Former News10NBC reporter reflects on riots in Rochester 50 years later

Updated: 07/21/2014 6:20 PM
Created: 07/21/2014 7:14 AM WHEC.com

Fifty years ago this week, people’s frustrations over claims of police brutality, a lack of jobs, sub-standard housing turned to anger and erupted into a riot that lasted three days. The event was monumental and changed the future of the city.

Four people were killed and almost 1,000 others, black and white races, were arrested. Businesses were looted, torched and destroyed. In all, more than one million dollars’ worth of damage was left behind.

News10NBC is taking an in-depth look at the events that led up to and after the riots.

It all started when a 19-year-old man, who was attending a street dance on Joseph Avenue and Nassau Street, was arrested for public intoxicated. Racial tensions were high. There had already been claims of police brutality in the black community and his friends tried to intervene telling the police they’d take him home. But he was arrested. 

What happened next--happened quickly, but it had a long lasting impact on the city. 

At 88-years-old, Warren Doremus has seen a lot in his life, especially during his career as a television journalist in Rochester. Looking back at the riots of 1964, one scene still sticks with him 50 years later.

Warren Doremus said, “The first thing I saw was a man with a two-by-four sticking out of his windshield. Before long, the chief of police had been hit by a rock that left a blemish on his hip--the size of a dinner plate and then they overturned his car. It was on its roof when we got there.”

Rochester City Police answered the initial call for trouble on Joseph Avenue, but as the numbers in the crowd grew, eventually to 2,000, they had to call for back up.

Doremus said, “Police from everywhere were called in here to see what they could do to bring this thing under control. They couldn't. The National Guard did.”

The riots ended after three days and two nights with close to 1,000 arrests. Four people died, including three people, inside a helicopter that crashed in Corn Hill. The business districts in the Joseph Avenue area and Clarissa Street neighborhoods were destroyed by looters. The riots turned the eyes of the nation toward Rochester 

Doremus said, “A lot of people who’d never heard of Rochester, N.Y. were suddenly made quite aware of this city.”

Big names made their way here like Malcolm X, nationally known activist and Chicago sociologist and community organizer Saul Alinsky, who, working with Rochester community leaders like Minister Franklin Florence and many others helped from an organization called Fight. It brought pressure on Xerox and Kodak and those major corporations opened up some of those manufacturing jobs.

Looking back 50 years, Doremus says the riots were a wake-up call for a large segment of this community that in 1964 saw Rochester as a “tranquil place to live.”

Doremus said, “It took quite a while for people to come to grips with the idea that tranquility is not always what is seems.”

When the riots broke out, you could say Darryl Porter was right at the center. Porter, former assistant to Mayors Bob Duffy and Tom Richards and three term president of the Rochester City School Board, was a 14-year-old back in 1964 and the leader of a gang called the Matadors. In fact, it was his close friend who was arrested during that street party.

On Tuesday, you'll hear Porter’s story, in his words, about what happened that Friday night and where we are 50 years later.

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