"Why Are We Reliving the Past?" Elders Reflect On July 1964 Uprising, Curfew, Police Violence

(WXIR-Rochester) 56 years ago today, police violence provided the spark that set off days of unrest in Rochester NY.

A curfew was imposed. Nearly a thousand people were arrested. A helicopter commissioned to take pictures of the so-called "riots" crashed on a rooming house on Clarissa Street, killing 3 people.

D&C July 25, 1964
Editorial, Democrat & Chronicle, July 25, 1964

While Rochester's newspaper of record focused its headlines on "looting mobs" and ran editorials urging a no-mercy response from authorities, at least one Black-run newspaper sought to put the uprising into its proper context.

Frederick Douglass Voice newspaper, which was founded by Howard Coles, printed a cartoon suggesting that the uprising was an outgrowth of frustration over systemic racism and exclusion from employment and education.

As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. put it a few years later, "a riot is the language of the unheard."

Frederick Douglass Voice July 1964

Last summer, several local elders offered their reflections on the events of July 1964 during a series of interviews conducted by youth interns at RCTV and Teen Empowerment.

The elders shared their thoughts on state violence, systemic racism, curfews, as well their own understandings of how social change happens.

While they did not know at the time that Rochester would witness another urban uprising in the summer of 2020, many predicted that history might very well repeat itself.

In this audio piece, we bring together excerpts from several interviews with local elders who lived through those events. We hear from:

  • Joan Coles Howard (daughter of Howard Coles, founder of Frederick Douglass Voice Newspaper)

  • Charles Price (Rochester's first African American police officer)

  • Kathy Dexter Sprague (former Clarissa Street resident)

  • Moses Gilbert (former Clarissa Street resident)

The oral history interviews from which these clips were excerpted were conducted in the summer of 2019 by RCTV and Teen Empowerment youth interns as part of an ongoing project documenting the history of the Clarissa Street neighborhood.



(transcribed by Kirsten Martin)

Youth Interviewer: Were you, um, in Rochester when, um, any of the rioting was happening?

Joan Coles Howard: That’s interesting. 1964? My husband, my two children and I had gone to Columbus, Ohio to visit his family. And they wouldn’t let us come - we were due to come home. They weren’t letting any trains stop in Rochester because of the riots. And so we had to stay in Ohio a day or two longer I guess. 

But when I got back, interestingly enough the house that the helicopter fell on was the house that I lived in until I was eight years old. 

Youth Interviewer: So can you tell us more about the helicopter accident?

Charles Price: Well the helicopter accident was, uh, they took a helicopter from the airport and they came over trying to take pictures of the so-called riots. There was an “accident” or whatever you want to call it where they crashed on Clarissa Street between Tremont and Edinburg. 

Kathy Dexter-Sprague: It sounded like a bomb! You know back then they always talked about Russia and we’re gonna be bombed and this is gonna happen and everybody just panicked because they didn’t know what it was. That was scary. And they were throwing tear gas. Imma tell you we were scared, but our parents were deathly afraid. Because they knew danger - sometimes when you’re young you don’t understand as much of the danger? They knew the danger.

My father, who never drove, he always took the bus, he was coming home and they had a curfew. That curfew said, and I don’t remember the exact time, you can not be on the street. They put my dad in jail! My father was put in jail, put on one of them hard benches until the next morning they let him go. So you know what I mean when I say something like “They don’t care.” 

Youth Interviewer: So can you tell us, um, more about, like, during the 60s and 70s? Like, what was happening then? 

Charles Price: The 60s and 70s. The 60s was, uh, was so-called riots. 64. I lived over on the corner of Joseph Avenue and Clifford Avenue over by the library there. It was my second job. I was a police officer but I still worked at a second job of keeping the furnace going there for the heat. For the Rochester Public Libraries. 

Youth Interviewer: So, you said you were a police officer? So how was the police back then? Like, I know there was, like, a lot of brutality and stuff going on?

Charles Price: Definitely, I will not deny that. I was the first Black police officer in the city of Rochester, and you can understand - 

Youth Interviewers: Oh! [unintelligible, laughter] That’s cool

Charles Price: So you can understand that, uh, going in knowing nothing, when I got appointed they gave me a club and a gun and says you’re a policeman. 

Reporter: So being a police officer, did you see anything, like, witness anything wrong happening? 

Charles Price: Well, yes, definitely. Every - I was called everything but a child of God. And I was called ‘the n word’ by the, uh, white “society”, shall I say, here in Rochester. We had good segregation here in Rochester; don’t think that Rochester was a nice, pure, nice city. It was not. 

Moses Gilbert: There are a lot of different incidents that took place. They introduced the use of police dogs. And the police dogs were used primarily in the African American neighborhood. So that brought a rub. And the police dogs would bite somebody and people would come out and argue about it, so, the problems grew, because the numbers grew. And the police didn’t know what to do using 1930 tactics. And that just didn’t work. So there would always be incidents. A police-citizen fight, or, you know, that still go on here, police abuse.That’s the forecast- and there are things going to happen 

Youth Interviewer: So like, the destruction and stuff? Were you surprised by it by any way? 

Joan Coles Howard: Don’t remember. Honestly, I don’t. My mind says I shouldn’t have been surprised because there- there was a lot of anger in the Black community. There was- and there was reason for anger, so...

But to go to the extremes that they went? I don’t know. 

But, you’re conscious that it would happen again today. It could happen again today, for exactly the same reasons. Why are we reliving the past? It’s crazy. 

Moses Gilbert: You can’t control a situation that has come to maturity. I always give a biological example of, the lady is expecting- carrying a child, when nine months rolls by, you’re gonna give up that child or you’re gonna have a big problem. And so, when we went from 2% to 12% African American population, and society was not ready to give us equal access to employment opportunities and other, uh, there’s gonna be an explosion. 

So, when you have a large public disturbance that’s- that’s forcing the leadership of the community to do something, uh, society doesn’t change without a little force. You have to get the power to force change in our society.