Constance Mitchell remembered as a giant of Rochester community

December 14, 2018 08:14 PM

A giant in the Rochester community has died.

Constance Mitchell was the first African American woman to win an election in Monroe County and a force to reckon with in her fight for equality and racial justice. She died Friday morning.

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In 1961, she won a seat on what was then known as the Monroe County Board of Supervisors. It later became the Monroe County Legislature. 

"She opened up her house and her spirit to so many people," said former Rochester Mayor Bill Johnson." 

“She touched the many, many lives of people over the 50 to 60 years she lived here," he said.

When Bill Johnson thinks of Constance Mitchel, the first words that come out are friend and colleague, but also “a fellow warrior and a counselor who give it to you straight.” 

Johnson says not only did Mitchell blaze a trail for him to become the first African-American mayor, but she is the person who persuaded him to run.

"Connie Mitchell invited me to her house for dinner...under false pretenses,” said Johnson. “I thought I was just going to get a good meal. She locked the doors and said ‘you're not leaving here until you agree to run for mayor.’"

Johnson said she didn't just convince him to run, she did everything she could to help him win.

Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren called Mitchell one of her "personal heroes and role models in the fight to bring civil rights and social justice to the city of Rochester."

 In a statement she said, "I am a living example of the fact that she continued to lift as she climbed."

Monroe County Executive Cheryl Dinolfo said, "Constance Mitchell was a living testament to the power that everyday people possess to make change through public service." 

Congressman Joseph Morelle calls Mitchell "an iconic activist and leader who dedicated her life in the pursuit of equality and racial justice."

County Legislator LaShay Harris is only the second African American woman elected in the county. She sees a number of parallels in their lives.

"She went to St. Monica's Church," said Harris. "I graduated from St. Monica's School. She did a lot of her work in the third ward...a good portion of that is in the 19th ward and I do a lot of work in the 19th ward and very much grassroots and that's what I do to this day even though I'm a legislator."

Johnson said it wasn't her career or her trail blazing, that drew people to her, but who she was.

"She could stand on the street corners where people were rioting and talk to them," said Johnson. "She could entertain both Malcolm X and Bobby Kennedy at her house.  She could sit in boardrooms around this town. She could persuade people to put money in programs like PRISM (Program for Rochester to Interest Students in Science and Math)," said Johnson. 

He continued, "She was a very powerful person, yet very humble. She was just as comfortable in her kitchen making gumbo as she was sitting in a boardroom talking with chief executives about how they should solve some social problems in this community."


Lynette Adams

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