Remembering the Rochester Riots of 1964

Remembering the Rochester Riots of 1964


~By Verdis L. Robinson

July 1964 was a historical month as President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. On July 2, 1964, Jim Crow took his last bow effectively ending de jure (Latin for “according to law”) segregation in the United States as the Supreme Court had declared racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional with Brown v. Board of  Education ten years earlier and as Congress outlawed racial discriminations in other areas of public life. Within a month, a riots broke out in Rochester, New York, that witnessed race-related violence, property damaged, looting, arrests, and death. The underlying factors that ignited the riots did not stem from de jure segregation, as with southern cities, it was de facto (Latin for “in fact”) segregation that existed where racial separation was a matter of custom or tradition rather than by law. De facto segregation was implied, it was understood, and it was subtly yet aggressively enforced by housing and employment discrimination. The Civil Rights Act was ineffective with this form of segregation that plagued most northern cities and communities.

During the 1950s and ‘60s, Western New York experienced a significant migration of southern African-Americans seeking
employment opportunities. Rochester’s reputable industries and manufacturing job prospects encouraged this migration,
as its strong economy was a far cry from the Jim Crow South. Between 1950 and 1960, the African-American population
in the city of Rochester rose dramatically from 2% to 7%. However, Rochester’s companies and corporations refused to hire them. In 1960, blacks had a 14.2 % unemployment rate. Those that did secure jobs were paid low wages and were unskilled. Furthermore, Rochester authorities were slow to accommodate the new residents as urban renewal created housing projects for some, but the majority was forced to live in the city’s most impoverished and vermin-infested neighborhoods due to housing
discrimination and racial and ethnic separation. With the growing population came the growing poverty and unemployment, and then came the crime and drug abuse. Rochester police, focused more on law and order than social justice, targeted these neighborhoods, and there was a sharp increased in the cases of alleged police brutality and the use of K-9 units.

From the windows of Hanover Houses, the impoverished high-rise projects just off of Joseph Avenue, black residents could see their white neighborhoods shopping in whiteowned businesses yet the socio-economic inequality was infuriating especially during the Civil Rights Era. At a block party in the evening of July 24, 1964, police were called in after a complaint of public intoxication. After a display of law enforcement, the crowd interfered prompting the call for reinforcement and police dogs. The
aggravated crowd rebelled.Related image

After three nights and two days of curfews, riot weapons, thrown bricks, damaged and looted storefronts, police dogs, Molotov cocktails, water hoses unleashed on crowds of young black rioters, a state of emergency declaration, city police, state troopers, sheriff ’s deputies, National Guardsmen, and a helicopter crash, the Rochester riot ended with four deaths, a thousand arrests, and hundreds of businesses damaged—some beyond repair.

Following the riots, many conditions improved due to the inspiring efforts of social activists demanding change. However, some of the areas that experienced the hardest impact of the riots have never truly recovered. Despite the demolition of Hanover Houses and its replacement with low-rise townhouses and apartments, the Joseph Avenue community, where the riots began, are still challenged by high rates of unemployment, low rates of home ownership, and staggering educational inequities, not to mention the high crime and drug rates all supporting the claim that Rochester is one of the most impoverished cities in the country. African Americans now make up nearly 15% of Rochester’s inner-city population, but redlining, blockbusting, and white flight have kept de facto segregation in Rochester a reality. In other words, the impact of the riots can still be felt and witnessed after fifty years.

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Some have asked, “Could it happen again?” Well, it is the argument of this historian that if conditions do not improve, if the majority of African-American communities remain impoverished, if Rochester’s inner-city neighborhoods remain segregated, a riot will be the least of its worries. The city of Rochester’s children are at the most risk and their future depends on an understanding of the historical developments in Rochester’s race relations, more discussions and dialogues with more residents and citizens, and a determined, focused, and unyielding call to action. Perhaps a new movement is in order as many inner-city
neighborhoods across the country are steeped in poverty and in similar conditions that spark the riots of 1964.

It has been said that history repeats itself, but it does not. It is a new era, with new challenges, new technologies, and new players. What has been proven true is that, as George Santayana stated, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” What is evident is the importance of remembering and understanding the riots, engaging the communities most impacted by it, finding solutions, and acting upon them for the sake of the future. Remembrance and dialogues must continue well after its fiftieth anniversary, or else, Rochester is condemned to repeat its history.

Fire fighters spray hoses to contain a fire at the Allan Grocery store on the corner of Joseph Avenue and Catherine Street. Both Allan Grocery Store and Catherine Street no longer exist due to the riots.

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Photo: Courtesy