New Season of “Rochester’s Rich History” Starts Sunday!


Published in: on October 17, 2014 at 11:53 am  Leave a Comment  

Murder and Mayhem at Falls Field! (revisited)

UPDATE: Scroll down to see primary source documents about Ira Stout’s incarceration at Eastern State Penitentiary.

One of the best parts of my job is when I happen upon a piece of information about my hometown that I never would have guessed. Buffalo Bill Cody once lived in Rochester? You don’t say! Jumbo the Elephant was stuffed here? I had no idea!

And the most recent revelation: Public hangings. Here. In Rochester.

According to the Union and Advertiser, Octavius Baron was hanged in 1837 for shooting and robbing William Lyman near Franklin and Clinton streets. The following year, Austin Squires went to the gallows for shooting his wife in a drunken rage. Fourteen execution-free years would pass in Rochester before Maurice Antonio was tried and hanged for the murder of a fellow Portuguese in Gates in 1852.

But it was the fourth execution that particularly grabbed my attention. The circumstances leading up to Marion Ira Stout’s trip to the gallows in 1858 are the stuff of which 19th-century scandals were made.

Ira, as he was called, was 22 years old when he was released from Eastern State Penitentiary, where he served four-and-a-half years for robbing a store with his father and setting it ablaze. Upon his arrival in Rochester, Stout—who happened to be in love with his sister Sarah—became enraged when he discovered that she had married. Charles Littles was reported to be a drunken lout and general cad who abused his wife, and Stout resolved to get rid of the man who stood in the way of his incestuous designs.

On December 19, 1857, Stout lured Littles to Falls Field—also known as Genesee Falls Park (present-day High Falls)—with a story that Sarah was rumored to be meeting a man there. Whether coerced by Stout or of her own free will, Sarah was waiting by the edge of the river gorge to bait the trap.

Falls Field, the scene of the crime. From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division.)

Falls Field, the scene of the crime. (From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division.)

Before Littles knew what was happening, Stout pulled out an iron-headed hammer and smashed his rival’s skull with it. Stout then rolled the body over the precipice and, he assumed, into the river. But instead of a splash, he heard a thud. Littles had landed on a ledge 30 feet below. From there, Stout’s luck only got worse.

Determined to hide the evidence of his crime, Stout made his way down the rocky escarpment to finish the job. In what can only be described as an act of instant karma, Stout lost his footing, tumbled down the narrow path, and landed squarely next to Littles’ body, breaking his left arm in the process. Just before passing out, Stout managed to shove the corpse off the ledge. When he came to, he called to Sarah for help. As she descended, Sarah stumbled and fell headlong beside her brother’s prostrate form, breaking her left wrist.

The unfortunate siblings somehow made it back to the top of the ridge. Having left behind several personal items in the fall, the pair were quickly apprehended and charged in the death of Charles W. Littles. Sarah, convicted of manslaughter, served seven years at Sing Sing Prison, while her brother was sentenced to hang. During his time in jail, Stout received a steady flow of visitors—mainly women—who brought him poison and lancets so that he could be the instrument of his own destruction and avoid the noose.

Despite appealing his sentence and receiving support from Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony—both of whom opposed capital punishment—Stout’s appeal was denied. Marion Ira Stout went to the gallows at the Monroe County Penitentiary on October 22, 1858. According to witnesses, Stout’s execution went no smoother than the crime for which he was sentenced—it took 10 minutes for Stout to strangle to death when the noose failed to break his neck, which would have ensured his swift and merciful death. He is buried in an unmarked grave at Mount Hope Cemetery.

The last execution by hanging in Monroe County took place in 1888, after which New York State assumed responsibility for administering the death penalty.

~Cheri Crist, Librarian

(From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division.)

(From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division.)

(From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division.)

(From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division.)



 Record of Ira Stout’s arrival to Eastern State Penitentiary in 1853.

Record of Ira Stout's arrival to Eastern State Penitentiary.

Credit: Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg; Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Justice; Eastern State Penitentiary, Prison Administration Records; Warden’s Daily Journals (series #15.50), Volume 1 (1829-1855), Microfilm Roll 7016., unnumbered pages.


Stout’s release from prison in 1857  is documented on this page from the warden’s daily record.

Stout's release from prison is documented in this page from the warden's daily record.

Credit: Pennsylvania State Archives, Harrisburg; Record Group 15, Records of the Department of Justice; Eastern State Penitentiary, Prison Administration Records; Warden’s Daily Journals (series #15.50), Volume 2 (1856-1877)- Microfilm Roll 6608, unnumbered pages.

Prior to a recent planned visit to the City of Brotherly Love, I exchanged e-mails with Eastern State Penitentiary Archivist Erica Harman, and Historic Site Researcher Annie Anderson, who (with very little to go on) were able to locate pages from the prison’s daily records documenting Ira Stout’s intake and discharge from ESP. She was kind enough to send scans of those pages. Based on the dates of incarceration and a birth year of 1835, Stout was 18 years old when he and his father looted and burned down a Pennsylvania store.

(click to enlarge)

Stout received inset

Based on this entry, it is likely that the crime committed by Stout and his father Orange occurred in Bradford County, in the northern part of Pennsylvania. The term “Quarter Sessions” refers to courts established in some of the states that were held four times a year and dealt mainly with criminal matters.

(click to enlarge)

Stout discharge inset

After serving his 4 1/2-year sentence, Stout was released “in good health,” and joined his family in Rochester, where four months later, he would lure Charles Littles to his death at Falls Field.



“Marion Ira Stout. His Life, Crimes, Last Hours, and Execution on the Gallows: Full Particulars.” Union and Advertiser (Rochester, NY), Oct. 22, 1858.

Peck, William F. History of Rochester and Monroe County, New York. (New York: The Pioneer Publishing Co., 1908).

Published in: on October 3, 2014 at 5:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Family Detectives Club Returning Soon!

October 2014 Schedule

October 2014 Schedule

The Family Detectives Club returns for its third season beginning October 5, 2014. Each week from October through May, we will be exploring a different subject of interest to family history researchers and providing tips and websites to use when doing your research. We also provide an informational handout for you to take away with you. (Pictured here is our schedule for the first month.)

Every Sunday from 1:15-1:45 pm, we meet in the Local History & Genealogy Division on the second floor of the Rundel Memorial Building. After each session, you’ll have plenty of time to stay and play with the resources available here, many of them unique to this library. Did you know the Local History & Genealogy Division offers free use of three popular online databases,, and ( is also available to use for free at ten town libraries – Brighton, Chili, Fairport, Gates, Greece, Henrietta, Ogden, Parma, Penfield, Pittsford and Webster). Parking is free for library patrons in the Court Street Garage on Sundays – what’s not to like about that?

Be sure to check the library’s website ( each month under the Local History tab for the current schedule. Some of the topics are inspired by participants, so join us any time and bring your interests and stories to share.

- Barb Koehler

Published in: on September 15, 2014 at 10:48 am  Leave a Comment  

Labor Day

What better way to honor and celebrate the accomplishments of workers than with a day off? As we here in the Local History and Genealogy division gear up for the long holiday weekend, I find myself pausing to reflect on Rochester’s past (as Deputy City Historian, I do this from time to time) and the history of our city’s labor force.

Thanks to the waterpower of the Genesee falls and the easy access to transportation afforded by the Erie Canal, Rochester industry (and indeed the city as a whole) grew by leaps and bounds in the second quarter of the 19th century. Not only was this early boomtown growing, grinding, and shipping enough grain to distinguish itself as the world’s leading Flour City, a considerable number of ancillary industries grew up around the flour trade, such as barrel making, shipbuilding, blacksmithing, and machine making. Clothing manufacturing was another emergent enterprise, with small shops giving way to more centralized factories employing increasingly more workers.

By the 1840s, a sizable percentage of Rochesterians made their living as laborers. Their growing concerns about wages, hours, and working conditions led to the formation of several protective trade unions in the 1850s. In 1863, representatives from five of these unions got together to form the Workingmen’s Assembly of Rochester. This was America’s first central-trades council.

The Assembly held meetings to organize workers statewide and nationally. It supported local strikes and boycotts, and petitioned for higher wages and shorter workdays, to varying degrees of success. Socially, the Assembly held annual Fourth of July picnics, with several thousand in attendance. The workers’ massive march to the picnic on July 4, 1870, can be considered the city’s first labor parade.

Letter Carriers assemble

Members of the National Association of Letter Carriers gather in Washington Square Park preparing to march in the Labor Day parade, September 1911. From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division.

More than frivolous recreation, labor parades were a way for workers to demonstrate strength in both size (as in their numbers, although I’m sure many laborers were also quite brawny) and solidarity. The Knights of Labor organized a particularly impressive parade in Rochester on June 26, 1882. It included over 6,000 workers from over thirty local unions.


Crowds gather to watch the long lines of workers march down Main Street in the 1910 Labor Day Parade. From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division.

That same year (1882) in New York City, the Central Labor Union hosted the first official Labor Day celebration. The holiday is truly a grassroots creation, with labor groups in cities around the country (like Rochester!) following the CLU’s lead, recognizing the first Monday in September as a day to honor America’s workforce.

The first state bill for a Labor Day holiday was introduced in New York, but Oregon beat us to the punch, becoming the first state to officially sanction the holiday on February 21, 1887. Soon afterwards, New York, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New Jersey followed suit. In 1894, in the wake of the tragically violent Pullman Strike, Congress declared Labor Day to be an official national holiday. Thirty-one states were already recognizing it at that point.

This year Rochesterians will kick off their Labor Day celebrations with the customary parade through downtown. According to, this year’s theme is “Making NY Work” and the emphasis is on bringing high-paying jobs into the state. The parade begins tonight at 6:30 at East Avenue and Alexander Street; it will proceed down East to Main and on westward to Plymouth. My preferred vantage point will be the Main Street Bridge, where I will enjoy seeing the EXTERIOR of my office, the stately Rundel Memorial Library Building, all lit up in the background. Hope you can make it!

~ Michelle Finn, Deputy City Historian


Blake McKelvey, “Organized Labor in Rochester before 1914,” Rochester History 25, no. 1.

“Where Rochester Arcadians Dwell”

Extreme downsizing is a hot trend in popular culture these days. For some, it’s a philosophical stand against consumerism and the distractions of modern life. For others, the appeal of living in a small space is about avoiding mortgage debt, or minimizing the ecological impact of new housing. Whatever the reason, the “small house movement” is growing. There’s even a new reality TV show, Tiny House Nation, airing on the A&E network this summer.

So we were intrigued when one of our regular patrons, while browsing the Rochester Images database, came across a series of photographs that look like they would be right at home on a modern “small house” blog.

Taken by long-time newspaper photographer Albert R. Stone, these images illustrated a feature story, “Where Rochester Arcadians Dwell,” that appeared in the Rochester Herald in 1921. Together, the text and images offer a glimpse into this unique small house movement from Rochester’s past.

(All quotes below are taken from the original article.)



Away from the tread of hurrying multitudes…stands the Italian Arcadia. Down Lyceum Street, a rutty country road running away from a city of paved streets that is hard upon its heels, up Blakeslee Street and down Waring Road… are little squares of growing things…and in a corner of each fence that indicates individual possession in the little colony stands a structure.

Who were the Rochester Arcadians? I found no references elsewhere to an organized group in Rochester calling itself by this name. In ancient mythology, the mountainous Arcadia region of Greece was home to nymphs, dryads, and the god Pan. Arcadia was often depicted in Renaissance art as a rustic utopia where humans lived in harmony with nature. The anonymous journalist seems to have christened the neighborhood with a classical allusion.

In plain reality, Rochester’s Arcadia was a cluster of approximately 100 small shanties that sprung up at the northeastern edge of the city on land recently subdivided for development. Unlike most new homeowners during Rochester’s big housing boom (roughly 1890-1930), the Italian-American residents moving into this tract chose to build their new homes with their own hands rather than employ an architect or construction firm. Crudely constructed of scrap lumber, the little structures shown here were intended only for short-term occupation while the homeowners labored to replace them with permanent family homes.

There are hints in the article that the phenomenon may have drawn some negative attention. Noting that, at first glance, the small houses shared some similarities with the cabins of poverty-stricken Appalachia, the writer takes pains to show the reader that “the little Arcadia is yet in its caterpillar stage of existence” and that “hard labor, persistence, and economy will eventually bring from the colony cocoon a transformation that will enlighten the passerby who has found the quaint little shacks more than interesting.”

While the arch tone the article employs may be jarring to our modern cultural sensibilities (for instance, rendering quotes from the Italian residents in stereotypical broken English), it is obvious that the writer greatly admired what they were doing.

The images below, all of which ran in the 1921 feature spread, illustrate the “transformation” happening in the Arcadia neighborhood.




The first structure to appear on a housing lot was often nothing more than a shed, or “rain house,” used for storing tools and for taking shelter from sudden showers while the homeowner was working on the property.




More substantial structures allowed residents to “(cheat) the profiteering landlord,” as the article gleefully phrases it:

A typical year round shelter in the Italian Arcadia. The plot on which it stands is fenced off with broken cracker boxes, branches from trees interwoven into a form of lattice work and now and then a bit of wire. The scrap of chimney shows it to be the type of small house built to serve family needs until a larger structure can be erected in front of it.




This creative little house would probably not pass muster under today’s building codes, but it must have been a lot of fun to sleep in.


scm06444 Grapevines


Fruit and vegetable gardens were typically established before the house itself was begun. The Herald article mentions chickens, goats, and even milk cows, giving the whole neighborhood the atmosphere of a rural village. Even though Prohibition was in effect, the journalist noted that “(s)omebody is going to quench his thirst in the near future, no matter how dry the American Sahara. Grapevines and hops nearly hide the little house at the rear of the lot.”



Some permanent houses were already complete. The journalist got a full tour of this three-room cottage from its builders and notes that the interior featured “woodworking of a splendid quality.” In an early example of retirement downsizing, the wife of the couple stated that she had wanted just “a little house for me and me man ’cause keeds all married now.”




This house, singled out as “one of the truly beautiful homes of that section,” showed Herald readers the ultimate goal of the Rochester Arcadians:

Already there are signs of what the colony will one day be. Small houses of the bungalow, semi-bungalow, and cottage type, with traces of old-world artistry of half forgotten handicrafts, blendings of Italian and American architecture, are beginning to rise here and there in the colony, and to the poor American-born apartment-ite or rented-house-ite, lacking the courage to do the same, the cosy little homes in the process of building give rise to the mingled emotions of envy and admiration.

Substantial homes like this one may still stand in northeast Rochester, but the little structures that came before them and made them possible survive only in these images. Next time you are in the vicinity of Waring Road and Lyceum Street, take a moment to remember the perseverance and creativity that built Rochester’s Italian Arcadia.

–Amie Alscheff, Library Assistant


“Where Rochester Arcadians Dwell.” Rochester Herald (July 31, 1921).

Special thanks to the Rochester Museum & Science Center for allowing us to publish these images from the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection!

Published in: on August 22, 2014 at 8:18 am  Comments (1)  

Where did University Avenue get it’s name?

4-686-07CC_ArchHistory_Poster_FFor local history enthusiasts, the answer to this question is no surprise. University Avenue is so named for its historic role as the main thoroughfare through the original University of Rochester Campus. Indeed, many of the university’s buildings still stand and have been re-purposed to house a variety of schools, businesses, and organizations, including the School of the Arts, Visual Studies Workshop, and the American Red Cross, among others. The stately buildings on University Avenue and on side streets surrounding the Memorial Art Gallery have interesting stories to tell.

Sue Nurse, recently retired Visual Resources Coordinator and Assistant Archivist at the Memorial Art Gallery, has been researching the old campus architecture and will discuss her research during a talk sponsored by the Art Division in the Kate Gleason Auditorium from noon to 1 p.m. on September 17. We hope you can join us for this stroll down memory lane.

Please register at or call 585-428-8140.

Published in: on August 18, 2014 at 11:46 am  Leave a Comment  

From the Vault: Saving Rochester’s History

2013-05-15 10.54.04

Here in Local History & Genealogy, I have the privilege of overseeing the division’s 500+ cubic feet of special collections that include personal papers, records, and manuscripts related to the history of the Genesee Valley region. These important primary sources are invaluable to the preservation of our collective memory and provide first-hand glimpses into the lives of local luminaries and average citizens alike. Comprised of paper-based documents, maps, glass plate negatives, lantern slides, original artwork–and yes, even hair–highlights of these collections include a 1792 deed signed by Ebenezer “Indian” Allen; unpublished histories and biographies; and personal papers of Susan B. Anthony, former Rochester mayor Hiram Edgerton, and Nathaniel Rochester and the Rochester family, among many others.

Sometimes, my job is a bit like that of an archeologist: finding hidden treasures in dark corners, behind shelves, and at the bottom of long-forgotten boxes. My task is then to assess the condition of these materials, determine whether they adhere to our collection policy, research the context in which the materials were created, and determine how best to preserve, interpret, and make these collections accessible in such a way to ensure that they’ll be around for years to come. While digital collections are an excellent way to provide accessibility to and in many cases, preservation of materials, these bits and bytes of data wouldn’t exist without the physical artifact. The educational aspect of primary sources is also undeniable. Showing a 4th grade student a digitized version of Frederick Douglass’s North Star on a computer is fine. But putting an original, physical copy in front of the same student will elicit a much more visceral response; one that they will remember far beyond the flickering of the computer screen.

To ensure that these important sources are preserved for future generations, the Local History Division has been able to take advantage of several funding opportunities to aid in the quest to preserve some of our area’s historical treasures. This funding has allowed the conservation of several important objects and documents, such as the restoration of a bound full run of The Revolution inscribed by Susan B. Anthony, and the repair, flattening, and deacidification of a 1904 Cirkut photo. Take a look at some of our other significant past conservation projects:

2013-05-15 16.36.43

Deed to Genesee River mill signed by Ebenezer Allen, 1792.


Original illustration by Clifford Ulp, c. 1934, which Ulp created for the cover of the book commemorating the Rochester Centennial (seen below).


Many more items in our special collections require a conservator’s attention to avoid losing them entirely. And so, without further ado, I present to you…Local History’s Top Five Endangered Artifacts!

1. Scrapbook of photographs, smallpox victims at Hope Hospital, c. 1902

A horrifying but valuable and powerful document of the 1902 smallpox epidemic, this album documents the efforts of Chief Health Officer Dr. George Goler to expand Hope Hospital, then located on the river bank at Mt. Hope Cemetery. The photographs, notable for their graphic content, are mounted on highly acidic construction paper. These acids, in addition to the adhesives used to affix the photographs, will continue to deteriorate the images over time.

The photographs show silver mirroring. The brittle paper backing is also beginning to fracture.

The photographs show silver mirroring. The brittle paper backing is also beginning to fracture.

2. George Rafter microphotography plates, c. 1886

Created with a photomicroscope of his own invention, Rafter donated this collection of about 100 mounted albumen prints of bacteria in 1888. Rafter, a pioneer in water and sewer management systems, also donated his detailed notes about each plate. Each print is mounted on acidic paperboard that is moderately warped. Albumen prints are particularly susceptible to light and environmental damage.


Albumen photographs show signs of fading and the acidic backing is brittle.

3. Map of Rochester, 1811

This hand-drawn map, believed to have been penned by Nathaniel Rochester, shows lots owned by Rochester, Fitzhugh, and Carroll. The map was in possession of Thomas Montgomery, grandson of  Rochester, and includes a handwritten note by Montgomery.


The map, backed with linen, has breaks along the fold lines and shows significant fading.

4. Military document, 1795

This document, which appoints Joseph Blackmore to the post of Lieutenant of the Herkemer [sic] County militia, is signed by George Clinton, 1st governor of New York State and later the 4th vice-president of the United States.The paper has split along its fold lines, and subsequent attempts to repair the breaks with acidic adhesive tape have resulted in pronounced vertical and horizontal brown staining. Because the tape is still attached, acid migration will continue to deteriorate the paper.

Acid migration from the Scotch tape will continue to deteriorate this document.

Acid migration from the Scotch tape will continue to deteriorate this document.

5. Powers Block albumen photo, c. 1890s

This framed albumen photograph (15.5”x13”) of the Powers Block is the only one of its kind in the collection. Conservator’s notes indicate that the mount is highly acidic, and there is staining on the photograph itself from the wooden slats in the frame. Because albumen prints have a tendency to fade faster than other photographic processes, conservation is recommended in order to halt continuing degradation from the mount and wood framing.

Which of these artifacts would you save first, and why? We’d love to hear from you in our Comments section!

~Cheri Crist, Librarian & Certified Archivist


McKelvey, Blake. “Historic Origins of Rochester’s Social Welfare Agencies.” Rochester History 9, nos. 2 & 3 (April 1947).

Published in: on August 15, 2014 at 10:12 pm  Comments (4)  

Life Revisited: the Never-Ending Sequel

Readers of this blog are most likely familiar with the story of Martha Ward and how I helped her reconnect with her lost husband Vince, who she mistakenly thought had passed away. Rather than rehash the tale, you can read about it here and here.

Instead, let me just say that I got to see my friend again as she visited Vince, just two days shy of her 93rd birthday. And, as usual, my wife and I left enchanted.

Martha in Hamlin

Martha in Hamlin

Doesn’t she look great? And underneath still beats the heart of a librarian.

—Bob Scheffel, Librarian, Local History Division

Published in: on July 31, 2014 at 4:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Reinventing Rochester: Lessons in Retrofitting

I moved to the United States in 2005 to pursue a history PhD at the University of Rochester. Having been both a history and music buff for most of my life, I knew of Rochester as the site of Charles Grandison Finney’s religious revival and the erstwhile residence of abolitionist Frederick Douglass and bluesman Son House, as well as the home of the House of Guitars, whose ads I grew up watching in Canada.

Though my graduate studies at the U of R required that I narrow my academic interests to the confines of my dissertation topic, my curiosity about the history of the city that surrounded me grew. Urban explorations on my bike inspired countless questions: Who had lived in these grand old mansions? What accounted for the differences between the city’s West and East sides? How far did the subway tracks go and why was the system abandoned? Why all the horses?

Working on the Democrat and Chronicle‘s “Retrofitting Rochester” column for the past year and a half has helped me answer some of these questions, while furthering my passion for the Flower City’s history.

As readers’ responses to the weekly column suggest, many Rochesterians are equally passionate about the topic. Retrofitting followers frequently laud the industrial and innovatory achievements of the city’s past and lament the loss of former urban fixtures such as the Loew’s Theatre and the Seneca Hotel.

But focusing on what the city has lost obscures the many ways it has managed to hold on to its history. Perhaps what has struck me the most about Rochester in my time researching the city is, as the following examples attest, its capacity for reinvention.

In the mid-twentieth century, when the personal fortunes of East Avenue denizens no longer matched the architectural riches of the mansions dotting the tree-lined boulevard, many of these elegant edifices were repurposed as various club headquarters or converted into luxury apartment houses, giving current Rochester residents a taste of the opulent living conditions of the city’s turn-of-the-century elite.

Home of Henry Ellsworth, East Ave

The former home of building and railroad contractor, Henry Ellsworth, is now an East Avenue apartment house.

In 1974, a fire engulfed St. Joseph’s Church on Franklin Street, completely destroying the structure’s interior, but an urban park established within its remaining walls six years later, ensured that the soul of the 134 year-old building would live on.

St. Joseph's Church

St. Joseph’s Church, pre- and post-fire.

By 1990, the Main Street Armory proved outdated for the National Guard’s purposes, but thanks to the efforts of local developers, the beautiful Romanesque fortress reopened 16 years later as a multipurpose entertainment venue, catering to amateur sports leagues and professional music acts alike. Even former President Bill Clinton graced the Armory with his presence at a rally two years ago.

Main Street Armory

“The Fortress on Main Street”: The Armory.

Currently, the Pont de Rennes walkway, itself a recreation of the Platt Street bridge, is part of a local greening project that intends to build an arboretum on the span, thereby creating a “garden in the sky.”

Platt Street Bridge, now Pont de Rennes

The Platt Street Bridge and the Pont De Rennes.

Each of these examples demonstrates Rochester’s commitment to maintaining its architectural assets while serving as proof that preserving the city’s past plays a key part in its promising future.

~Emily Morry, Library Assistant

Published in: on July 30, 2014 at 5:08 pm  Comments (2)  

Remembering July 1964

Fifty years ago, our country was in the throes of a great struggle for racial equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed by President Johnson on July 2, was a landmark piece of legislation that protected voting rights and outlawed discrimination and segregation on the grounds of race, color, religion, and national origin. Yet even as the law attempted to level the playing field, widespread bigotry and violence from hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan persisted in keeping African Americans largely separate and decidedly unequal from their white counterparts.

We tend to think of the civil rights movement as playing out primarily in the South, where efforts to combat discriminatory Jim Crow policies manifested in mass interracial projects like the 1964 voter registration drive in Mississippi known as Freedom Summer. But racial injustice was pervasive and the North was not immune. Throughout the mid- to late-1960s, a spate of urban uprisings erupted throughout the country, challenging institutional inequality and belying the notion that racial strife was strictly a southern phenomenon.

As those who lived here at the time surely remember, and subsequent generations have perhaps not yet learned, a rather vivid episode in the history of racial conflict happened right here in Rochester in July 1964. Referred to historically as a riot and more recently understood as a rebellion, the unrest that took place in Rochester fifty years ago this month revealed the city’s underlying racial tensions. The incident was profound, as was its impact, with news of the three-day/two-night maelstrom traveling nationwide and even into Canada.

This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Rochester riots/rebellion. Rochesterians are taking the occasion to pause and reflect upon the events of the summer of 1964 and to take stock of where we stand today. The point is not to blame or point fingers, but to understand: what happened, and why; what has changed, and what work remains to be done?

RaceRebellion logoThese questions and others will be explored in a series of programs and an exhibit co-sponsored by the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, the Friends & Foundation of the Rochester Public Library, and the Office of the City Historian. “Remembering the Race Riots/Rebellion of 1964” will run from July 15th to the 25th and will feature talks with scholars, activists, and local observers as well as film screenings and discussions about the documentary July ’64. For details, see our poster, RaceRebellion1964_Pstr_F, and our program, RaceRebellion1964_flyer_F.

In addition to the events taking place at the Central Library, the City Historian’s office is producing a four-part series of articles for the Democrat & Chronicle’s weekly “Retrofitting Rochester” column that will run throughout this month. The column appears every Monday in the RocRoots section of the newspaper and online at

For a list of other related events taking place throughout the city, please visit the City’s website,, as well as the events calendar on the D&C’s website,

Come out and join the conversation!

~Michelle Finn, Deputy City Historian


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