Former Supervisor of the Third Ward reflects on riots in Rochester 50 years later

Updated: 07/23/2014 5:59 PM
Created: 07/23/2014 3:57 PM WHEC.com
By: Janet Lomax

News10NBC is taking an in-depth look at the Rochester Riots of 1964 and how it has impacted our area then and now.

The riots lasted three days and two nights. After it was over, four people were killed and nearly a 1,000 people were arrested. 

The riots broke out after police arrested a 19-year-old man for public intoxication during a street dance on Joseph Avenue and Nassau Streets.  Racial tensions were already building in the city, fueled by lack of job opportunities, decent housing and police brutality.

Some lawmakers, who feared riots were ahead, were coming together to try to prevent it.

Constance Mitchell had already broken one racial barrier. She was elected to the Monroe County Board of Supervisors as the first African-American woman. Mitchell fought hard for her community. She says, at that time, most of the blacks were unemployed and they lived in substandard housing in primarily two areas of the city, the Seventh and the Third Wards.

Constance Mitchell said, “I think the other problem was the whole school situation. Most of the minority kids went to two schools, No. 9 and No. 3, so there wasn't open enrollment as it is today.”

By the summer of 1964, Mitchell says people were fed up. There were rumors of possible trouble. The elected official brought a cross section of people, black and white, to her home in the Third Ward to try to come up with a plan. As they wrapped up their meeting, it happened.

Mitchell said, “We got a phone call that all hell had broken loose on Joseph Avenue.  It grew out of just agitators. There were two or three agitators who kept it going. ‘Look what they're doing to him? Why are they arresting him? He didn't do anything wrong.’ That sort of thing and it just kept going until it just ballooned.”

What happened here put Rochester on the national stage and brought people like Saul Alinsky, a Chicago based sociologist and organizer here to help. Mitchell’s friend, activist Malcolm X came too.  Mitchell says he did help bring some calm to the community, even though some didn't like what he had to say about the looting.

Mitchell said, “l I think what he was saying to them was what you did, you did for the wrong reasons. You went out there and destroyed people’s property and those people hadn't done anything to you.”

Mitchell says there were some positive things that came out of the riots. It ultimately brought job creation and a more diverse group of people together to work together.

Reverend Franklin Florence, with the assistance of Minister Raymond Scott, led the fight that got the attention of major corporations and helped put more people to work. We'll have their story Thursday.

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