Erie Canal postcard circa 1911
Souvenir Post Card Co., New York
When the Erie Canal opened in 1825, connecting Western New York’s waterways with the Hudson River and forging a path for trade, Rochester became the fastest-growing city in America. With a skyrocketing population and robust economy, Rochester inspired the phrase “boomtown” and became known as “The Young Lion of the West.”
Within the first decade of the canal's existence, the cost of shipping a ton of cargo between Buffalo and New York City dropped from as much as $125 to only $4 per ton. Within one year of opening, some 2,000 boats, 9,000 horses and 8,000 men were employed in the transportation of goods on the canal.
The Erie Canal also made it possible for both New England and immigrant farmers to settle and develop the rich farmlands of the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. These farmers would send their crops to eastern markets via the canal and receive manufactured goods in return.
Susan B. Anthony
Throughout the 19th century, Rochester developed a reputation as a socially progressive city. Suffragist Susan B. Anthony lived and worked in Rochester. Abolitionist Frederick Douglass lived in Rochester and published his newspaper The North Star there. He also assisted Harriet Tubman in the dangerous work of ushering slaves to freedom via the Underground Railroad. Douglass helped slaves escape by boat along the Genesee River to Lake Ontario and Canada.
By the 20th century, Rochester was home to several pioneering companies, including Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb (maker of eyeglass frames and lenses) and Western Union. Local jobs paid above the national average and large numbers of people owned their own homes. Companies also sponsored Rochester’s rich cultural life, bringing museums, schools and performance centers to the city.
As African Americans began to leave the segregated Jim Crow south and head north, Rochester’s strong economy and the city’s reputation for manufacturing jobs drew blacks to the city like moths to a flame. For southern African Americans, Rochester held the promise of respect, modern and decent housing and the chance to pursue a career and educate future generations.
Durham, North Carolina,
1940, Library of Congress
In 1950, 7,590 blacks lived in Rochester out of a total population of 332,488. In 1960, the city’s population had declined slightly to 318,611, but the number of black residents increased to 23,586—constituting a larger percentage of city population. But despite the growth, city fathers moved slowly in building affordable public housing to accommodate new residents. In 1959, the city’s first urban renewal housing project, Baden-Ormond, displaced 850 families and, once completed, only provided housing for 256.
With no alternatives, black families crowded into rat-infested slums in the city’s African American neighborhoods. African Americans also found that local manufacturing companies and corporations like Kodak did not hire non-whites. Alleged police brutality, including the use of police dogs, became rampant throughout predominantly black neighborhoods.
On July 24, 1964, the underlying discontent ignited into the three-day riot depicted in JULY ‘64. The disturbance began at a Friday evening street dance sponsored by the Northeast Mothers Improvement Association. One of the chaperones called police to complain about an intoxicated young man and when police attempted to arrest him, the crowd interfered. The officers called for backup and when a K-9 unit arrived on the scene, the crowd became enraged.
The city responded by calling in all off-duty state troopers, sheriffs and policemen. The next evening, the crowds resumed, and the rioting spread. On Sunday, New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller sent more than 1,500 members of the National Guard to Rochester. It was the first time the guard had been called to a northern city, and the rioting gradually subsided as the soldiers patrolled the streets.
Soon after the riots, black leaders met at Rochester’s African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church and invited renowned social activist Saul Alinsky to come to Rochester to help organize the city’s black community. Alinsky and local leaders created FIGHT: Freedom, Independence, God, Honor, Today, and appointed Reverend Franklin Florence as president.
FIGHT immediately set forth a series of demands including more black representation on neighborhood and city organizations, better schools and better employment opportunities. Kodak, as the city's largest employer, became an early target. FIGHT bought Kodak stock and brought its demands to a stockholders meeting. After a period of posturing and confrontation, Kodak did increase its minority hiring.
The events of July 1964 brought key decision makers to the table and many conditions, including policing, improved. Urged on by Federal legislation, corporations began hiring blacks for better jobs. Small black businesses grew and Rochester's first radio station created for African Americans took to the airwaves.
In 1966, Ronald Good became the first black elected to the Rochester City Council. In 1967, Ruth Scott became the first black woman elected to the council. In November 1993, William A. Johnson, Jr. became Rochester's first African-American mayor. In the 1993 election, Johnson received more than 72 per cent of votes, beating a 20-year incumbent. Johnson did not run for re-election in 2005.
In 2005, large areas of Rochester were still plagued by high rates of unemployment, infant mortality and teen pregnancy. The per capita number of children living in poverty was the highest in the state and among the highest in the nation. Home ownership was down and a larger percentage of the population failed to complete high school. Only 25 percent of Rochester’s ninth graders graduate at the end of their senior year.
African American neighborhoods, where the riots raged, remain depressed. "You can still see the aftermath of the riots, “African American community leader Constance Mitchell told the Democrat & Chronicle in a 2004. “I go down Joseph, Portland or Hudson [Avenues] and notice a lot of things that were torn down and never rebuilt.”
In 2004, former Mayor Johnson told JULY ’64 filmmakers that Rochester’s blacks still do not participate equally in planning for the city’s future. “It still amazes me that…I can go to meetings in this town of the power elite and I’ll be the only person of color in the room,” Johnson said in JULY ’64. “And it’s very clear that if I weren’t mayor I wouldn’t be in that room.”
View a timeline of the Rochester riots >>
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