University of Rochester

Rochester's Civil Rights Struggle Preserved On New University of Rochester Web Site

July 1, 2009

By any measure, the race riots of 1964 were a turning point in the history of Rochester. The three nights of rioting left four people dead, 350 injured, and more than 800 arrested. But those disturbing July days also broke through the community's complacency toward racial discrimination that had fomented such civil unrest. In the aftermath of the riots, Rochester became the birthplace of several civil rights strategies that would later serve as models across the nation.

To capture this critical chapter in civil rights history, the University's Department of Rare Books and Special Collections has launched the Rochester Black Freedom Struggle Oral History Project. The library has recorded and will soon make available online interviews with more than 20 key players from Rochester's fight against racial discrimination during the 1960s and 1970s.

When completed in the coming months, the project's Web site (www.library.rochester.edu/rochesterblackfreedom) will offer text, audio, and video files of these conversations. In these interviews, civil rights activists relive the emotions and events surrounding those tumultuous years and provide a rich perspective on the city's response to one of its darkest hours.

Phyllis Andrews
Phyllis Andrews, Rare Books and
Special Collections librarian

"Actually hearing the interviews is more powerful than anything I could describe," said Rare Books Librarian Phyllis Andrews who spearheaded the project over the past year. "For today's student, 1964 can seem like ancient history," she added. "This oral history project will help to bring those events to life and create a permanent resource for continued study and learning."

Visitors to the site will be able to read and listen to the stories of community activists Constance Mitchell and Loma Allen, businessmen Horace Becker and Clarence Ingram, and ministers Raymond Scott, Herb White, and Robert Kreckel. Charles Price, the first African-American police officer in Rochester, describes his arrest by state police during riot patrol as a plainclothes officer. Darryl Porter, now Mayor Robert Duffy's assistant, recalls his leadership of a local youth gang, the Matadors.

Laura Warren Hill
Laura Warren Hill, oral history
project coordinator

"These are people who gave so much of their lives to the community. It is an amazing thing to hear people tell their stories. It completely changes what I thought I knew," said Laura Warren Hill, a doctoral student at Binghamton University who conducted the interviews for the project. Her thesis, "Strike the Hammer While the Iron Is Hot: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, NY", examines the Rochester riots, their origins, and aftermath.

"The narrative of Black struggle is that the Civil Rights Movement was in the South, then the focus moves to the Black Power Movement in California. Rochester is not on the map," explained Warren Hill. But Rochester pioneered some important strategies. For example, Rochester's civil rights group FIGHT, formed in response to the riots, experimented effectively with a proxy strategy. By asking individuals and churches for voting rights to their Kodak shares, the group was able to attend shareholders' meetings and challenge the corporation's discriminatory hiring practices. The confrontation, covered in the pages of The Wall Street Journal and other national media, eventually pushed Kodak to hire 600 minority workers and implement further job training programs.

"What happened in Rochester has the potential to rewrite what scholars know about civil rights," concluded Warren Hill.

Librarians hope that interest in the site will help identify more candidates for interviews. The project has already assisted the library in obtaining important additions to its collections related to the riots and the city's recovery, including the papers of Walter Cooper, the first African American to earn a doctorate in physical chemistry from the University and a retired research scientist at Kodak. Cooper was one of the founding members of the Rochester chapter of the Urban League and of Action for a Better Community. Already the Black Freedom Struggle Web site includes links to related 19th and 20th century library collections including the Frederick Douglass Papers, the Susan B. Anthony Papers, the Rochester Race Riot Papers, the Franklin Florence Papers, and the Rocky Simmons Photographs.

"Rochester's African-American history extends far beyond the life of Frederick Douglass," said Richard Peek, director of Rare Books and Special Collections. "The collection materials acquired and preserved during this project, along with the developing Web site, will contribute to the ongoing community effort to help bring this history to light."

For additional information about the Rochester Black Freedom Struggle Oral History Project contact Richard Peek, rpeek@library.rochester.edu or phone 275-4477.




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