By David A. Anderson, Ph.D

It was a somewhat mild February day in 1960. Still, scarves were tucked inside the zipped up jackets of the 60 or so people walking to and fro past the Woolworth’s Five and Ten Cents Store on Rochester’s East Main Street. Police officers, one of which held the leash fastened to the collar of his canine companion, eyed the marchers, and their signs. Over the several days of picketing, police officers would not find reasons to physically challenge the marchers.

A few of the protesters were labor union members, workers at the General Motors plant at the city’s western end. For the most part the protesters were students. Still, one taxpayer got right in the face of one the organizers: “If this is a demonstration for rights, how come there’s only three of you colored in that line?”

Actually, there were others: Dr. Walter Cooper, who had earned a Ph.D., in chemistry at University of Rochester; and John Mitchell a General Motors worker, and his wife Constance. On some days as many as ten African Americans were on that line, including young men matriculating at Colgate Rochester Divinity School

Dr. Walter Cooper

Rochester’s march at Woolworth’s was a gesture of empathy with civil rights protests in the Southland. Students at the all-black North Carolina A&T College, had sat-in at the Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworths lunch counter. They dared challenge the “No Negroes Allowed Policy.”

Dr. Cooper, among others, had urged City and County officials to address such policies and practices that served to foster “an island of poverty in a sea of plenty.” Hoped for reforms, however, seemed to favor Community Chest (United Way) services and related charity measures. When, in July 1964, riots erupted on the streets of “inner city” Rochester, numbers of white citizens wanted to know, “Now, why would our coloreds” do such a thing?

John & Constance Mitchell

City Historian, Blake McKelvey, was quick to cite the decade preceding the riots as a new migration from the South that had more than doubled the city’s non-white population, with most of the newcomers settling in the Seventh Ward, just east of the river. The old immigrant district, which sheltered the newcomers of each new generation, was now frankly recognized as a slum.

Such “recognition” apparently prompted City government to propose construction of 137 units of low-rent public housing on a site near the suburban town of Irondequoit. The project was fiercely opposed by white owners. Subsequently, City leaders declared:

Rather than moving the slum residents out to blight the outskirts, the City should clear part of the slum and build a new housing project there.

Three-hundred and ninety-two units (triple the number proposed for the first choice site were shoe-horned into seven high-rise buildings on six acres of land, next to Baden Street Settlement House. There had been earlier, smaller waves of African American settlers, and Howard Wilson Coles had marked their coming as a continuation of “Afro-Rochester,” people who, while separate and unequal, had contributions to make, even as had the handful that anointed Frederick Douglass to near imperial status. Coles chose to name his periodical, Frederick Douglass Voice, that indeed called attention to Douglass’s leadership in the 19thCentury battle to end slavery.

Howard Wilson Coles

Coles was insightful, sensitive to the troubling circumstances that motivated so many to leave Dixie, as well as the issues that confronted their arrival. He watched, he listened, and made suggestions. Coles returned to Rochester in the early 1930s, an era marked by economic depression, in which African Americans were more regularly immersed than the white population. Using money borrowed on his life insurance policy, he launched The Voice, a newspaper chronicling the lives, hopes and ambitions of African Americans. Distributed throughout Western New York, The Voice attempted to articulate the accomplishments; it was an effort to raise consciousness, contribute to regenerating the zeal and determination that had energized the Black stride toward freedom from slavery. The remains of Frederick Douglass reposed at Mount Hope Cemetery, but Coles was trying to reprise that energy that had helped fuel the drive to end slavery.

Coles also used the medium of radio. In 1938, he became Rochester’s first African American radio personality; his weekly broadcast was heard at station WSAY. He used every means at his disposal to address a range of issues, no the least of which was the increasing slum-like housing too many African Americans were compelled to occupy. Under-employment, poor schooling, the wide-range of polices and practices that held the African American population in a new kind of servitude were fair game for Coles

The New York State Legislature credited Coles in 1938 with conducting the first documented housing survey of Rochester’s low-income families. Information he presented to the New York State Temporary Commission of the Condition of the Urban Colored Population was later published in the 1939 report. City Manager Baker appointed Coles to the City Wide Housing Committee of the City of Rochester to help alleviate the poor conditions documented in the survey.

Yet, in the 1930s, ‘40s an’50s many promising, personalities seemed to use Rochester as a rest stop before moving to their intended destination. Even the numbers of African American settlers would grow ever so slowly. By 1960 the total was only about 15,000, a mere x percent of the total number of residents. “Afro-Rochester,’ was an honorable term, but few people connected to as so many others did,”Harlem Renaissance.”

Perhaps, in this period of the Civil War Sesquicentennial, it will begin to resonate, to energize African Americans, and others who might raise their expectation for what Douglass decided,

At the time there was no other place where I felt more at home,” than Rochester.”

From the sixth principle, Kuumba (creativity) in the cultural holiday expresses the practice where we reveal the spirit-driven community that is the promise of Afro-Rochester. It is, or a least becomes community, because a plurality of its people, come with the expectations of putting down roots. When one stands firm, i.e., resolves to daily take the action the makes for community, one’s feet are planted in a manner whereby he or she is balanced, i.e., able to help those to either side.

Thus, one must practice daily to do always as much as we can, in the way that we can, in order to leave our community more beautiful and beneficial than we inherited it