think you had to have that, for change to come about. Because, let's face it, you didn't need no high school education to drop a screw in a hole and turn it four or five times with a screw driver. And you know, those companies had that strict rule that you had to have a high school diploma to get an entry-level job at these companies. Well, you didn't need that, you know, to put a widget on a conveyor belt and have it go down the line and somebody else—

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: —you put the screw in, have somebody else turn the screw. So I think that the door, once it was open and once they found out that these folks could be productive workers, that they had an asset that they didn't even realize that they had. I did the training, through Industrial Management Council, for supervisor's training, for the managers and supervisors that was gonna, you know, work with these newcomers. And it was really pathetic, the lack of communication between the company and that person who had to take these people and have these people do the job. It was, it was really sad, because alotta their supervisors were scared to death with these folks comin' in. You know, they had all these stereotypes up in their heads.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: And, um, then a lot of these new workers comin' in, they had to become acclimated to industry.

Laura Hill: Right. Is FIGHT a civil rights organization or a black power organization?

Mrs. Mitchell: I'd say black power.

Laura Hill: Why?

Mrs. Mitchell: I don't think it's a civil rights organization. I think it was an organization built to present, to show, how powerful you can be within the community if you organize. I don't think it addressed the day-to-day civil rights responsibilities that went along with, say, an NAACP, or a SNCC, or an SCLC.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: I think it was more of uh, economic power: how do you get the jobs, how do you change the power structure so that you can almost force them to bring about change in a community?

Mr. Mitchell: Well, you know, she[11] was Bill Johnson's campaign manager.

Laura Hill: I didn't know that.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yes.

Mr. Mitchell: Yes, and we knew, when Bill was runnin' in the primary, he was runnin' against fifteen, twenty candidates at a time. And we knew then that Bill would win, and we knew doggone-well that we had the community organized enough to be concerned. I think the city passed up a golden opportunity when—havin' Bill in there for twelve years like they had him—they didn't use Bill the right way.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: Duffy is tryin' to do it now. Duffy will never be able to do it. Not the black community, because alotta people in the community just don't trust him. I don't know why.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, I think—you've got to remember that Duffy was affiliated with the police department, John.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, I think I know why, but I mean—.

Mrs. Mitchell: All right, so I mean—.

Laura Hill: Right, sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: And Darryl,  you know as much—I love Darryl just like he's my own child.

Laura Hill: He said the same thing about you, just like his own mother.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah well, uh, but, Darryl doesn't have that much credibility in the community either, because—he's building it, slowly but surely, you know. But when Duffy hired Darryl, there were people that said, "To do what? Follow him around?"

Laura Hill: What are his qualifications for this position? Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: And even, you know, the irony of it was that even black folks were beginnin' to question. To do what? You know, he's hirin' him, but he's hirin' him to do what? And until today, I really don't know what Darryl's job is with the City of Rochester. I know what Jean  Howard's job is, I know somebody else's job, but I don't know what Darryl's job is. I know that wherever you don't see Duffy, or you see Duffy, you'll see Darryl. He's sorta like the replacement—"I'm here because the mayor can't come today" bit.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: But I don't know what his job is. I'm glad to see him with a job, and I'm glad to see him makin' some money, you know. But, I don't know what his job is with the City of Rochester.

Laura Hill: Hmm. That's interesting. So if, if FIGHT is a black power organization, how does it negotiate the backlash to black power in this era, late 1960s, early '70s? How does it manage to survive and be effective?

Mrs. Mitchell: I think that FIGHT came at a time and I think it—I think it came at the right time, it served its purpose, and I think that was it. I didn't think it was a permanent fixture within this community. Excuse me, I think it came to serve a purpose, was put in place, and it did serve the purpose. But I don't think it was set up to, to be an organization that would be here permanently.

Mr. Mitchell: See, once the industry started employing more blacks, and professional blacks that they brought in from around the country, and started to put these people here, the power of FIGHT became strictly—

Mrs. Mitchell: It got diminished.

Mr. Mitchell: —yeah, the non-educated black folk. The Urban League started—

Mrs. Mitchell: Picked up the banner.

Mr. Mitchell: —and picked up the banner and started comin' in and bringin' in more of the middle or professional blacks into the Urban League. If you look on the Urban League incorporation papers, you'll see my name there.

Laura Hill: I saw it.

Mr. Mitchell: I was one the first, one of first people in Rochester to push the Urban League, because I realized then that you needed to have a professional black group to deal with all of the black professionals that we had comin' in.

Mrs. Mitchell: But there's only so many entry-level jobs in a community anyway. Let's face it, and I think that there'll always be people coming into the community who need entry-level positions. But I think the bulk of the entry-level positions that industry sorta absorbed when they first came—Rochester Products, Delco. And these companies took folks in, put 'em on the conveyor belts. And offered—.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, I know at Rochester Products, I hired about ten thousand people. Of the ten thousand people that I hired, 50 percent of 'em were black and 50 percent of 'em were                        white. 

Mrs. Mitchell: I worked for Rochester Jobs Incorporated for, what, ten years, before I went to the Industrial Management Council, and in those ten years, I put over twelve thousand people to work in entry-level positions.

Laura Hill: See, it's really interesting to hear you two talk about this stuff. I understand that there's a great deal of conflict in this period, between organizations—the "turfism," right, that you're referring to.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Laura Hill: What is the relationship between FIGHT and Rochester Jobs Incorporated, or RJI?

Mrs. Mitchell: I think that there was some basic resentment. Mr. Croft worked directly with Kodak.

Laura Hill: This is Ed Croft?

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah. He worked directly with the industrial leaders. RJI was founded by the industrial leaders; they put the money up, it was their organization. And the whole purpose of RJI was to hire and train entry-level workers so that they could meld into—FIGHT didn't have the capacity to do that, had nothing in place to do that. And not only did they do the training, but I mean, we did the supervisory training of managers and supervisors. And built up programs so that they could understand the workforce, and have some empathy and understanding of this person that was comin' into the workforce. FIGHT wasn't set up to do that.

Laura Hill: Would you have an RJI if FIGHT hadn't come first?

Mrs. Mitchell:      [Mumbling]

Laura Hill: How come?

Mr. Mitchell: I think, I think RJI would have—.

Mrs. Mitchell: No, RJI came first.

Mr. Mitchell: RJI came first?

Mrs. Mitchell: RJI came first. RJI is an outgrowth of the meeting out at Colgate Divinity School right after the riots.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: So RJI came first.

Laura Hill: The way I understood the chronology was that—I understand that meeting at Colgate took place. I thought it was in response to the battle between FIGHT and Kodak.

Mrs. Mitchell: No.

Laura Hill: That Florence was involved in RJI, that he threatened a number of times to pull out of RJI's creation, and that that was a rather contentious process.

Mr. Mitchell: Florence couldn't threaten that because, you see, money he had to come to FIGHT. And money was comin' from the Council of Churches.[12]                    

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm. I didn't mean he threatened to bring it to an end. Excuse me, the newspaper articles or the accounts I've read of it suggest that he was going to pull his namefrom it. And that if he pulled his name from it, he was pulling FIGHT's name form it, and then as an organization, it lost credibility in the community.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mr. Croft, Ed Croft, and Minister Florence was like that. I mean, I worked for RJI, so I can tell you that—you can't believe everything that you read in the newspapers, either, but—

Laura Hill: Sure, sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: —but, no, that's not true. Minister Florence used to do an awful lot of threatening. You know? [Laughter]

Laura Hill: We've heard a little bit about that.

Mrs. Mitchell: He, he would threaten and he'd scare some folks, I guess, you know, but—and I used to call it the evil eye, he'd give to people that evil look. [Laughter] But, now, if you didn't know him, you might be afraid of him, afraid of what he could do. But alotta that was tactics, you know, that was applied. And, you know, I sit back sometime and I think about those days and I have to find all the humor in it. I said, 'cause if you don't you'll sit down somewhere and cry.

Laura Hill: Yeah.

Mrs. Mitchell: But I think a lot of it had to do with—it was a power play, you know. Mr. Croft was resented because he was an old white man, that—who does he think he is, you know, he's telling us what to do? But Croft knew about as much about the black community as Minster Florence did, because I used to marvel—I'd go to work and he'd sit down and tell me things about the black community that I didn't know.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: So I said, "Who in the hell is feedin' you this information?"

Mr. Mitchell: Alotta times, when the newspapers thought there was a battle going on between Ed Croft and Minister Florence, there really wasn't. That was a staged thing, to give more power to whoever was seekin' the power.

Mrs. Mitchell: They, um, you know, alotta  games were played during that time. Not all of it you like to think about. But, uh—.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: Why do you think Bernie Gifford got involved with the, with FIGHT organization? Because Bernie was involved with the University of Rochester.

Laura Hill: I would like to know what you think about that.

Mr. Mitchell: Hmm?

Laura Hill: I would like to know what you all think about that.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, I can tell you what I think. I know, in a sense, that—who was the President of U of R? What was his name? Help me.

Recorder:  Allen Wallis?

Mrs. Mitchell: Allen Wallis.

Mr. Mitchell: Allen K. Wallis.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: He was the one that, you know, that was Bernie's man. And he convinced the powers that be that you needed an intelligent, smart, articulate, young, black man in that position, and they bought into it.

Laura Hill: Not a rabble-rouser like Florence.

Mrs. Mitchell: That's right.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: And so that's how, you know, he got into it.

Laura Hill: Was that good or bad for the community?

Mr. Mitchell: Good.

Mrs. Mitchell: I think, at the time, it was good. I do, I think that Bernie was needed. You needed almost a peacekeeper, because there had been so much bad feelings, on both sides. You almost needed Bernie to come in at that time. And there was, you know, some terrible times between him and Florence.

Laura Hill: Tell me about them.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, I'll tell you, Florence had some folks around him that were—Joe Lawson, I'll never forget, he come in that night, wavin' that gun. And the man knocked me out of the way to get up underneath the desk—I was tryin' to hide up underneath the desk.

Laura Hill: Where, when is this? What is this?     

Mrs. Mitchell: When FIGHT was on Prospect Street.

Mr. Mitchell: Corner of Prospect and Adams.

Mrs. Mitchell: We were in there havin' a meeting, and the next thing I know, Joe Lawson came in there, and wavin' that gun. And all I saw was gun, and I said, "Well, there's the metal desk, I'm going up underneath." And before I could get up underneath it, this guy, used to work at FIGHT—his mother lived over at Plymouth Garden—well, anyway, he beat me under—I told him, "Move!"

Laura Hill: He beat you under the desk. [Laughter]

Mrs. Mitchell: Threw me out the way.

Laura Hill: So Joe Lawson is coming in with a gun—why?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, he was comin' in because he didn't like the way things were goin' and he came in to change things. And I don't know how was gonna change 'em, but I knew I was gettin' myself out of the way.

Laura Hill: What year is this?

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh, Lord, this is—.

Mr. Mitchell: Right after Bernie took over.

Laura Hill: So '67, '68 I think is when Bernie takes over.

Mrs. Mitchell: Whenever it was.

Laura Hill: Well, maybe it's a little later, maybe it's '69.

Mrs. Mitchell: I don't know, child.

Mr. Mitchell: Allen K. Wallis was the key to the whole—to Bernie's whole background. Allen K. Wallis was the man who was callin' the shots.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, it wasn't so much Allen K. Wallis callin' the shots, I think the industrial heads—

Mr. Mitchell: [Speaking simultaneously] Well, the people who Allen K. Wallis was involved with.

Mrs. Mitchell: —'cause you had the Kodak heads and folks that represented Xerox, and you know, you had—

Mr. Mitchell: Bausch and Lomb, and everybody else.

Mrs. Mitchell: —you had your industrial heads that got their heads togetha' on Monday morning.

Laura Hill: Because they wanted Florence out.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: Bad influence on this community, settin' a bad image for Rochester, New York.

Laura Hill: But there is obviously some reception to that in the black communities, as well.

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Mr. Mitchell: Oh yeah, sure.

Laura Hill: Well, how does—?

Mr. Mitchell: The black community started saying, you know, that white folks is runnin' FIGHT. And what Bernie had to do was to go out there and show 'em, that no, you know. You, you've got to bring in—we've got to bring in more black intelligent people, in order to be able to show these people that we can do things.

Mrs. Mitchell: Not only that, Bernie's argument was that Florence was turnin' everybody off.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah.

Laura Hill: How does Florence fall from grace? How does that happen? I mean, he's the darling for so long.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, you know it's really sad, and I keep sayin' this—I've said this to anybody that wants to listen. We've honored so many people in Rochester; we've never really given this man the accolades that he deserves.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: Because he was a tremendous influence on the change that came about within this community—his leadership qualities. And he came at the right time, served the purpose, you know, and then there's a time and place for everything. Nobody likes to fall from grace, and if they do, they like to fall gracefully, you know. But to have it snatched away from you, there's bound to be resentment.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: But we still owe him a debt of gratitude that we've never really given him.

Laura Hill: Yeah.

Mrs. Mitchell: And I just, you know, I've said it to many people, but nobody picks up on it, so—and it's one of those things you just can't do by yourself.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: But, um, I think it's long overdue.

Laura Hill: So, um, Bernie Gifford is there for less than a year or so, and then Raymond Scott becomes the president. What were those years like? I mean, he's, five years I think, he remains the president.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, but—FIGHT started going down then.

Mrs. Mitchell: I think people began to lose—you know, you gain supporters, and Minister Florence had alotta support within the black community. And he had a lot of support within the white community too—Friends of FIGHT was very active with Minister Florence,  you know, and interacted with him. And, so I think you lost a lot of his supporters. And then when Bernie came on, he had his supporters, but when he left, his supporters went by the wayside. So Scotty picked up the remnants, you know. And Scotty brought a different type of leadership, you know, much, much different than either one of them.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: So, and I think FIGHT had lost alotta—the wind had been knocked out of FIGHT, the programs just weren't there.

Laura Hill: How does that happen?

Mrs. Mitchell: Funding—I think the funding.

Mr. Mitchell: The money.

Laura Hill: Tell me how that happens. How do they lose the money? I realize that the Council of Churches is done after three years.

Mr. Mitchell: The industries stopped funding.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, it was not only that, but I think what happened—they had the buildings over there, what are they? On Joseph Avenue?

Laura Hill: The FIGHT Village?

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, the FIGHT Village. I think Minister Florence took over that as part of his job and responsibility. So I think it got piecemealed out, the important part of FIGHT, and I think FIGHT got diluted, don't you think? And I don't think the dollars were coming in. Nobody, we didn't have a strong, active organization to go after the dollars that needed to run an organization like that. And then, the terrible—you know, everybody wanted to be the chief, nobody wanted to be the Indian, and that's the other side of the fence, too! [Laughter]

Laura Hill: My dad used to say that all the time, all the time.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, everybody wanted to be boss, and not everybody can be boss. And so that posed some real problems there too. And—'cause I'll never forget, I had, you know, some problems with some of the people in FIGHT, and when I worked at RJI. And I had to really go—you know, they were condemnin' me through RJI, and I said, "Well, I want to meet with 'em. I'm gonna tell them the truth." And Ed Croft said, "Connie, you don't need to go." "I'm gonna go tell them the truth." The truth was that it was Ed Croft and Don Bergen from Lincoln Rochester that put the money to keep FIGHT from goin' under. [Slaps]

Laura Hill: Was FIGHT—I mean, after the Council of Churches stops funding them, after Industrial Areas Foundation is out of the picture, were they constantly on the verge of financial crisis?

Mrs. Mitchell: Constantly.

Laura Hill: Is that mismanagement? Is that the nature of the beast? How—?

Mrs. Mitchell: Mismanagement. Yeah. Well, I think it's part—

Mr. Mitchell: Scotty wasn't enough.

Mrs. Mitchell: —well, it wasn't only Scotty though, Johnny.

Mr. Mitchell: No, but I mean, he had, whatcha-call-him with him. What's the guy's name?

Mrs. Mitchell: Wally?

Mr. Mitchell: Wally. But you know, they—Scotty's got a lot of strength, but Scotty's strength is not—.

Mrs. Mitchell: There're too many people on the payroll and not enough money to keep them people goin', that's what it was. That's the other thing. But I do know, personally, that the money that did come in came in through Don Bergen and Ed Croft. Money was funneled but they didn't want nobody to know they were funnelin' the money into FIGHT, to keep FIGHT goin', you know.

Laura Hill: Right, right.

Mrs. Mitchell: And I just, I went over there and spilled the beans.  I said, "You're sittin' up here talkin' about me, if it weren't for me, you wouldn't have a job," you know.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: I was helping keep their job goin' by convincin' Don Bergen to keep funding it.

Laura Hill: Yeah. So at the end of FIGHT's decade, they sell off FIGHTON. Then it becomes Eltrex, and the FIGHT organization reportedly receives about forty thousand dollars. What happens to that money?

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, mmm-hmm. Nobody's ever known. Nobody's ever known. That's the tragedy. There's been a lot of accusations, but nobody ever knew what happened to the money, you know. God rest his soul, DeLeon McEwen, you know, he said, "I'm not takin' the blame in that. Nobody think I stole the money," he said, "because I didn't." But he was—you know, they were accusin' him at one time.

Mr. Mitchell: I don't know, sump' in' happened there between Scotty and Wallis and, you know, the money just disappeared.

Mrs. Mitchell: Somebody got it, but I don't know who got it. But when things like that happen, you can kill your organization automatically dead. It's automatically dead, you know.

Laura Hill: You can't recover from that.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-mmm. No, not from that, no.

Mr. Mitchell: No. You see, the other thing was this, is that Matt Augustine was the real smart guy. 'Cause he had a Master's degree and he, I guess he was smarter.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, Matt is a business man.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, Matt is a strictly business man. He went to—he's a graduate of Harvard.

Mrs. Mitchell: And he, he don't play around, he's all business.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm. So when Matt Augustine takes over FIGHTON and it becomes Eltrex, absolutely everybody along the way has said, "Matt Augustine is a businessman." That's how he ran it; it was no longer a social agency, it was a business.

Mrs. Mitchell: That's right.

Laura Hill: And so, as a business, being run by a businessman, does it still fulfill its purpose?

Mrs. Mitchell: I think it fulfills its purpose because he's hired and done some beautiful things with his people.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: He's hired, you know, a core group of people in the community, people that for the first time in their lives, they're able to send their kids off to school. He sets up packages within his company that—I think they all take a cruise together. There's things that they're doin', like one big family, you know.

Laura Hill: It's the quality of life; it's not just a job.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, yeah. And the people that work for him, love him, love the organization. So he's done an outstanding job.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, because the guy—he's set up education funds, he's set up health funds, he's set up, you know, workman's compensation funds, and he's set up all of these things for people. And made people have input into it, to ask for what they wanted.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, he makes them feel they're a part of, of—.

Mr. Mitchell: And he makes them feel that they're a part of the organization.

Laura Hill: So it sounds to me like much of the spirit of FIGHT, much of the purpose of FIGHT, still lives in that company.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm.

Laura Hill: And what about FIGHT Village?

Mrs. Mitchell: I don't know. I know they had some problems a couple of years ago, but I don't—you know, I haven't kept track.

Mr. Mitchell: They were havin' some mortgage problems.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, but, but I think—

Mr. Mitchell: Because the people that they had livin' there just couldn't pay the rent.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: —but I think Minister Florence still runs it, doesn't he?

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah.

Laura Hill: He's still on the board of directors.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, he's still on the board of directors.

Laura Hill: So Mrs. Mitchell, if we could just return for a little bit more to your political career. I don't have a firm sense on your chronology. You run for Ward Supervisor in '59 and lose. You run again in '61, you win. How long are you Ward Supervisor?

Mrs. Mitchell: I was Ward Supervisor—and during the time that I ran, so I'd say from '58, '59, '60—

Mr. Mitchell: '61—'63—'64

Mrs. Mitchell: —I think '60, '60 'cause Don, uh, Bennett, came in—.

Mr. Mitchell: Bob.

Mrs. Mitchell: Bob Bennett—remember, came in?

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, Bob Bennett.

Mrs. Mitchell: I think Bob came in, in '60.

Laura Hill: That can't be right.

Mrs. Mitchell: Wait a minute, no that's not right.

Mr. Mitchell: No, Bob Bennett came in in '6—.

Mrs. Mitchell: After I won.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, after you won.

Laura Hill: Because you're Ward Supervisor during the uprising.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah.

Laura Hill: So that's '61 until at least '64—

Mrs. Mitchell: '65.

Laura Hill: —'65, okay. And then you run for city council.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, and then I won and lost—tied and lost, by two votes, to Chris.

Laura Hill: Tell me about that election, to Chris, with Chris.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, you know, I love Chris and Chris did a lot for me, and that's why I didn't pursue that in the courts. Because we had all kinds of evidence that that election was stolen from me, you know?

Mr. Mitchell: My daughter was in college at Drexel University.

Mrs. Mitchell: No, she was at Xavier, when—.

Mr. Mitchell: No, that's right, she was at Xavier—New Orleans. She sent her absentee ballot.

Mrs. Mitchell: My neighbors' daughters sent theirs in from college.

Mr. Mitchell: My daughter's ballot never arrived. My neighbors' daughters' ballot never arrived. They arrived; they got put into a trash can. And the guy called me up and he said to me, "I work for the board of elections,"—and I ain't gonna tell you who he is.

Laura Hill: You don't need to.

Mr. Mitchell: Okay, but he called me up and he says, "Could you meet me at Don & Bob's[13]?"

Mrs. Mitchell: Behind Don and Bob's, remember?

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, he says, "Behind Don & Bob's. I'm gonna pull up in my car and you're gonna pull up in your car. I'm gonna be facin' one way and you gonna be facin' the other. I'm gonna talk to you from the car. And I'm gonna tell you what's goin' on, what's happened to your wife. And she's gonna lose the election." And I said, "No, she isn't," 'cause they 'nnounced that she was the winner. And they said, "No, she's gonna lose."

Mrs. Mitchell: They threw away my absentee ballots.

Mr. Mitchell: And so, they burned her absentee ballots in this ballot can. He says, "I can show you the can, if you wanna see it." I said, "What good is it for me to see it?" I came back and I said to her, you know, "You're gonna lose the election."

Laura Hill: Let's go back and talk about how we even get to absentee ballots. Because they don't typically count them, so what transpires prior to that?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, the night of—election night, I had won.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mrs. Mitchell: The next morning, I was tied—tied! A day or two later, I was two votes—Chris won by two votes.

Laura Hill: And this was all announced publicly?

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm.

Laura Hill: And so how do they explain that—?

Mr. Mitchell: Larry Kirwan was running the Democratic Party at that time.

Mrs. Mitchell: And he and Chris were like this.

Mr. Mitchell: And Larry Kirwan and Chris were like Siamese twins.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm. This is very, very interesting.

Mrs. Mitchell: So I said, you know, "I'm a firm believer what's for you, you're gonna get." And it just wasn't for me to have it. And the best thing that ever happened to me was to get the hell out of politics.


Laura Hill: I think that maybe—.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, you know, we went, we got—.

Mrs. Mitchell: [Still laughing] I'm sorry.

Laura Hill: We have to change the tape here real quick.

Laura Hill: So, in '65 you're out, you're done? No more.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm. Yeah, I was out, that's it.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, we were out because we got Willie Lightfoot involved.

Mrs. Mitchell: I got other people involved.

Laura Hill: Yeah, is he still alive?

Mrs. Mitchell: No, he died.

Mr. Mitchell: Ron Kilpatrick.

Laura Hill: I thought so.

Mr. Mitchell: Ron Kilpatrick got involved for the one year.

Laura Hill: There's another guy on the other side of town who runs the same election year you do.

Mr. Mitchell: David Gantt?

Mrs. Mitchell: Maxwell Walters.

Laura Hill: No, those were neither of the two names. What was the name?

Mrs. Mitchell: Ron Thomas?

Laura Hill: Say it again?

Mrs. Mitchell: Ron Thomas?

Laura Hill: Maybe that was it. It's—he's running in a different ward.

Mrs. Mitchell: It was Maxwell Walters who ran in '59 with me.

Laura Hill: No, no, no. I mean for city council. In '65.

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh, Ron Good.

Laura Hill: Ron Good, that's it. I thought it was Good, Ron Good. Same thing happens, right? He has a tied primary race, and then he ends up—.

Mrs. Mitchell: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: Oh, he wins, because Ron—they figured it was a—well, Ron wasn't as tied in to the FIGHT organization and all of the other, so Ron was considered to be more acceptable.

Laura Hill: Well, he's safer. He's not Connie Mitchell.

Mr. Mitchell: Yeah, okay.

Laura Hill: Yeah, of course.

Mr. Mitchell: So, Larry Kirwan said, "I don't care what you do, Connie Mitchell can't win this election."  [Tapping]

Laura Hill: And Larry Kirwan is the head of the Democratic Party?

Mrs. Mitchell: He was Chairman, at that time.

Laura Hill: Okay, okay. So how—?

Mr. Mitchell: But he owns an insurance company in this town.

Laura Hill: Okay.

Mr. Mitchell: Okay, and he had all the insurance with the city administration. Larry Kirwan owned, controlled all of the—.

Mrs. Mitchell: I think that they were really in a state of shock. No way on earth did they think that I would come that close to beatin' Chris.

Laura Hill: Well you did beat him.

Mrs. Mitchell: And I did beat him. And, you know, that's why I laughed, because I said I'm lookin' at—and I love Hillary Clinton, but if somebody had told that lady a year ago that that little black man would come up and be the presidential candidate—.

Laura Hill: She would have fallen over.

Mrs. Mitchell: It's, it's, and it's his time, you know. There's a time and there's a place for everything that happens. People have to accept that, you know.

Mr. Mitchell: I'm hoping Obama wins, because, God Almighty, we can't afford to have another Republican.

Laura Hill: Well, I just, I just watch the news footage and I think, "How can he not win?"

Mr. Mitchell: Well, you know, let's face it—

Laura Hill: You know—

Mrs. Mitchell: —this is America.


Laura Hill: —this is America.

Mr. Mitchell: Anything can happen.

Laura Hill: Uh-huh.

Mr. Mitchell: You see the other day what happened to his plane?

Laura Hill: No.

Mr. Mitchell: The plane got the tail—

Mrs. Mitchell: No, honey, the front end of the plane—.

Mr. Mitchell: —no, the back end of the plane, the chute that's supposed to open up, opened up inside the plane.

Laura Hill: Oh, good Lord.

Mr. Mitchell: And then the front end of the plane got pushed in.

Mrs. Mitchell: Got mashed in. So I said, "Oh Lord, they're startin' already."

Mr. Mitchell: While he's flyin' in the air.

Laura Hill: They're startin' already.

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah.

Laura Hill: It's interesting that you bring this up. What does the—the assassinations of Dr. King and Malcolm X do to Rochester? What's the response to those two things?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, I don't know about other people. I know Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, both the Kennedys—I don't think people realize what was taken out of people, you know. I think back to JFK's assassination and what we went through as a country, and then I realize we've been through hell in this country. You know, and how it drains people. And yet, you know, it forces people to stop and lose faith, and then they come back and fight twice as hard.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: But my fear is—and I tell this to John all the time—my fear with Obama is that some nut is gonna try to kill 'im, and if they do, that this country is in deep trouble.

Laura Hill: It is.

Mrs. Mitchell: Because, it's not only black folks in America. America has woke up—that this is a country, a diverse country, and this man represents both the black and white of America.

Laura Hill: Yeah.

Mrs. Mitchell: And that the Lord sent this young man—this is what I keep saying to John—that people don't want to believe this, but I really believe that this man has been put in this space and in this time to straighten us out as a country. I really do, I just believe that we need him to help straighten this country out, 'cause we are in deep trouble. We're hated around the world, you know. And we don't want to talk to nobody—don't talk to 'em, don't talk to 'em. Well, if you don't communicate with folks, you're never gonna—.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, I mean, we just, we just can't go to war just because we—we don't have the energy or the strength or the people to go to war with Iran, anyway, and that's what frightens me now with this mess. We just, we're dealin' with a bunch of nuts sittin' in Washington—

Laura Hill: Yeah, yeah.

Mrs. Mitchell: —who don't care about people.

Laura Hill: So—.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, you can see that—look at Halliburton. Halliburton started two hundred companies. They got the security, they bring the GIs food, they wash the GIs' clothes—they do everything. The government—they transport all the stuff, Halliburton, Halliburton, Halliburton. But all the different companies, but all companies by Halliburton. No bidding, no nothin', they just submit. Then Halliburton said—the government says to Halliburton, "You charge us too much money. You started overchargin' us by two hundred million." "Oh yeah, well when we find that area, we'll send you the two hundred." "Well, we'll keep the two hundred, you just ship back the stuff to us." You know—.

Laura Hill: Yeah, there are certainly a lot of problems.

Mr. Mitchell: Our Vice President is Chairman of the Board of Halliburton, he's Chairman of the Board Halliburton, now in disguise. And he and Bush, they've got to be billionaires since they got to be President.

Mrs. Mitchell: I don't even care about the money. You know, really, if they want to fleece the people, go fleece 'em, but don't put the whole country in jeopardy 'cause you want to fleece them.

Mr. Mitchell: Well look at the number of people who lost their homes through foreclosure.

Laura Hill: That's true.

Mrs. Mitchell: I mean, for the first time—.

Mr. Mitchell: And they estimate something like forty thousand, I mean forty million more people, in this country may lose their house, coming this year?

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, you know, that's, that's crazy.

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, we're in deep trouble, I tell you, financially in this country, because food prices have shot through the roof.

Mr. Mitchell: Gas prices are out of this—.

Laura Hill: This is a really good point for this. It is tragic in this country, but it is worse in many, many other places.

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh yes. Lord, yes.

Laura Hill: And so it sounds to me, like you were saying, that much of what Malcolm was trying to do in this period is to say, "We are setting the stage for very dangerous—

Mrs. Mitchell: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Laura Hill: —international, global proportions."

Mrs. Mitchell: That's right.

Laura Hill: How is, how is Rochester, in its own humble way, a player in the international context at this time? Is it?

Mrs. Mitchell: I don't think it is, really. I think—when you really stop and think about it, because Kodak has lost its power.

Mr. Mitchell: RG&E has lost their power.

Mrs. Mitchell: Gettin' ready to be—

Mr. Mitchell: Taken over.

Mrs. Mitchell: —taken over. But, really, the only one that has the global effect, right now, is Xerox.

Laura Hill: Okay. And back in this era, in 1965, when Malcolm was talking about America in a global context? When he's delivering that speech at Corn Hill? How did Rochester envision its place in the global arena?

Mrs. Mitchell: Oh, I think Rochester saw itself, uh, through Bausch & Lomb, Kodak, General Motors. We had, you know, the big guns here in town, but when you stop and think about the layoffs in these companies—.

Laura Hill: Yeah.

Mrs. Mitchell: Probably half the workforce that they had then—

Laura Hill: Is no longer.

Mrs. Mitchell: —not here.

Laura Hill: Did, did the black—?

Mr. Mitchell: Kodak, at one time had fifty thousand employees. Right now, they only got 'bout, somethin' like twelve or fourteen thousand.

Laura Hill: Yeah, I mean, those numbers were absolutely astonishing. Forty thousand, fifty thousand employees in a city like Rochester.

Mr. Mitchell: Well, look at Rochester Products—I remember, because I hired ten thousand people myself. I was personnel director over there. I hired ten thousand people, we had three shifts, we had about four thousand people workin' on three shifts, and we kept the place goin'. Now, Delphi came in and Delphi took over. Delphi, half the time, is closed, the money isn't there.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, the thing that puzzles me, and has me baffled, is that we have so much brain power in America and somehow—I don't know where it is, you know.  [Laughter]

Laura Hill: It's hiding, hiding in universities.

Mr. Mitchell: We got a  dummy runnin' the country.

Mrs. Mitchell: We have so many brilliant people in this country, and even right here in Rochester, we have some brilliant people in Rochester.

Laura Hill: Right.

Mrs. Mitchell: I don't know why—people just have given up, or what it is. I don't know.

Laura Hill: What um, I'm looking at the clock and seeing how much time I've taken up from you all today—what um, what are the things that we haven't covered that you think are absolutely critical to understanding this period? What have I missed?

Mrs. Mitchell: I think education.

Laura Hill: Tell me about education.

Mrs. Mitchell: I think that we've done a grave injustice to the young people that are no longer young, within this community. You know, I go back to when my daughter started school—well now, my daughter's fifty-years-old. And we lived in the Third Ward and I remember someone saying to me, "Is Constance gonna go to Number Three School?" I said, "Hell no, she's going to Catholic school." Now, that goes back a long time.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: And every since then, there's been problems within that city school district. When I worked for the Industrial Management Council, my job was—I was executive director of the PRISM [14] program, which was the science and math program. And we, God rest his soul, Josh Lofton, I remember saying to him, 'cause when he retired, he came to work for me, and I said, "Josh, is there some way we can find out who's failin' and who's, you know, making it, in the city?" He said, "Yeah, but they don't like to give that out." He said, "But, I'll get you a copy." He got the computer print-out. I brought them things home and spread 'em out on my dinin' room table, at the other house, and I sat there and cried like a baby. The kids were failin', across the board: F, D, F, D, F, D, F, D, down the line. I said, "Josh, the kids are all failing." He said, "Well, I didn't want to tell ya, I figured I'd let you find out for yourself." Our kids have been failing for so long, it's just a handful of kids that make it through that district, and graduate and can go on to higher education. I don't know what it is—you know, I don't want to blame it on the teachers, I don't want to blame it on the system—there's something radically wrong with the system!  Something really wrong!

Laura Hill: It's interesting that you bring this up, because it has been said that FIGHT is one of the reasons that education in this city is so bad. That FIGHT decided what the priorities were gonna be for Rochester, and education was not on their list of priorities.

Mrs. Mitchell: Could be. Could be, 'cause education is definitely one of the problems that I've seen—and I know that kids, you can change—you know, when I first started the PRISM  program—and I'll never forget the first meetin' I had with the kids. Two little girls, about thirteen-years-old, got up in the back of the room, raised their hands, and I said, "Yeah?" "Ms. Mitchell, my mother said to tell you 'hello'. She said that she was in your program at Montgomery Neighborhood Center." Well, I knew when she said that, that she was in the unwed program, so she couldn't be no more than—if she was thirteen, her mother was probably twenty-six, twenty-seven-years-old. And that was a problem then, and I said, this thing has gotta be fixed.  First, I called all the parents and I said, "Your kids cannot be in PRISM  if you don't participate. Your kids will not get summer intern jobs if you don't participate. And when I say participate, I mean show up for these meetings." And, you know, at first, they just, they didn't pay me no attention. When them kids went back and told their mothers, "Well I'm not getting' no summer job. Mrs. Mitchell said you didn't show up at no meeting." Honey, I had parents, lookin' me dead in my face, and pulled those parents together and got those kids tutored where they needed the tutoring, changed their mentality that they could learn. And it was the greatest joy of my life when my first batch of kids graduated from high school, and I had scholarships—I had joined the National Association of Pre-College Directors, and got scholarships in schools across the country. And when I saw them kids leavin' outta here—and I had worked with the schools, so that, I said, "Our kids can't afford to travel, so don't give me no scholarship to the University of Las Vegas, 'cause my kid can't get to Nevada." And they said, "Suppose we arrange for travel money and what not?" And they built in packages, and when I got those kids outta here, just did my heart so much good to see those kids go off to college and see those kids come back four years later. You know, but they ain't come back to Rochester, that's the sad part.

Laura Hill: I was going to ask.

Mrs. Mitchell: They didn't come back.

Mr. Mitchell: There's no employment here. Why would they wanna come back?

Mrs. Mitchell: And then, not only that, they wanted to go elsewhere. And that's human nature, you know, but—I mean, I had hoped that they would come back, but they didn't.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mrs. Mitchell: They, they scattered around America. Because, what happened, they became bright kids and they were recruited by the companies.

Laura Hill: Sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: You know, so, to me, education is the key, and I just, I don't see it bein' a top priority. If you look at the city school district, I mean, they brought in a new superintendent, and hopefully, I'm prayin' to God, that, you know, hopefully he can do some good, but it's not up to him.

Laura Hill: You know, education, of course, was on the table at this time—integration plans, bussing plans. I read some interview notes from an interview that you had done, where you said, "I'm not for bussing. I don't think that's the solution." Where does that come from?  What did you see as the solution, at that time?

Mrs. Mitchell: Well, first place, I don't think nobody has to go across town, sit next to no little white child to learn.


Mrs. Mitchell: I, you know, that's just, to me—and I don't even call that integration, because, when they first had the first integration, which was School Three and Thirty. And I'll never forget it, as long as I live, they put them kids on a bus, take 'em over to Number Thirty School, take 'em to the gymnasium, then they let 'em go into class. At noontime, they fed those kids, in the gymnasium. At three o'clock, they put them kids back on the bus, and brought 'em back to the Third Ward. Now, if you call that integration—and to me, integration is minglin', livin' by each other, beginnin' to know each other, and there's no way, you know.

Mr. Mitchell: You're never gonna get any integration by bussin' kids from one spot to another, and then bringin' 'em back home at night, so they come back to the same environment that they left that mornin'.

Mrs. Mitchell: You have to melt them into the school system. And I can use my grandson as an example. He went to West Irondequoit, on that Urban-Suburban program. But he got on a bus every mornin', went down to Main Street, got the bus, went on out to West Irondequoit, went to school. Bright and early, but he got a better education out there than I'm sure he would've got from Wilson or Franklin, or any of these schools in the city.

Laura Hill: Mmm-hmm.

Mr. Mitchell: He's a nuclear submarine man now, and he's studying engineering.

Mrs. Mitchell: So, you know—

Mr. Mitchell: He just got transferred over to Hawaii, so he could continue his education program.

Mrs. Mitchell: —but, you know, and that's the sad part of it, is that other people don't feel the same way that I do, but I just believe very strongly that kids can learn if you develop the mindset. And you have to make them feel that they can learn; you have to instill in them that they want to learn. And you gotta do some exciting things with them, you know. We used to always have the competition between the schools, you know, and things like that.

Laura Hill: Sure.

Mrs. Mitchell: But, everybody do what they've gotta do, you know. And I'm sure, when I'm dead and gone, they're still going to be arguing about whether—.  [Laughter]

Laura Hill: Not in our lifetimes. Well thank you guys so much for doing this with me. I really appreciate it.

—End of interview—


[1] Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell made additions/corrections to this transcript in March 2009.  Spelling corrections are reflected in the transcript text.  Content additions and corrections that change the transcript text have been included in footnotes.

[2] Constance is the daughter of Mr. and Mrs. Mitchell

[3] After they broke into the mosque— Mrs. Mitchell later clarified.

[4] Mrs. Mitchell later added that Fico's was a grocery store that sold anything, including stolen goods.

[5] John Mitchell's  — Mrs. Mitchell later clarified.

[6] Flora, Mrs. Mitchell later recalled, but she could not remember Flora's last name.

[7] The Mitchells are remembering Father David Finks .

[8] Saul Alinsky

[9] Champlain Street Block Club — Mrs. Mitchell later clarified.

[10] CEO, Industrial Management Council — Mrs. Mitchell later clarified.

[11] Mrs. Mitchell

[12] Mrs. Mitchell later added:  "There was a relationship between Croft and Florence that the outside world did not see.  Florence knew the power Croft possessed (support from the industrial leaders) and Croft knew and respected Florence's broad community support.  A lot of the rhetoric was for the press and a power play.  Florence threatened to quit the board (RJI) on numerous occasions.  But Croft's reply was always, "He's not going anywhere."

[13] Don & Bob's was a popular restaurant located on Monroe Avenue in Rochester.

[14] Program for Rochester to Interest Students in Science and Mathematics – Industrial Management Council.

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