My journey upstream to determine the source of River Babies began in my home town of Rochester, New York.

Like most children, I had a sense of regional pride. Being from Upstate New York was a privilege possessed by the lucky few. 

Rochester, like all American cities, was an exceptional city with a storied past. It began when Colonel Nathaniel Rochester purchased a 100-acre lot and began to sell the land in small lots in 1811. With the completion of the Erie Canal in 1825, which connected Albany to Buffalo, Rochester became one of America’s first boom towns, garnering the moniker the “Young Lion of the West.” Rochester was incorporated as a city in 1834 after experiencing a population explosion that more than quadrupled its population to 12,250 between 1820 – 1834.

After the completion of the canal, flour mills began to pop up along the area known as the “Upper Falls” of the Genesee River. By 1838, Rochester was the world’s leading flour producer, earning it a new nickname: “Flour City.” 

Later in the century, the Genesee River powered a manufacturing boom. Rochester became the birthplace of manufacturing giants Eastman Kodak, Bausch & Lomb, and Xerox. These three corporate giants helped Rochester to become a global center for science, technology, research and development. This status has been aided by the presence of the University of Rochester and Rochester Institute of Technology, both universities were renowned for their research programs. By the 1950’s, Rochester, New York, became the Silicon Valley of precision instruments. Several other major corporations originated in Rochester, including Ragu, French’s, Western Union, Wegmans, and Paychex. 

Rochester has deep religious roots. During its 1830’s boom time, Rochester experienced one of the nation’s biggest Protestant revival movements, led by Charles Finney. Taverns and theaters closed; new churches were opened. Rochester’s revival was one of the sparks that inspired the revivals of the Second Great Awakening.

Rochester was also known for being a city that opposed slavery. It served as Frederick Douglass’ home between 1847 – 1872. It was from the basement of the Memorial AME Zion Church in Rochester that he published his influential abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. Rochester also played an important role in the Underground Railroad. Every year, Kelsey’s Landing along the Genesee River served as the last U.S. stop for an estimated 150 formerly enslaved people, before they boarded ships to Canada.

Rochester was also home to the legendary suffragist, Susan B. Anthony, from 1866 to 1906. Her home became Rochester’s first National Historic Landmark. Rochester’s fascinating history is an understandable source of city pride.

My family relocated to Rochester in 1965. We moved there right after Midtown Plaza was constructed in 1962. Midtown Plaza was the first indoor urban mall in the United States. It was famous for its Clock of Nations which shoppers would gather around each hour and half-hour to watch animated dolls dance to music of twelve nations. As a child, I was mesmerized by the beautiful music and the dancing marionettes. The Plaza also had an indoor monorail for children that circled the entire mall. I begged to ride it every time we came.

Rochesterians had many reasons for having city pride. These vignettes, however, are not Rochester’s entire story. There were also stories that remained carefully untold, that remained hidden from me when I was a child.

In 1950, Rochester’s population peaked at 330,000 making it the 32nd largest city in America. Unbeknownst to my family, by the time we had arrived in Rochester, it had already begun its gradual, but steady decline. Today, its population is 200,000, making it the 111th largest city in America. There had been a race riot in Rochester that received national attention the year before we moved there, 1964, which proved to be a foreboding omen of what was yet to come.

As a child, I did not see any ominous clouds on the horizon. My childhood memories of Rochester were filled with sunshine and frolic. I attended a public elementary school, Rochester’s #38 Elementary School. #38 School was a primarily white elementary school, but I did have a few black classmates each year. I don’t ever remember doing homework, but I do remember having recess every day, several times each day! 

We had our own version of the game “tag” that we would play at recess, called “Pom-Pom-Pullaway.” We would run across a field from one line to another. You couldn’t run to the other line until the person who was “it” declared “Pom-Pom-Pullaway.” The official school version was touch-tag. We preferred tackle. Fortunately for us, we had very little adult supervision outside during our recesses, so most days it was tackle. As a rule of thumb, the dirtier I came home, the more fun I had at school. Let’s just say my mom had plenty of laundry to do. My mom would ask me how I got the grass stains on my good pants and dress shirt. I would just shrug my shoulders, then run outside to play. I may have only been eight, but I realized that any confession would result in the end of tackle “Pom-Pom-Pullaway.”

In the winter, it was “King of the Hill.” The snow plows would make huge mounds of snow at the edges of the parking lot. The piles of snow would soon turn to ice – just the way we liked it. Ice made King of the Hill more challenging, more dangerous, and much more fun. It would have been humorous watching 3rd graders tumbling down the snow mound in their snowsuits with their mittens on. I would come home from #38 School bruised and scratched up on many winter days. Every bump and bruise was a badge of honor.

In the background of my childhood fun, there were major forces at work in our city to which I was oblivious. Yet, these forces created several infamous events that had been percolating in our city for decades. 

In 1971, the Rochester school district began forced busing for high school students. That plan ultimately failed. White citizens protested vehemently with thinly veiled racial antipathy. Likewise, the black community rejected busing, preferring to keep their children in their own neighborhood schools. Forced busing was a solution that no one wanted. 

Unsurprisingly, in June 1971, about 1,000 young people gathered along Lake Avenue near Charlotte High School, whites on one side and blacks on the other. Violence ensued. As a result, the school district was forced to close several high schools for several days. Yet, the school district pressed on with their plan.

That September there were massive racial fights at two of the local high schools: Charlotte and Franklin High School. Confrontations between gangs of white and black students went on for weeks. The police made 34 arrests that fall and were investigating 354 reports of assault, most of which came from the newly created Charlotte Junior High. According to the Democrat and Chronicle news article dated September 15, 2013, “The most violent of the incidents occurred on June 19, 1972, when twenty-five students and two teachers were beaten during a rampage by youth at Charlotte Junior High… Thirty students were charge [sic] in the incident and suspended.” 

Although I had heard about these events on the local news, they had virtually no impact on me. At eight years old I was more interested in climbing trees and riding bikes with my friends than the local news. My folks, however, were gravely concerned. I was zoned for Charlotte Junior High School, ground zero of the busing violence. As I approached middle school age, my folks began to talk about moving. Ironically, my dirty and damaged clothes, along with my unexplained bumps and bruises created a sense of urgency in their decision-making process. Apparently, my parents thought I was getting beat up at school every day, but was afraid to talk about it. Regardless, the Newman family was preparing to be part of a massive urban exodus, known as “white flight.” In the light of our city’s racial turmoil, such a move to keep me safe made sense to my parents.

In 1973, we moved to the suburb of Greece, New York. White families which moved at that time, moved as far away from Rochester’s black community as possible to ensure they would not be impacted by forced busing in the future. Like many other families, we moved into a brand new subdivision created to accommodate fleeing Rochesterians. 

Moving from a city school to a suburban school, I was placed in the lowest classes for reading and math. The suburban schools were thought to be superior to the city schools. There were three sections of 6th graders: not one black student among us. In High School, we had over 330 students in my senior class: only 1 black student. Kevin actually lived in a brand-new subdivision right next to ours. All the homes in his neighborhood were large two-story brick homes. His home was even nicer than ours. Kevin often played neighborhood football with us. He never got in trouble at school. He was a decent student. All my classmates liked him. That’s why it surprised me to hear the following story from a person who was a Rochester clergyman at the time.

Apparently, members of a neighborhood church that was adjacent to Kevin’s neighborhood, along with some of Kevin’s neighbors approached a respected clergyman to devise a plan to force Kevin’s family to move out. The clergyman declined to participate in their cabal. I wasn’t told this story until recently, so as a teenager I had no idea that this had occurred. 

That little meeting turns out to be only one of many episodes of a darker, less known history of Rochester. A history that remains carefully left untold. Turns out this story was evidence of some of Rochester’s “upstream” issues. 

The racial violence that spawned “white flight” were symptoms of deeper problems. As Rochester citizen, Frederick Douglass, once said, “The thing that is worse than the rebellion is the thing that caused the rebellion.” At that time, white Rochesterians saw the forced busing violence as the problem, but it was merely a symptom of a deeper malady. Although everyone saw the violence, no one asked “Why?”

Rochester, like every American city, was an exceptional city with both storied past and dark secrets. Although its unflattering stories remained hidden, Rochester’s eventual demise was apparent for all to see. Rochester’s population declined precipitously. It lost its place as a manufacturing giant. It is no longer the vanguard of precision instruments. And it continues to be beset with racial problems.

Today, Rochester is identified as one of the twenty-one most segregated cities in the U.S. As a result, Rochester ranks as one of the worst cities in the country for blacks, coming in at number 14, just ahead of Chicago. In 2016, the graduation rate for Rochester’s city schools was an appalling 43%. The last seven years, the city has made a concerted effort to address some of these inequities. As a result, its high school graduation rate has increased to 71%. Yet, Rochester still has so much work to do to address its problems that were generations in the making.

Rochester’s Race Riot of 1964 and the racial conflicts at Charlotte High and Charlotte Junior High School didn’t occur in a vacuum. There were antecedents. To understand those antecedents and to heal the resulting harms, we must move beyond what we think we know. We must ask, why? What caused this? We must push on upstream if we are ever to find out why there are so many babies in the river.

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