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Week 4: Rochester and the Civil Rights Movement

Updated: Jan 27

WELCOME (in Swahili, "Karibu Sana!")

February is Black History Month, a time dedicated to celebrating influential Black Americans and people of African descent in communities worldwide. Thank you for joining week four of our Black History Month Program.

This week’s focus concentrates on acknowledging the perseverance, fortitude, and resolve that African American people possessed to survive and thrive in a nation that was largely intent on oppressing and marginalizing Black people and communities.



For week four of our Black History Month Program, we will be featuring two alumni of the Rochester area.

Ms. Maia Woluchem - Pittsford High School Alum

Maia Woluchem is a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology- Department of Urban Studies and Planning. Currently, she is a Technology Fellow on the Civic Engagement and Government Team at the Ford Foundation, where she builds work at the intersection of civic organizing, power building, and technology. View Maia's interview here.

Ms. Klara Owens - Fairport High School Alum

Klara Owens works as a Client Success Manager - working with clients across the US to design leadership and technology strategies to enhance culture and employee engagement. She grew up in the city of Rochester and went to Fairport High School as part of the Urban Suburban program. She went onto college at the University of Albany majoring in both Business and Spanish language and has since traveled to 26 countries with a goal of reaching 30 countries before she reaches 30 years old. View Klara's interview here.


Please review content from each week our program


The Pursuit of Equality and Navigating Adversity

The struggle to realize freedom and equality has been an ongoing challenge for African Americans in our country. Through this adversity, African American people have continued in their efforts to resist tyranny and subjugation and to realize their inherent rights to citizenship and the actualization of liberty and equality. Here, in Week 4, we highlight only a handful of the many inspiring Black National and Rochester Local Civil Rights Leaders who have worked to improve the lives of Americans with their contributions and commitments to excellence.


It is often assumed that the Civil Rights Movement began in the late 1950's, winning for African-Americans basic rights long denied to them. But in actuality, these efforts started much earlier, in 1909, when in response to the 1908 Springfield riot, W.E.B. Du Bois, Mary White Ovington, Ida B. Wells, Henry Moskowitz and William English Walling founded the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, an organization still champion the rights of Black Americans to this day.

The organization would lead protests in response to the East St. Louis Massacre, a series of outbreaks of race-related violence by White Americans who murdered between 40 and 250 African-Americans in late May and early July 1917. Also leaving another 6,000 black people homeless and vandalism costing an estimated $400,000 in property damage. That month, the NAACP protested with a silent march of 10,000 Black men, women, and children down New York’s Fifth Avenue.

Documented history of White violence against Black communities leads directly up to the precipitous events of the Civil Rights Movement. In 1919 the NAACP published a landmark report, “Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States: 1889-1918.” The report was the foundation used to end Lynch mobs as a brutal form of political and economic terrorism.

The 1950's would mark the entrance of the NAACP onto the national legal stage, where in 1954, a series of critical cases testing segregation that were pressed by the NAACP would culminate in the Supreme Court's ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case, which unanimously outlawed segregation of public schools.

Ella Baker - The Mother of the Civil Rights Movement

On graduation from HPCU Shaw University in North Carolina, Ella Baker moved to New York City. Joining the NAACP in 1940, her advocacy and organizing developed some of the most famous leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. Baker empowered people like Rosa Parks to stand up and speak out. It was with her efforts, that she and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, helping to build the Civil Rights Movement.

In the 1960s, she joined a group of students in a series of sit ins and go on to form the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. Baker ignited a generation of young Americans who would go on to risk their own freedom for the advancement and equality of all black people.

Montgomery bus boycott

The Montgomery bus boycott started on 5 December 1955, sparked by the arrest and court case of Rosa Parks. The roots of the bus boycott would begin years before, with the Women’s Political Council (WPC), a group of black professionals founded in 1949 by Mary Fair Burks. In a meeting with Mayor W. A. Gayle in March 1954, the council's members would outline the changes they sought for Montgomery’s bus system. When failing to produce any meaningful change, WPC president Jo Ann Robinson would issue a letter to the mayor, stating, “There has been talk from twenty-five or more local organizations of planning a city-wide boycott of buses”.

A year after the WPC’s meeting a 15-year-old named Claudette Colvin was arrested for challenging segregation on a Montgomery bus. Seven months later, 18-year-old Mary Louise Smith was also arrested for refusing to yield her seat to a white passenger.

Neither arrest, however, mobilized the black community like the arrest of civil rights activist Rosa Parks later that year. Her arrest and court case would be a strategically planned and publicized in the media. Legendary civil rights attorney Fred Gray said during a recent interview. “It took meticulous planning and thought. It wasn’t something that came together overnight. It took discipline and smart people.”

A 13-month mass protest would end with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that segregation on public buses is unconstitutional. The achievement led to the desegregation of the bus line and launched protests across the South. The Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA) coordinated the boycott, and its president, Martin Luther King, Jr., became a prominent civil rights leader as international attention focused on Montgomery.

Selma to Montgomery marches

In March 1965, Martin Luther King led thousands of nonviolent demonstrators on a second March, successfully to the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, Alabama, after a 5-day, 54-mile march from Selma, Alabama, where local African Americans, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) had been campaigning for voting rights.

In the first March SNCC leaders Hosea Williams and John Lewis would lead the group across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they faced a blockade of law enforcement, who ordered the marchers to disperse. When they did not, and cheered on by white onlookers, the police then attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Mounted police then chased retreating marchers, continuing to beat them.

Alabama State Troopers attack civil rights demonstrators outside Selma, Alabama, on Bloody Sunday, March 7, 1965
State Troopers attack civil rights demonstrators

In the first March SNCC leaders Hosea Williams and John Lewis would lead the group across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where they faced a blockade of law enforcement, who ordered the marchers to disperse. When they did not, and cheered on by white onlookers, the police then attacked the crowd with clubs and tear gas. Mounted police then chased retreating marchers, continuing to beat them.

The event became known as “Bloody Sunday,” and television coverage would trigger national outrage. Lewis, severely beaten, said: “I don’t see how President Johnson can send troops to Vietnam—I don’t see how he can send troops to the Congo—I don’t see how he can send troops to Africa and can’t send troops to Selma”

During the final rally, held on the steps of the capitol in Montgomery, King proclaimed: “The end we seek is a society at peace with itself, a society that can live with its conscience. And that will be a day not of the white man, not of the black man. That will be the day of man as man”.

Finally, in the presence of King and other civil rights leaders, on the 6th of August, President Johnson would sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Post-WW2 Rochester and Racism

During the same time period, post-war Rochester was going through large scale transitions with the introduction of highways and new development. Rochester is portrayed as a bustling commercial and industrial center, "a place to make a profit, as pleasantly as possible".

But, underneath this commercial messaging, the the impacts 1940's to 1950's Black migration, redlining, social and economic segregation were building to a critical point. Many US corporations, like Kodak would create racial divisions in their workforce by effectively confining the recent arrivals from the South to low-paying menial jobs.

Local Black community members in Rochester were experiencing these conditions first hand. Black people were confronted with a severe shortage of housing, much of which had been built at the turn of the 20th century. Rochester had no public housing program.

The housing shortage contributed to the confinement of working class Black Americans to the oldest and poorest neighborhoods of the city. Many landlords in these areas illegally subdivided buildings into smaller units, creating dangerous overcrowding and poor living conditions.

Police enforced segregation of Black workers. Some reports identify restrictions to an approximately 10-square-block area in the northern part of the city. If any Black person ventured past these unofficial boundaries the police would appear and turn them back.

The Long, Hot Summer

The urban uprising, often called "The Long Hot Summer" began in 1964. When a white policeman in Harlem shot a black youth in July 1964, a similar disturbance flared (though on a lesser scale than the Watt's uprising.) Rochester, Jersey City, and Philadelphia exploded as well. From 1964 to 1966, outbreaks of violence rippled across many other northern urban areas, including Detroit, where 43 people were killed.

As was the case with many of the uprisings in the ’60s, Rochester’s began with an incident of police repression that sparked a reaction among the working class African American population.

The use of the attack dogs set off an uprising that would last three days and spread throughout the city’s African American working class neighborhoods, leading to almost 1000 arrests and cost over $1 million in property damage. Four people died during the uprising when a helicopter surveying the property damage crashed.

Local Rochester Leaders

In local leaders emerged, advocating to address the crisis forming in the city as both Black professional and migrant workers were excluded from opportunities to settle in suburban communities or find work in new Rochester corporations.

Dr. Charles Terrell Lunsford (1891-1985)

Charles Terrell Lunsford was born in Macon, Georgia in 1891. He attended Howard University in Washington, D.C. He moved to Rochester in the summer of 1921 and opened his own practice on Clarissa Street. He practiced medicine for more than half a century.

Lunsford was a key witness in a state legislative committee on discrimination in the '30s. He was referenced by Gov. Harriman in the '50s for his struggle against racial discrimination in public places, housing and employment.

He was a constant advocate for civil rights issues, so much so that when he died, he was referred to as the “Martin Luther King of Rochester.”

Lunsford fought to change policies to allow black students to enroll at the University of Rochester medical school. He helped to integrate companies such as Eastman Kodak Co. and the local YMCA. During World War II, he worked to change the Red Cross policies to accept the blood of Black donors.

As president of the local NAACP chapter, he hosted a reception for Dr Martin Luther King Jr. when he visited Rochester in1958.

The Rochester School Board renamed School 19 as the Charles T. Lunsford School in 1973. June 18th, 1978 the Mayor Thomas Ryan declared the day Charles T. Lunsford Day in Rochester. Finally, in 1986, the Rochester City Council renamed Plymouth Park to Charles Lunsford Park.

Dr. Walter Cooper [1928-]

Scientist, humanitarian, activist, and educator, was born on July 18, 1928 in Clairton, Pennsylvania. He was involved in racial equality as both a high school student and in college at Washington & Jefferson College, where he led a group of eight fellow students to press U.S. Steel for employment and successfully obtained jobs. Dr. Cooper attended Howard University briefly and then went on to earn his Ph. D in Physical Chemistry at the University of Rochester 1956.

When Dr. Walter Cooper moved to Rochester 1954 to attend University of Rochester, he was turned down 69 times before he could find an apartment — with some telling him to his face that they did not "rent to Negroes."

"I was taken aback. I just didn't expect this magnitude of racism in housing," said Cooper, who with his wife and child found an apartment in a house on South Plymouth Avenue, part of what was known as the Third Ward. “That area, based in Corn Hill, and the neighborhood surrounding Joseph Avenue in northeast Rochester were where many of the new arrivals settled.”

During his years at Kodak, Dr. Cooper also was involved in community development and civil rights issues, with emphasis on educational opportunities and motivation. In his interview with Laura Warren Hill in 2008, he notes

"my early involvement certainly began, in terms of a structure, was with the NAACP. When I came in the late fifties, then—after I got out of graduate school—and was working at Eastman Kodak in the research laboratories, the president of the NAACP was Queenie Zuehlke. Her husband was an administrator in the Kodak research laboratories, and he asked me to come out and talk to two youngsters at the church they attended in West Irondequoit. So I did that and his wife got interested in my being involved, and so I became a member of the NAACP and chaired its education committee. But I think you have to have some background. For example, educated whites had been involved in NAACP as early as 1948."

There was a great deal of social turmoil present in Rochester, as shown by the 1964 Rochester Race uprisings, and Dr. Cooper worked extensively to bring about peaceful change. To this end, Dr. Cooper served the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as the Rochester branch president from 1959 to 1965 and co-founded the Rochester Branch of the Urban League in 1965, continuing to serve on the Board of Directors into the 1970s. He was also a board member of the Baden Street Settlement, a non-profit organization working with northeast Rochester residents to improve the quality of life. The Baden Street Settlement was integral in bringing reform after the Rochester race uprising, and through it he worked to promote the candidacy and eventual election of Constance Mitchell as Third Ward supervisor.

Locally, he was a founding member of Action for a Better Community, Inc and served as associate director from 1964-65. He was also on the Social Goals and Policies Committee of the United Community Chest and on the Board of Directors of the Rochester Area Foundation. On a national level, he served as the Special Consultant to the Administrator of the Small Business Administration (SBA) from December 1968 through May 1969 and continued to serve on the National Advisory Council to the SBA afterward. He researched black capitalism and studied successful economic models extensively in order to fulfill these roles.

Dr. Cooper continued working at the Eastman Kodak Company as a research scientist in successively higher professional appointments until his retirement in 1986 with three patents and many research publications to his credit. He is a member of several professional societies: the American Chemical Society, Sigma Xi, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York State Academy of Science, and the American Physical Society. He has received honors and awards for his scientific achievements, including: National Science Foundation Fellow in 1955-56, Washington and Jefferson Honorary Doctor of Sciences 1967, Henry Hill Lecturer in 1983, and the Leo H East 1996 Engineer of the Year.

Constance (Connie) Mitchell (1928–2018):

Connie Mitchell was the first African American woman to be elected to the Monroe County (New York) Legislature in 1961. Mitchell was the first woman and first African American ever to serve on the Monroe County Board of Supervisors—now called the Monroe County Legislature.

Running as a Democrat, a woman and an African American, Mitchell won the 1961 supervisor election. Fierce advocate for education, housing, jobs, and equality in Rochester. In 1965, Connie Mitchell walked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in the historic March for Freedom.

She became close friends with Malcolm X after seeing him speak at the University of Rochester in 1962. Mitchell was a member of the Monroe County Board of Supervisors, representing the Third Ward.

She'd witnessed the 1964 Rochester race uprising and a community desperately trying to piece itself together in their aftermath. She'd seen the problems the African-American community was having with the police and the educational system.

She and her husband, John Mitchell, were co-founders of Action for a Better Community, established under the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 to fight America’s War on Poverty, and have held leadership roles with the Rochester Branch of the Urban League and United Way of Rochester.

Minister Franklin Florence, Malcolm X, and Connie Mitchell during a visit to Rochester by Malcolm X
Franklin Florence, Malcolm X, and Connie Mitchell

The City Newspaper interviewed Mitchell and her first hand account:

"I first met Malcolm X in 1962. Dr. Freddie Thomas had invited me to go out to the University of Rochester to listen to him. I had been reading about the man, and talking to Freddie about him." "Malcolm was really two different people. He was the fiery person you saw in public, but privately he was this very warm person who really had a tremendous sense of humor."

Later in reference to his 1965 visit shortly after the 1964 Rochester raceuprising:

“At the time of Malcolm's Corn Hill Methodist speech, people in Rochester were searching and really trying to find a way to rebuild this city. They wanted to bring about many of the changes that needed to take place. We had loads of problems with education. We had problems with the police department at that time. We had all the social ills that go with cities. But I think what you had in Rochester was an understanding among the people who came to the table. People wanted to sit down and try to bring about some solutions to the problems we had within this community.”

From 1964 to 1968, Connie was director of neighborhood development for the Montgomery Neighborhood Center, and after that served for a decade as manager of job development and training for Rochester Jobs Inc. From 1978 to 1989, she was program director for PRISM (Program for Rochester to Interest Students in Science and Mathematics), which was developed in response to a national challenge to increase the number of minority students capable of becoming successful engineers.

Over the years, she has participated on many civic and business-related boards, including the United Way, Rochester Community Savings Bank, Rochester Gas and Electric Co., and Urban League of Rochester.

Watch "ROCHESTER LEGENDS Constance Mitchell: Passing the Baton" on YouTube.

The Susan B. Anthony Legacy Awards in 2017, a 60-year tradition celebrating the achievements of women in the University of Rochester, she received the Fredrick Douglass Medal for outstanding civic engagement that honors Douglass’ legacy.

Dr. Freddie Thomas [1918-1974]

Freddie Thomas was born in Norfolk, Virginia, in 1918, where he experienced segregation firsthand. Rodney Brown wrote the biography of Dr. Thomas entitled "Silent Leader."

"He couldn't go to the library, he couldn't go to an eatery, he couldn't drink from the same water fountain," said Brown.

But Freddie persevered. He moved to Rochester to attend Wagner College. He later went to the University of Rochester. He made his mark in science.

He was a well-respected inventor at Kodak, and a geneticist and biologist at the University of Rochester.

While Dr. Thomas was gifted, he wanted to inspire youth. He would walk the streets of Rochester near Joseph Avenue and reach out to young people to mentor them.

"He built a burning fire in them and he would tell them 'hey, I want you guys, you young ladies or whoever, come to my house and we will talk more about the things that we told you,'" said Brown.

Rev. Franklin D. Florence, Sr. [1934-]

The Rev. Franklin D. Florence, raised in the south, also a friend of Malcolm X is a minister who has been heavily involved in civil rights work in Rochester, New York for five decades. He is most well known as the founder and first president of the civil rights group, F.I.G.H.T in 1965 after the 1964 Rochester race uprising.

He currently serves as the senior pastor at the Central Church of Christ and F.I.G.H.T. Village apartments in Rochester.

He moved to Rochester in 1959. At the age of 25, Florence was recruited to become the pastor of the Reynolds Street Church of Christ in Rochester, NY, where he moved with his wife and children. He immediately became involved with endeavors aimed to help improve the living conditions of blacks living in the Rochester community.

Minister Florence was a founder and the first president of F.I.G.H.T. (Freedom, Independence, God, Honor, Today) established in 1964. Its first convention in Rochester attracted 1,500 people.


After the Rochester race uprising, a community organization formed “Fight. Freedom, Independence, God, Honor, Today”.

F.I.G.H.T. successfully agitated for change, taking on hiring practices, living conditions and other critical issues. F.I.G.H.T. leaders were also credited with stopping additional civil unrest when uprisings hit other northern cities in the mid-1960s.

The Rev. Franklin D. Florence was in his late 20s at the time and became the face and voice of the organization. He worked closely with Saul Alinsky, the controversial social activist and became FIGHT's first president in 1965.

F.I.G.H.T. pioneered some important strategies, experimenting 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 hiring practices.

Florence showed up at the Kodak shareholders meeting in New Jersey in 1967 and threatened to hold a march on Kodak's Rochester offices on the anniversary of Rochester's uprisings. That forced Kodak to the table to initiate a recruitment and training program for the black community. The confrontation, covered in the Wall Street Journal and other national media, eventually pushed Kodak to hire 600 minority workers and implement further job training programs.

Through the rest of the 60s, Fight put pressure on the city’s largest employer to increase minority hiring at entry level and in the boardroom. It took years, but Kodak finally succumbed. Then in 1969, Fight drew huge crowds when it opened a company called Fight On, the nation’s first Black-run community development corporation, formed in partnership with Xerox.

“What happened in Rochester has the potential to rewrite what scholars know about civil rights,” Hill says.

The Fair Housing Act

In February 1968, Lyndon B. Johnson would commission Kerner report, which he had hoped would identify criminality as the source of rioting. However, the report is published and argues that "rioting is caused in large part by poor neighborhood conditions and limited labor market options facing black Americans as a consequence of white racism and rampant discrimination in housing and labor markets". These factors underlay the development and maintenance of the northern black “ghettos”, where residents endured extreme segregation, limited housing choices, concentrated poverty, and poor schools.

Although the report’s authors believed in full integration as the long-term solution, they argued that more immediate relief was possible through large-scale, targeted government investment in housing, education, and employment programs, and more robust social insurance programs. Johnson would attempt to not release and avoid comment on the report.

On April 4, 1968 Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on the balcony of his hotel room in Memphis, Tennessee. The King-assassination riots, also known as the Holy Week Uprising, would lead to a new wave of civil disturbance which would sweep the United States. Many believe it to be the greatest wave of social unrest the United States had experienced since the Civil War. Some of the biggest riots took place in Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Chicago, and Kansas City.

One week later, President Johnson would sign the Civil Rights Act of 1968, also known as the Fair Housing Act, providing equal housing opportunity regardless of race, religion or national origin.

Additional Resources



Throughout February, we will share our PTSA programming. We will also hope to include news about the exciting educational experiences that schools across our district have planned to help students and families celebrate Black History Month.

Access these links to view all content provided for the Black History Month Program

Pittsford Central School District Activities

PCSD students and staff members will honor Black History Month throughout February 2021 by participating in curriculum-connected activities and events as a way of sharing, celebrating and understanding Black heritage and culture.

While cultural diversity is included in curriculum and programs throughout the school year, special activities and events are planned in our schools during Black History Month.


A Focus on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Inherent Value of All People

We know that it is essential to create welcoming schools and classrooms where differences in language, culture, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, unique abilities, etc., are viewed as assets rather than deficits. An awareness and acceptance of these differences are foundational to the success of all students.

Please return to our website each week. Here you will find interviews, historical profiles, and resources providing snapshots of the culture and the legacy of the African Diaspora and life in America.

If you have questions regarding any of this material, you may reach the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee at


Indigenous Land Acknowledgement

We acknowledge the Seneca people as the traditional custodians of the land we are on and their enduring presence. We would also like to pay respects to Elders past and present of the Hodinöhsö:ni' Confederacy, and we extend that respect to any other indigenous people who are present with us today. We make this acknowledgment as a first step in fulfilling our responsibility to critically look at colonial histories and their present-day implications as we pay respect to the keepers of the land and the land itself. We are aware that acknowledgment is not reparation. Land acknowledgment without active steps towards education, support of the Seneca Nation, and sincere efforts to undo Colonial legacies mean very little.

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