"Strike the Hammer" Author on History of Rochester's Black Freedom Struggle

ROCHESTER, NY--Earlier this year, Dr. Laura Warren Hill published a new book exploring the history of Rochester's Black freedom struggle. Strike the Hammer: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, New York, 1940-1970 is based on extensive archival and oral history research on the conditions that led to Rochester's urban rebellion in 1964, as well as the gains that were made by organizers and activists in the wake of that event. Our reporter Abi Clark recently had a chance to talk with Dr. Hill about the process of writing the book and some of the surprising things she discovered along the way.

Rush transcript

ABI CLARK: Laura Warren Hill is an associate professor of history at Bloomfield College and the author of the book Strike the Hammer: the Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, New York, 1940 to 1970. It was published earlier this year. What led you to write this book?

LAURA WARREN HILL: Well, you know, I grew up about 90 miles south of Rochester. I did my undergraduate degree at Geneseo. I did my master's degree at Brockport, and then I ended up doing my PhD at Binghamton. So I'm kind of something of a New York chauvinist. And I lived in and around Rochester for quite some time, and I was very familiar with the story of Frederick Douglass, I was very familiar with the 19th century. But I realized I really knew nothing about the 20th century in Rochester. An undergraduate advisor of mine Dr. Emily Crosby suggested that I look at the city and the uprising that happened there in 1964, and of course that took me both back in time and forward in time and that's kind of how the book was born.

AC: What was the researching process like? Did you speak to community leaders who were activists during those years?

LWH: I actually started in the archives. I worked at the University of Rochester archive. I worked in the city archive. I was at the Strong Museum--they actually have an incredible archive there as well--and I did a lot of document preparatory work before I started my my oral histories. I did interview somewhere around 40 people that were in Rochester at the time. Some of them now live as far away as California and Indiana. But many of them are still there in Rochester. So before I endeavored to talk to them I wanted to make sure I had a pretty good handle on the story, you know, in broad outline.

AC: Where does the title "Strike the Hammer" come from?

LWH: It actually comes from a Bob Marley song. The rest of that line is "strike the hammer while the iron is hot," and what I saw folks doing in Rochester was really striking the hammer while that iron was hot from the uprising that happened in 1964. There was a kind of organizing frenzy and they--the activists that were engaged in Rochester--really used that to their advantage and forced some major concessions from the Kodak company, and then really brought Xerox to the table to work with them as well.

AC: So as you just kind of touched upon, we know that Rochester was one of the first cities in the nation to experience an urban rebellion in 1964. Can you talk about where Rochester fits within the national picture of the Black Freedom struggle of the 1960s?

LWH: In some ways Rochester was a little late to the Civil Rights Movement game. And that wasn't because there weren't activists trying to do the work. There absolutely were. It's just that the Black population in Rochester was so small at that point that it was virtually impossible for them to engage in some of the other strategies that were taking place around the country. Things like boycotts. There just simply weren't enough Black folks in Rochester to really do that. The other thing was that the NAACP in Rochester was really headed by a number of well-meaning white folks at the time. And so it wasn't really a Black organization. And what they were doing was sort of supporting movements that were taking place in the South rather than really looking in their own backyard at what problems existed in Rochester. And so you do see some some activity, primarily around police brutality in I would say 1962 and 1963. And then the uprising happens in 1964. And it's really kind of that organizing frenzy that takes place afterwards that not only sort of pushes the Civil Rights Movement to the fore in Rochester but also kind of forces the city into that transition to Black power and some of the Black power strategies and ideologies.

AC: I'm currently working on a project sharing the life and work of a local activist Nancy Dupree. She was an Rochester City School District teacher in the late 60s and during that time, around 1970, she created a curriculum that celebrated Black Culture because she saw that there was a need for it. In the 1970s, she went on to speak about Civil Rights issues in our area through poetry and theater. Can you describe what the political climate was like in Rochester in the 1960s particularly for educators and artists.

LWH: I think one of the one of the important things to know--and I don't spend a lot of time about this in the book--is that the Rochester City School District was intensely segregated. Dr. Walter Cooper undertook a serious research project and was able to demonstrate that segregation in the city schools was as bad as or worse than New Rochelle, where of course the cutting edge case took place. In terms of arts and culture, I would really say folks in Rochester at this point weren't immune to arts and culture, but in the 1960s they were really focused on jobs and economic opportunity. And that was because they had been cut out of the economic scene in Rochester for so long.

AC: Is there anything that surprised you or challenged your assumptions about this period in Rochester?

LWH: Absolutely. One of the things that really didn't fit with the narrative that I had learned was the relationship between the Black community, particularly the NAACP, and the Nation of Islam. You know, in part because Rochester was so small, in part because people had come up together, there was very little friction between those organizations. Not at all like you would see on the national scene. I was also really kind of blown away by the Black power stance that many of the Black ministers in the community sort of took on. That was really different than what we were seeing in a lot of other cities particularly as early as 1964.

AC: What lessons does the Black freedom struggle from the 20th century hold for us as a society today?

LWH: Yeah I mean I would say that absolutely everything they were facing in the 20th century--African Americans in Rochester are still facing. Police brutality in Rochester has not abated. In fact I think it's worse now than it was then. Segregation is still a problem, and jobs that that pay a living wage are still a problem. And so because these conditions are relentless we have to be relentless in fighting against them.