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Out of the segregated South: oral histories from the Great Migration

Jump Jim Crow (Part 2 of 2) 

Out of the segregated South: oral histories from the Great Migration

Read part 1 from this 2 part series here

Slavery was abolished after the Civil War in 1865, but the aftershocks continue to this day. A key chapter in the history of race in the United States took place in the mid 20th century, whenmillions of Blacks migrated north from the segregated South. This two-part series documents the experiences of nine Blacks and four whites who grew up in the Jim Crow ("separate but equal") South before moving to Rochester.

                  In the first of this series, they described living conditions on the farm and in the cities that were separate but far from equal. In this article, they discuss what it was like to travel north as a migrant worker, and to struggle to find good jobs and quality housing. We also learn of the frustration that led to the Rochester Riot.


Blacks were granted the right to vote in 1870, but many Southern states found ways around the law. In the 1960s, Supreme Court decisions barred poll taxes and literacy tests, allowing more Blacks to vote.

William A. Johnson: When I first voted -- I had to be 21 -- it was 1963 and the poll tax was still on the books. It was only a dollar. It wasn't the fact that you had to pay a dollar to vote, it was the fact that you had to go down to the courthouse, you had to show up, and it was whether or not you were bold enough. In the Deep South, this was an intimidating thing. It was almost like saying, We're going to vote by a show of hands rather than voting by secret ballot.

J.W. Johnson: In, I think, 1948, Henry Wallace was running for president [on the Progressive Party ticket] and he came to Birmingham. The large assembly area there was the municipal auditorium, which was on Woodrow Wilson Park. Well, of course, it was segregated, and when Wallace found out no Blacks were allowed in that building he said he would have the meeting in the park.

                  Bull Connor [the Public Safety Commissioner of Birmingham known for his use of fire hoses and attack dogs to break up demonstrations]was in power at that point, and when he heard about this he ordered that a kind of barrier be erected halfway down that park. He had the police there to make sure that anyone who came to hear Wallace was divided up according to his or her race on one side or the other. Everybody I knew was really appalled about it.

Jessie M. James: Another thing we was exposed to was voting. Whenever it was time to vote, my parents and others in the community would get on a truck. Now, I don't even know how all of this came about, but at a certain time, at a certain location, the truck would come, they all got on the back of the truck and they went down and voted.

William A. Johnson: Voting is so important. People fought and died for you to vote. Now I tell my own daughters, who were certainly born with a lot more privilege than I was.... They live outside of Rochester. I call them and say, "Did you go vote today?" They say, "Oh dad, I forgot." "Well, do you know how many people died so you'd have that privilege? Go vote. It's very, very important."

J.W. Johnson: As a senior in college, I had taken a course called "The South Today." It was a wonderful sociology course with a very liberal faculty member. As a result of taking the course, Bull Connor had every one of the five students listed as Communist sympathizers.

                  When I went down to register to vote, when I turned 21, the registrar looked at me and said, "You go to that college; there are a lot of Communists, aren't there?" He said, "Tell me, do you think everybody is entitled to vote?" I said no. He looked very pleased. He said, "For example, who?" I said, "People who are in jail, aliens, people under 21; there are a lot of people who are not supposed to vote."

                  He took that as affirmative of my being a good racist. He registered me and gave me a smile of approval and I went out and managed to refrain from throwing up.


J.W. Johnson: In the Birmingham Public Library there were a number of maiden ladies who worked there, and there were also a few colored people -- three Black women and two Black men. They were the cleaning staff. The men we called by their last names, which was unusual. Usually you called them by their first names. I think this was because they were very honorable, dignified men. The women were splendid. The thing about the men was they didn't fawn.

                  But once a year, the children's department of the library had a large Christmas tree. There was a bossy woman who ran the department, and at Christmas they would take up a collection for money to buy presents for the Black staff. They would call them in and the staff would stand there by the tree, obviously embarrassed, and they were asked to perform and sing hymns. I just couldn't watch it.

                  One of these men, Lavell Lawson, he never said sir to anyone, or ma'am. He just spoke, and this was unusual. It was usually "yes 'em" and "yes sir." After I had left the library and gone to graduate school, I came back to the library and Lawson was there. And he said to me -- and this was a humbling experience -- "You know, Mr. Billy, I have prayed a lot for you." I thought, I didn't even know he was aware that I existed and what has he been praying for? So I began to think very seriously about all of this, and I began to have a deeper appreciation of what Black people went through.

The newspaper

Jessie M. James: When we were children, my mother and my stepfather always made sure that we read the newspaper. That was a must. I don't know how often the newspaper came, but whenever it was [there], we had to read the newspaper. And through reading the newspaper, you learn about what is happening in other parts of the world. We read about who was getting lynched, we read about the different problems they was having in Georgia and other places. We also had to listen to the radio every evening. If you listen, in your mind you sort of get your own images of what you think the story is saying.

William A. Johnson: Virginians sort of pride themselves on being genteel. They never got into the really ugly stuff, yet there's an ugliness that was there. One of the things that was real ugly about growing up in Lynchburg was the newspaper that was edited and published by the family of E.C. Glass.

                  The editor, Carter Glass II, was horrible. The only way you'd get your name in his paper if you were Black was if you got in trouble or you got arrested. Then he'd put "Negro" after the name. He didn't publish wedding notices or pictures of Black people getting married, events in the Black community.

                  He was almost driven crazy during the Civil Rights movement because he couldn't deal with the change that was coming to the South. So he editorialized.

                  His favorite term was "Communist sympathizer," so Martin Luther King was a Communist sympathizer. The influence of the Communist party was overwhelming these good Black folks. These good colored folks were being led astray by these outsiders.

                  I did my Masters thesis on the newspaper and the way they covered the trial of somebody I had grown up with who was accused of raping a white woman and sentenced to die in the electric chair: Carleton Wamsley. He didn't kill her; he didn't rape her. Three times his conviction was overturned -- twice by the Virginia Supreme Court and the third time by the US Supreme Court. And the issue, when it got to the US Supreme Court, was the salacious reporting by the newspaper.

                  William Kunstler, who was at that point a very young man, came to Lynchburg to represent Thomas Carleton Wamsley. I counted over 400 times in the paper that Kunstler was referred to as a Communist sympathizer. The point was, this kid could not be innocent if he went out and hired this well-known Communist sympathizer. And it actually tainted the jury pool, and that's why it got thrown out the last time.

J.W. Johnson: Any time you really got to know Black people, you recognized an innate dignity in them. I was a paperboy and on one of my routes I had a number of white people, but then, between one row of houses and the railroad tracks, was a row of shanties. These were really unspeakable. I'm sure they were cold in the winter; I suppose they had running water, I really don't know. They also had outhouses.

                  In that row of Negro shanties, I had two customers. The white people would try to cheat me sometimes. They wouldn't pay; they'd hide. The two Black families always paid me that 16 cents every week. They read the paper and I always admired them very much.

The season truck

William Hall: In Florida, the orange crop was ready for harvest starting in late-October, early-November, and that would continue till about April. Celery would start in like January, February. They would start to plant it then, and it would be harvested in mid-May.

                  In summer the only work left would be to work in the orange groves pruning the trees, but those jobs were limited. So in 1941 my father was recruited by a crew chief that started to bring families from our area in Florida up the Eastern seaboard to work the farms, crops like tomatoes, stringbeans, Irish potatoes. So at age 12, in 1941, I being the older of two boys, my father took me.

Jimmy White: The first time I came up North I came up on a truck, a season truck. Every year trucks leave out of Florida, come into various parts of the North, [filled with] what's called migrant workers. My first time leaving home in 1949, I must have been about 16, 17.

                  Being the only child, I was so afraid my mom wasn't gonna let me go. I worked for this company and they had a crew come in to New York for the summer. I asked my mom, could I go? She shocked me; she said yes. She said, "I'm lettin' you go because I don't want you to run away from me and go anyway," which made sense. I came up on the truck. Took two days and two nights.

William Hall: We would get on a truck in Central Florida and the first stop we made was in a town called Aurora, North Carolina, on the Outer Banks section of North Carolina, and you would start to harvest. We would get on the back of those trucks, and it took us three days to ride from where we lived in Florida to Aurora.

                  We slept on the truck. Let's say you have a truck with a body that's 10 feet long; they would have sideboards on each side and the cab up front, and the back was open, a canvas over the top. They would build down the center: a row of benches on one side, a row on the other, and two benches in the center.

                  You slept by sleeping on the other person's back, and then you reversed the process. If you got a 10-foot-body truck, probably every foot you'd have a person, so you'd have maybe 40 people in the back of a truck. You would ride like that for three days. And of course back in those days the speed limit was 30 or 40.

                  The way you ate -- there were no restaurants for us, of course, so they would stop somewhere at a grocery store and they'd buy a loaf of bread and bologna, peanut butter and jelly.

Jimmy White: It was horrible, because you couldn't go to the bathroom. I remember an old guy had to take a crap in Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg. He took a crap in a can and I tell you -- you talk about odor, man, it stunk the whole time that we were on that truck. It was really horrible. The men was on one truck; the women and children was on the other truck. They were packed like sardines.

William Hall: We started in North Carolina. Then Pongo, Virginia, would be the next stop. Then we would sometimes go to Elizabeth City, North Carolina; then we would go across the Chesapeake Bay, over into Maryland and up Rt. 13 along the seaboard there and pick tomatoes, and on up to Hikestown, New Jersey, and pick potatoes there.

                  When you got to your destination there was no housing, so the crew chief would ride around the farm area, and if you'd find an old, abandoned house, you'd go and clean it up the best you could, and that's where you would stay. Some had to sleep on the truck, and some slept in tents outside. If you washed, you had foot tubs. You'd have to find your water; you'd fill up gallon glass jugs.

                  The way you cooked, you'd get several bricks and build up the sides and the front and put a piece of tin over the top and build a fire underneath. Then you could use the top where the tin was to put your pots, and you cooked on top of that.

                  The price we got for picking a bushel of potatoes was -- it was really more than a bushel, because you would have to put potatoes in [two] 5/8 bushel baskets -- they paid you 3 cents for that. My father was good at piecework. He could pick 100 bushels a day, so $3 a day.

                  Occasionally you got a maverick, but the crew chiefs were very controlling because they got money from the farmer off of the people that they brought. If the worker was getting 3 cents a bushel, maybe the crew chief gets 5. So the 2-cents difference was his.

                  In addition, what they did -- because the majority of people who did this were single people -- he and his wife would cook the meals and sell them. They'd eat breakfast in the morning, go to the fields, and when they finished in the evening they'd have supper. They didn't eat lunch. They would charge them X number of dollars a week for meals.

                  Say a guy made $15 a week. Maybe it cost him $5 a week for food. So he's got $10 for his family back home and his own needs. Some of the crew chiefs, what they would do is buy liquor and beer and they wouldn't pay off the help until maybe 10 o'clock Saturday night, when all the stores were closed in town. So you were captive to their process and you had to buy what they had. That's all that was available. At the end of the season you can guess who had most of the money.

Jimmy White: There was camps out in Sodus, Williamson, Fort Byron, all that area was nothing but camping areas for migrant workers at that time. A guy came through there, wanted people to live on his farm to pick apples and potatoes and cherries. I went along with them. I left the camp and went to this private place and stayed till September.

William Hall: New Jersey was very much different from anything below that point. The labor relations were better. This farmer, in addition to being a potato farmer, was also a chicken farmer. Before we got there he would move the chickens out of the chicken house and put them out in the field surrounded by a fence. Then we would scrub out the chicken houses and that's where we would stay -- in the chicken house. But if you look at the improved conditions from where you started, a chicken house was, you know, pretty good livin' compared to where you came from.

                  You'd start out in May and by the time you got to New Jersey it was October. By the time you finished it was the beginning of November and you'd head down South. And so I wouldn't get back to Florida to go to school until mid-November. So the school year was November to May.

The service

James Walters: When I was in the service in the early 1950s, I came home on leave. I had to go overseas. I didn't know if I was going to go to Japan, Korea, or where, because my orders indicated Far East. But I was on the train in Richmond, Virginia. Before the train pulled out, the conductor came and told me I couldn't sit in that car because it was for whites only.

                  I said, "Here's my ticket and it's paid for and the train is going to my destination. I'm not leaving." He got off, came back on with two MPs -- one white, one Black -- asked me what was the problem. I told 'em I didn't have a problem. "Here's my ticket, this is my destination. They told me this train is going there, this coach is part of that train so I prefer to sit here."

                  So the white MP said, "You know, there are different rules and regulations in different states." I reached in my pocket, got my orders, and showed it to him. I said, "Now, I don't know if I'm going to Korea or not, but if I do and I dig a foxhole and we come under fire and a white guy comes to get in that foxhole, am I supposed to tell him no, you can't get in here; this is for Blacks only. What do you think about that?"

                  The Black MP looked at the white MP and said, "I think we'd better leave this brother alone." Next thing I knew the conductor hollered, "Board!" and, believe it or not, all the white people in that coach started applauding.

                  I served in Korea and came home. I went to a theater with a friend of mine and our dates. I went in and sat down in a place I guess I wasn't supposed to sit. I'd just come back from Korea and they tell me I can't sit here. I said, "If I can't sit here, I'd prefer my money back." The person who was telling me I couldn't sit there was a Hungarian refugee, working as an usher at the theater. Naturally I went into a rage. Shortly thereafter I was organizing a protest at the theater. It was [eventually] closed.


Nicky Harmon: My dad was a trustee at Atlanta University. It was during the early days of the Civil Rights movement in Birmingham, and Martin Luther King was in Birmingham and his house was bombed.

                  My mother and father went to a dinner at Atlanta University for the trustees, and at the dinner my mother sat next to Mrs. Martin Luther King, Sr., who was worrying herself to death about her grandchildren, and she told my mother. And that hit my mother right where she could relate to it, because that would have been her reaction totally. This was very important to her because she recognized this human reaction.

William A. Johnson: There was a particular term that was originated in Virginia: "massive resistance." It was the official policy of the state. Whenever there was an attempt made to integrate a facility in the 1950s or the 1960s, that facility was shut down and converted to a private institution.

                  We had public parks and swimming pools. In my town there must have been four or five parks for whites that had swimming pools. There was one park in a rather isolated part of the community and one swimming pool that had been built on top of a landfill that was for Black kids only. When, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, there was an effort made to integrate the white parks, the parks were shut down and the swimming pools were closed.

                  The schools -- not so much in Lynchburg, but in other parts of the state -- when there was an attempt to integrate them, they shut them down. Prince Edward County, Virginia, was the only county in the United States that had no public schools for a period of six years.

                  From 1955 to 1961 all the public schools in Prince Edward County were closed, and they were converted to private academies for white kids. There were no academies for Black kids. It was the only county in the United States at that time that did not provide public education for Black children. That was their response, their massive resistance to desegregation.

Nicky Harmon: My dad was Judge Elbert Tuttle. He was very instrumental in getting the Republican Party going in Georgia. In those days, that was the liberal party because, of course, the white Democratic Party in Georgia was totally segregationist and racist.

                  The Republican Party was a mixed group. There were two groups of delegates that went to the convention. The faction that my dad was part of was arguing that the other faction was illegal because it was all white. My dad's faction was for Eisenhower; the other faction was for Taft. It was a big battle at the convention, and the group that my dad belonged to won. They were instrumental in nominating Eisenhower over Taft.

                  When Eisenhower became president, he appointed my father general council to the Treasury Department in Washington, which he was for two years. Soon after that there was a vacancy on the Fifth Circuit, and he was appointed as a Fifth Circuit Judge.

                  There's a book, Unlikely Heroes by Jack Bass, about my father and the three other members of the Fifth Circuit Court who really changed the course of history in terms of the decisions they made in Civil Rights cases. The Circuit Courts played a more important role than the Supreme Court, because they really changed the way the law was interpreted. They interpreted them correctly to include all people.

                  During the Birmingham turmoil with the Freedom Riders, one time all the children who were demonstrating on a weekend downtown in Birmingham were expelled from school for the rest of the year. This included all the seniors, which meant they wouldn't graduate from high school. And Constance Baker Motley of the NAACP brought this case to my dad. He signed an order, ordering the children back to school right away, on Monday. The full Circuit upheld the ruling.

                  Another one was the first students admitted to the University of Georgia, Charlene Hunter-Gault being one of them. They were ordered to be admitted by the district judge. They went to the university, there was a riot, and they were sent home. My dad said, No way; if you make them lose this year, it's a whole year out of their lives. So he ordered that they take them back and right now. Again, that was backed up by the whole Circuit.

                  The district judges got more harassment, because they lived in the district where the cases were heard. By the time my father got home from New Orleans, the original anger had somewhat died out. Now judge Richard Reeves got a lot of harassment. People put garbage in his mailbox and threw garbage on his son's grave, just did nasty things. At least they didn't shoot at him. People who he knew all his life wouldn't speak to him.

Jimmy White: I used to read the paper back in the early 1960s when all this first started. I felt kinda bad that I lived in New York then and I couldn't be part of that movement. I take my hat off to those students down there that was involved, in Montgomery and all around, that caused this change. Without the whites from the Northern states that would go down and participate, I don't think it would have ever happened.

The future

Jessie M. James: I had just finished high school; I was dating this young man, and we were going to get married. He said to me, "Jessie, I'm going to get a celery row and you gonna get a celery row and we gonna work hard and we gonna save our money and buy a house."

                  I had a lot of questions about that. Many of the Blacks had gone to college, but they end up out in the celery field also, which didn't make a whole lot of sense to me. I said, "No way." It didn't look like fun to me. The next week or so I left. I just couldn't see no future, but that was his thinking. But again, keep in mind, many of the people who grew up on the farm, their scope was very limited in terms of what they wanted to do with their lives. And that was OK, but it wasn't OK for me.

                  There had been different groups of people, migrants they called them, that would come up on the farm and they would work picking apples and tomatoes and beans, and they would come back to Florida. So there was always people comin' and going, saying "We're going to Rochester." I was coming with the intent of just staying for a little while. I didn't want to get married. This was my way of saying no.

Katherine Logan: In Memphis, I didn't get one call after I graduated. As a matter of fact, the superintendent of schools came to the college and talked to all of us who were graduating with certification in elementary education, and he told us, among other things, that they had enough teachers. As a matter of a fact, they had a waiting list, and if we could find a job in somebody's kitchen, we should take it.

                  I felt terrible. I had my name on the list to do substitute teaching and I got one call, when I wasn't home. When I called them back, the job had been taken.

Evelena Lee: My mom had friends, and they said, "Lots of good work; come to Rochester." That's why many of our families did come, because there was work. And the pay was good, better than what they were receiving where they were.

Alice Walters: When I was in college, I went to Washington, DC, to get a job. I guess my feeling was once, you get out of the South -- North Carolina, Virginia -- you wouldn't have a problem. I never considered Washington, DC, to be in the South. But I found that Washington was, at that time, one of the most prejudiced places.

                  I would go and try to get a job, and the interview would be going well until they looked at my application and saw that I had A and T College [Agricultural and Technical College] on there. He said, "Oh, this is a colored college. Are you colored?" I said yes. The interview changed just like that. Needless to say, I didn't get the job.

The ride north

Jessie M. James: I was apparently about 18 or so. I was leaving Sanford, Florida, on my way to Rochester on the bus. Going to the back of the bus, you never gave it a thought. You just went on back there and got yourself a seat, 'cause I saw everybody else doing it. The bus stopped somewhere -- I want to say Virginia, but I'm not sure.

                  And we go to the restaurant -- it never dawned on me you're supposed to take your food; I didn't know that. The bus stopped to have a little layover. I get out; I go to the restaurant. I'm sitting there waiting and I keep seeing everybody get served but me.

                  And I couldn't figure out why they wasn't serving me, so finally I said to the lady, "I been sitting here." That's when she told me, "You're supposed to go to the back." I didn't have a clue. I felt angry. I felt even more angry that they let me sit there all that time and didn't tell me. Now it's time for the bus to leave, so I ended up with no food.

Jimmy White: Mostly everybody from my town near Sanford was in Rochester. Rochester probably has more people from Sanford than any town or county in the USA. I had an uncle that lived here. That's what drew me here. I wanted to go to New York City.

                  I got to Norfolk, Virginia, and the ferry was on strike. You couldn't go across the bay to go toward New York City. We left Norfolk to come to Rochester. We only had a few dollars. Gas was about 11, 12, 13 cents a gallon. We got to York, Pennsylvania, and we ran out of money again.

                  I went to the Salvation Army, and there was a little white lady, and she was so nice. She said, "Boys, we can't give you no cash money; we can give you a place to eat and a place to stay. Do you have parents back home?" "Yes, ma'am." "Why don't you let me send a wire to them and wire you some money?" I said, "But I live on a farm. I live on a route." She said, "That doesn't matter. How much do you want?" I said "$10."

                  She gave us some food vouchers and said, "Go down to this restaurant and they will give you some food. Call me about four o'clock and see if the money is in." We called and she said, "James, you're in luck. The money's here." She gave us the $10. I would love to see that lady again to thank her.

The ride south

Jimmy White: I caught a bus out of Rochester and went back home. The fare from here to Sanford at that time was $18 and some cents. I remember leaving here, going to Syracuse, leaving Syracuse going to Scranton, and when we got to Washington, DC, the bus driver said, "All Blacks, all niggers, in the back." If along that line the bus picked up some white people, you had to get up and move. If there was no room further back, you had to stand up.

                  The bus continued to go south, and you want to get out and get a cup of coffee or a sandwich or something. I remember a place in North Carolina, we got out to get a hamburger. You couldn't go inside, because there was no waiting area for Blacks. You had to go to a window, and it had a little hole about 5 by 4 inch. You had to look down and tell the person you wanted a hamburger.

                  After years and years, after I got to be a grown person, got my own ride and everything, I traveled back and forth every Christmas to see my mom. I had to take cold cuts and make sandwiches here and cook chicken and have a basket in the car in order to travel, 'cause I couldn't get nothin' to eat along the way.

                  After a year or two, I forgot a couple of times where I was and I stopped the car and went into this little store to get something -- a cup of coffee -- and the woman run from behind the counter said, "Nigger, you're not allowed in here." It was 1 or 2 in the morning. There was about five or six white guys in there. They didn't crack a smile. They were waiting for me to get smart. I probably would have been in trouble.

                  In '55, I realized I wasn't gonna go back to the South to live. I had myself situated here. I had a good job working for Hickey-Freeman. Later on I went into hair-stylin' and barberin'.


Katherine Terrell: There was a lot of discrimination, a lot of stuff going on here when I came here in 1937. There was no jobs for Blacks. They had had about two people at Kodak. There was no Xerox; it was Haloid, and Black people couldn't work there.

                  The only jobs we could do was to work in the homes, cooking. And the men were chauffeurs. All you allow me to do is do your dirty work. I could do your cooking and I could do your laundry and I could do your housework and all like that, but I couldn't have the finer things in life.

James Walters: After school I came to Rochester looking for work, 'cause I had three sisters here at the time, and they said they thought I'd be able to find a job here. I went to Eastman Kodak every day for about two weeks and they didn't have anything. I was going to other companies also.

                  I came home one day and was told that I received a call from Pfaudler. So I called and they asked if I could come in for an interview. I went in and they said they had a job working on the glass floor. I was desperate, so I accepted, starting at $1.85 an hour. I worked my way up to the top job in that department. After a while, I applied for a supervisor's job because I had mastered all the aspects of my job.

                  The personnel director said I had an excellent education but it was in the wrong field. So I said, what field do I need an education in? They said industrial management, so I enrolled at RIT. I finished that and applied for a supervisor position. They told me I would have to take an examination. I asked them when and where. I went in at 9 o'clock on a Friday morning and took a battery of test until 5 that evening.

                  I asked if I could make an appointment to find out my results. Two weeks later, I went back. He told me I had scored higher than the average supervisor in Monroe County. He said he had already recommended that I be promoted immediately to a supervisor position.

                  I got permission from my foreman to go to personnel. I spoke with the personnel manager and told him I'd like to re-apply for a supervisor position. He politely told me that I didn't do too well on my exam. So I told him, "Some people are stupid, but I had the audacity to find out the results of my exam." He looked at me funny. I said, "Yes, I had an appointment this morning. I know what the exam scores were and I know what the recommendation to the company was."

                  "Well, Jim, we can't do this." I said, "Hold it. You don't have to lie to me. You want someone with my knowledge and my education but not my paint job. As of this moment I'm giving you two weeks' notice." I had already applied for a job with the New York State Department of Labor.

William Hall: I went to work for Rochester Products. There was a young man, Richard Kowosky from Buffalo, who was a metallurgist and a student at RIT. He worked at Rochester Products as part of a cooperative arrangement. He would come down to take samples of molten metal.

                  We started talking and he said to me, "Is this what you want to do the rest of your life?" I said no. He said, "Why don't you go to school?" I said I really hadn't thought about it. When I'd gotten out of the military I had the GI Bill coming, but I never thought of going to college because nobody in my family had ever gone to college. I was the first one to finish high school. I said, "Thanks, I'll have to see if I can." I went to the veterans' office and they said, Yes, you're eligible.

                  They sent me off to Buffalo to take tests to see what areas I might succeed in. There were two areas: architecture and accounting. In the meantime, I got married and we had a son. So I decided to go into the accounting area. I went to RIT. They tested me and said we can let you come in on probation first quarter.

                  In September of 1959, I went to my foreman and told him of my plans and he thought I was doing the right thing. The first quarter I was able to survive it and I got off probation. I finished four years later with a degree in Business Administration in 1963.

                  Had it not been for the help I got from the white teachers, I couldn't have survived. I didn't know anything about studying or using libraries. White students learned early on in school, but having grown up in the South, we didn't have any libraries. My last quarter in 1963, I made the Dean's List. I never could have dreamed of anything like that.

Jessie M. James: I found it worse here, because now I had all these other stereotypes to deal with that I didn't have to deal with in Florida, cause in Florida you pretty much knew what you had to do. You dealt with the Black folks because that's primarily who you was involved with. Only time you really come into contact with white people was maybe when you went to town to do grocery shopping. But for the most part you didn't come into contact with them.

                  Coming here, I remember, the day after Easter someone had told me how to get to West Side Hospital. So I go there and fill out an application and I get a job as a maid in the kitchen. In the back of my mind I'm still thinking, I'm going to school to become a nurse.

                  One day, as I was always accustomed to doing, I'm in the kitchen taking my 15-minute break, reading the newspaper. Mrs. Holley -- that was the supervisor, a white woman -- she came and said, "Are you reading the newspaper on my job?" I said, "This is my break." She said, "Well, you know I could fire you." Just like that! So I thought to myself -- I'm a single woman -- well, I'm not going to stop reading the newspaper, so I'd better start looking for another job.

                  I get off that evening. I go over to Bond's Clothing on Hart Street. I go there; I get a job. I had to start in two weeks. So I wait till my two weeks got up and I say to her, "Mrs. Holley, I'm not comin' back to work any more." She said, "Why you not comin' back?" I said, "You told me the other day that you could fire me for reading the newspaper on my 15-minute break. And I'm not gonna stop reading the newspaper." She said, "Well, I didn't mean it." I said, "No, that's it." She tried every kind of way to get me to stay, but I was gone.

Real estate

It wasn't until 1968 that anti-discrimination housing laws were passed.

Katherine Terrell: I know for my child to get a better life you got to fight. I don't care how you come up; you couldn't get a house. They didn't want us in Pittsford. They didn't want us in Penfield.

Jessie M. James: Around 1954, we wanted to buy a house. We was riding around and looking, and at that time we didn't have any children, just the two of us. We had worked and had saved up $4,000.

                  The houses they would take us to see, it was unbelievable -- the worst houses you could find anywhere. Then finally someone told us about this house [in the Third Ward]. We get ready to buy this house; we had a stove and a refrigerator from Sears Roebuck -- we paid $25 a month -- and that's the only bill that we had. They told us we had to pay off the stove and refrigerator or we couldn't afford to buy the house.

                  All of a sudden, we could not buy this house in our own name. So we had to get a white fellow by the name of Scotty. He got the house in his name, kept it for six months, and then transferred it to us. At that time this area -- the Third Ward -- was primarily white. It was very difficult to buy houses. We didn't learn this till later on. All we wanted was a place to stay. We developed a strategy where we tried to pay cash for everything we got so we wouldn't run into that kind of a situation.

Katherine Logan: In the 1950s -- at that time it was unwritten, but the line was Genesee Street, I guess -- an African-American couldn't buy a house on the other side of Genesee Street. There were several people I know who purchased homes, but not directly. White people bought the house for them. They had this arrangement and they bought a house that they'd never set foot in. These, I think, were people of good will who wanted to help. That's how people began to infiltrate the 19th Ward.

                  When we were house hunting, they were building a new tract of homes and we saw this house that we liked. We wanted to make an offer on it, and we were refused.

                  We were looking out in Henrietta. There was a tract they were building and they offered us a house right behind Star Market. We decided we didn't want that site, because when you looked out the kitchen window you were looking at the back of Star Market and we figured with the garbage and everything they put out there, there might be rats. They told us that was all they had available. We talked to our lawyer and he interceded. The builder said, "Oh yes, we have other places that she could have."

                  Another builder wanted us to make a down payment and -- these were the words out of his mouth -- wait until they sold the other houses in the tract and then they would build our house last. Because he was afraid if we moved in there, the white people wouldn't want to move in there.

Jessie M. James: We stayed here until our youngest child was in second grade; then we moved to Spencerport. When we moved to Spencerport we kept this house, 'cause I just figured, if things didn't go well out there, I'm comin' back. So we rented out the house and moved to Spencerport.

                  That was a doozie. Our attorney said to us -- this is like 1961, 1962 -- now, you may have a little problem over there. Well, we had five-and-a-half acres; I couldn't figure out the problem. The people next door said, "We are not gonna live next door to niggers." It wasn't long before they moved.

Alice Walters: We'd gone to look at an apartment in the early 1960s, a duplex on Elba Street. It was a nice place that I wanted to live, so I called the man and made an appointment and he was going to meet us there. I told him who I was. So he looked at me and he looked at my husband and he said, "You know, you look white, but he doesn't." And [my husband] said, "Well, we're both the same thing."

                  He showed us the apartment, but he did not want to rent to us. He said they had a lot of fine people living in that area and they had to be careful who they rented to. I was really upset. Finally, he decided he would give us a chance. My ex-husband did not want to rent the place because of his attitude, and I said I do, I want to prove something to this man. We did get the apartment.

                  There was a couple who had a child and moved out, so he wanted to know if we knew any nice Blacks like us that he could rent that duplex to. Maybe he thought he'd have a hard time renting it to a white couple. I told him no, I didn't know anyone. I don't think, even if I did, I would have referred them, because of the problems that we had.

James Walters: After my divorce, I was looking for an apartment. This was after Alice and I started dating. I called up an apartment complex on South Avenue. I saw an ad in the paper and asked if it was still available. They said yes. I said, I won't be able to get over to see it this evening, but I had a friend, could you show it to her? The lady said yes. So Alice went over and looked at the apartment and they were interested in renting it. She showed me the apartment and all of a sudden it wasn't available. They thought Alice was Caucasian.

Evelena Lee: I joined CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality. We met at the Unitarian Church; they were always great about opening their doors to various things. At that time Gannett owned the two newspapers, the Times-Union and the Democrat and Chronicle, a television station, and a radio station. It was like, if you write up something, you're only going to hear and see what the powers that be want you to hear.

                  We did a project [in the 1950s], myself and another member, and we'd go as husband and wife. There's a section called Paddy Hill near Latta Road. They were building a lot of homes. So what my partner and I would do, we would go in to where they were developing and get a salesman. We [pretended to be] interested in the plan for schools. I said I wanted to see the cabinets and my partner said he wanted to see the potential of putting in a family room or wood shop. The whole thing was to get a price. "How much would this model home cost?" Then we'd leave, go to another.

                  Our partners were two whites and they would sometimes say to them, "Boy, the nerve of them to come here. Do they think they're going to buy a home in this section?" Got some wonderful data. When we got it all together, it was never printed in the paper. But that doesn't discourage you.

Joe Watson: When we bought this house there was a Black family that lived next door, and [the man] worked for the state as an engineer. The first time my parents came up they were sitting here and my neighbor walked down the driveway. My father said, "Who's that?" I said, "That's Ed. He lives next door." He said, "What does he do?" And I said, "He works for the state." Without any hesitation he said, "In sanitation?"

Jessie M. James: We lived on Parma-Hilton Road going right up into Hilton, and we were so glad to see Black people. We went up there to go shopping one day, because we were driving all the way back to the city to shop, and we saw some Black people in Hilton. We started screaming, yellin', and hollering. "Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" We were just glad to see them.

                  That probably has something to do with our sort of staying together now in a sense, because you just sort of feel comfortable and more at peace. I can see myself right now just screaming and yelling. At that time we didn't have that many Blacks that lived out there.

Segregated North

Jessie M. James: There was a restaurant out on Buffalo Road. We would try to get sandwiches and what have you, and they would not serve us. We had a friend and he looked white. So when we wanted something from the restaurant we would send him in to get the food for us. So you had to invent all these kinds of strange situations in order to accommodate what you were trying to do.

Evelena Lee: I always was athletic. At Wollensak [an optical company] they had women's softball, women's basketball, and I went from one season to the next. I always signed up. It came time for the bowling and the girl that was heading that says, "Evelena, I signed you up for bowling." Great; kept working.

                  She came back later with such a face and I knew immediately. You don't be who you are and not know, 'cause she was struggling to say what she needed to say. So I just sat back and waited. Finally she was able to get out, "You won't be able to bowl with us." I said, "Is there a reason?" "Money was going to be given out." I said, "I'm not angry with you. You have to abide by the rules."

                  I got off from work, took the bus on Hudson Avenue, went right down town to the Rundel Library on South Avenue. Went upstairs, opened up the National Bowling Association rules and there it was: Blacks could not bowl with whites if there was gonna be money given out.

Jimmy White: In the 1960s, you better not be Black in this area [the 19th Ward], because there were no Blacks livin' in this area. You better not be caught on this side of Genesee Street after 9 o'clock. If you do, the cops gonna stop you.

                  Irondequoit was very, very -- extremely bad. When the sun go down, I'd be ready to leave Seabreeze and come home because I know that if you're in a car, the police see you, they're gonna stop you and harass you.

                  One night we were coming from Sodus, and we come through Webster. The cop stopped us the minute he saw that we were Black. He pulled us over, asked where we were going. Said we were going to Rochester. "What'cha going for?" "Goin' to see some friends." "This time of night?" It was about 8, 9 o'clock.

                  "Well, you ain't goin'. Where you from, anyway?" "Sodus." "Turn this car around and get back out there." The police at that time were really, really bad. They would whip you until kingdom come.

Nicky Harmon: I remember, when we lived in Roxbury, my mother came to visit. She had never sat down at a table to eat with a Black person, and I thought, I don't know how she's gonna like this but it's too bad. I have to hand it to her, she sat down and ate and talked to people at the table. We felt that that was where God wanted us to be. That's where we needed to be to be doing the kind of ministry that my husband felt he should be doing, and I agreed with him.

                  It was back in the days that some of the churches were moving out to suburbs as most of the people moved out to the suburbs. I think our children would say they gained a lot. They lost some things, but they gained a lot. We have a Black granddaughter, our oldest granddaughter, because one of our daughters married a Black man.

Katherine Logan: We always felt that once we came to Rochester a lot of things were the same, but they were hidden, they just weren't out in the open for you to see.

Evelena Lee: This area is much worse. The Northeast is much worse. In the South, it's spelled out clear. You know: I don't want you here. Here, there's a belief that I can be here, I can do here, I can buy here, I can eat here. But then, no you can't. You gonna buy here, you gonna pay $6,000 or $7,000 more than a white person who buys here, where in Memphis: "I don't want you here." So I'll go over here and I'll buy. It's cut and dry what you can and cannot do.

                  I can go into a particular store and someone's watching me. And I'm not in there with dreadlocks hanging all over or rags on. And you know what? I don't have to turn around; I feel it. All I do is make a quick turn and that confirms it.

Jessie M. James: There was a white couple that lived down the street. Now if there's anything like two classes of people, I would have said, they were really the poor class. They lived in a house, the roof was leaking, the porch looked like it would fall through any minute, yet we would get together and talk. I really liked her.

                  The kicker came one day, she was saying she didn't have this, she didn't have that, and I thought I was gonna be helpful. I gathered up some things I had and I told her, "I got this for you and I thought maybe you could use this." And she looked me right in the face and she said, "You poor, you keep 'em. You need 'em more than I do."

                  That really was a slap in the face. But it just sort of reinforced that white people, regardless of what condition they're in, they think they're better. It was all right for her to help me, but it wasn't OK for me to help her.

James Walters: I remember one thing that happened to me here, that never happened to me in West Virginia. My cousins and I had gone to a club on North Street -- this must have been 1959. We were leaving the club, and we crossed the street to the parking lot and the police pulled up and all of us had to show identification.

                  And I refused to do it because, coming out of a bar, we hadn't done anything. My cousin said, "James, go ahead. Show it to him, show it to him. We don't want to get into any trouble." And I wasn't used to that. I showed it to him and he said, You guys can go. They told me that's routine here; they do that all the time.

William Hall: I joined the NAACP back in 1955. There were very few Black clerks in the stores, very few Black tellers in the banks. The Eastman Kodaks and Xeroxes had very few Blacks, just menial jobs. There were very few Black school teachers. The NAACP's work was to agitate for changes in these areas.

                  Back in 1958, when the Rochester Police Department started using dogs in patrolling the Black community [but not in the white community], the dog would be snapping at a person during the arresting of Blacks. The NAACP was at the forefront of challenging the use of dogs.

                  In Rochester and in other cities, housing was restricted and the jobs were restricted to menial jobs. Meanwhile you have more Blacks and Hispanics starting to flow in, and everything is sort of contained in these congested areas and the frustration built, and then the riots erupted.


On July 24, 1964, one week after a riot had erupted in Harlem, riots broke out in Rochester. A month later, Philadelphia joined in what became known as "a long hot summer" of unrest.

William Hall: There was a party over on Nassau Street and Joseph Avenue. People were dancing in the street and somebody called the police. And the police came to quiet things down and it was hot outside. When they got there, the crowd had become unruly and they called for backup.

                  As more police came, a confrontation took place. One police car was overturned and set afire. People ran up Joseph Avenue, breaking into stores, taking stuff. Saturday evening it flared up again and spread over to the west side of town on Jefferson Avenue and the stores on Jefferson Avenue between Main Street and Plymouth Avenue. The National Guard was called in, a police helicopter crashed, and one policeman got killed.

Jimmy White: I was right in the middle of it. I had a barber shop on Hudson Avenue, and a couple of boys that was working for me said it's a riot. They were having a street dance on the street that's Upper Falls Boulevard now. They had dogs out, and they was siccing the dogs on, making people move; that's how the riot started. And it escalated down Joseph Avenue.

                  A lot of the merchants who had stores was livin' up above the stores, so they came out to protect their business from being looted. They was white. I closed the barber shop. Me and my girlfriend got in my convertible. I put the top down so they could know that we were Black. I saw several cars go by with Caucasians in it. They stoned the cars; they broke the windows.

                  The police chief came down to the area. It was so heavy they had to take him out of his car and take him back uptown. Then they flipped his car over and set it on fire. My girlfriend saw a rosary -- it must have been on the steering wheel or the mirror -- she took it out of there. By that time all the police in the precinct came right down Joseph Avenue to try to stop the riot. Must have been about 250. They got stoned so badly they had to get the hell out of there. In about three, four hours, the state police was in town.

William Hall: Following the riots, a group of Blacks had met with the officials of Kodak and town officials. They wanted to start a chapter of the Urban League here in Rochester. The city fathers said there's no need for anything like that, so they were rebuffed.

                  When the riots took place, Saul Alinsky came in from Chicago and started the FIGHT [Freedom, Integration, God, Honor, Today] organization. My work shifted from CORE to FIGHT, because that's where most of the action was. Alinsky started getting people to confront the power structure.

                  Following the establishment of the FIGHT organization, the city fathers saw fit to fund a chapter of the Urban League. I was asked to serve on the board. The application was made to the United Way for funding in February or March of 1965. I was on the finance committee of the Urban League, the group that went to the United Way, then called Community Chest, to present our budget.

                  The meeting was set for 3:30 in the afternoon. I got to that meeting at 3:35. At 3:45 I had concluded the meeting with them and they had given us an allocation of $42,000 and said if that's not enough come back. So the Urban League took off from there.

Back to the South

Nicky Harmon: When my children were growing up in the 1950s, we lived in the Roxbury section of Boston. It was still somewhat mixed then. Our children all went through school there. We used to go to Atlanta during the summertime for vacation to visit.

                  One time we went to the local country club where my parents belonged, and one of my children said to me: "There are not very many Black people in Atlanta, are there?" And I said, "There are a lot of them but you just don't see them except as waiters or cooks or whatever," because it was still very segregated then. But it was a wake-up call for me when they said that because, of course, they were used to going to school and church and everything else with Black people and we had them in our house all the time.

William A. Johnson: Things got a lot better much sooner then they did in the North.

                  I remember when I was in high school, I got a new suit for Easter and a new suit for Christmas and I was very, very thin. I was five-eleven and I weighed 117 pounds. My waist was so small, the smallest waist was 28 and they still had to take them in. I remember going downtown on Main Street [in Lynchburg]. I went to a department store. I'm in this store and nobody is paying attention to me, nobody comes up and says, "Can I help you?" There are sales clerks there and I'm just totally ignored.

                  Finally I said, "Can I get some help?" The guy says, "Oh, you want some help?" I wanted to know if they had a particular suit in a smaller size. "No, we don't have it in a smaller size." I said, "You sure you don't have it in a smaller size?" I didn't want to quite give in to him. I kept looking. I said, "Well, see if you can find one in another color." He never took my waist measurements. I said, "Can I try this on?" He said, "You want to buy it?" I said, "Well maybe I'll buy it if I see that it fits." He said, "Well you can't try it on until you buy it." I said, "That's not the way it works." He said, "Well that's the way it works in here." So, rather than getting in any difficulty, I just left and I never did go back to that store. That was probably 1958.

                  Now it's 1962, '63, I go to another department store. I'm trying on clothes. This guy comes up to me and it's the same guy who was the sales clerk at the other store. And he said, "Sir, can I help you?" I said, "Can I try it on?" "Yes, by all means." Finally I said, "I really like these things, but I need them altered. Probably they won't be done before I go back to school." He said, "Where do you go to school?" I said, "Howard University." He said, "That's good, when do you have to go?" I said, "I have to leave tomorrow." He said, "I'll tell you what, I can get these altered for you, and tell me where you live. I'll bring them to your house."

                  Five years was like a whole eon. What happened was, when the laws changed, I truly believe a lot of people were relieved because people in the South tend to be very hospitable people.

Katherine Logan: The changes were more rapid in the South than they were in the North. I can remember being at meetings here during the Civil Rights movement, where people would say we didn't have any problems and we knew that wasn't true. If they just looked within themselves long enough and hard enough they would find that we did have problems, and we do even today.

                  I can remember reading about a lot of changes taking place in the South, and they were rapid. Traveling around, and going to various cities, I did not see the type of segregation that I saw growing up.

Evelena Lee: I was in Georgia not too long ago. They're much better there than they are here in many areas. Industry says I'm gonna bring my company here and everybody has to be able to work here, has to be open employment. That was why it's such a big change.

                  There's a big back-home movement going on up here. People are going back to the rural land that they came fleeing away from, because it's wonderful in the South.

Alice Walters: I went back there. It's very interesting to see little white kids and little Black kids walking down the street together, playing, laughing. We went to visit my father and my husband was sitting on the porch, and he called me out to look at these kids coming home from school because he just thought it was so different than what we had been brought up with.

Ann Watson: I still keep up with some people down there, and they haven't made any progress at all. They'll tell you they're not racist but in every conversation with them it comes out. I think, just judging by the people that I knew, there's not one of them who doesn't think we're crazy for moving North. My cousins say, "Your parents didn't raise you that way."

Jessie M. James: Now I'm thinkin' about making the move back. Now I'm retired, and when I left home it wasn't because I didn't enjoy being there. I just didn't want to get married to someone who wanted me to cut celery. I didn't see that as a future for myself. But going back, I enjoyed the sunshine. I enjoyed places that I never had the opportunity to visit as a child, Daytona Beach, Fort Lauderdale -- all those places nearby, within a couple of hours' drive -- but I never experienced that. I would like to be able to do some of those things now.

Looking back

Nicky Harmon: I look back on it now and think how could I have been so totally unaware, but of course that was part of the point. Your parents wanted you to be unaware, protected from all the realities of the world. It was really amazing. I think I must have lived in a bubble or something.

William A. Johnson: So many of these families had Black nannies, had people cook for them. How are you going to let somebody cook your food if you can't trust them?

                  I could tell you so many stories of genuine friendship. I think people got to the point where they were glad the laws were struck down because they could actually be more normal to each other, because this was really sort of artificial. And, to that extent, I believe that the South has made a much better adjustment and a much more thorough adjustment to racism than the North has.

                  We're still dealing with issues up here and people just don't want to contend with them.

Katherine Logan: I'm glad I've lived through it, that it no longer exists as it was. I think sometimes the younger generation does not appreciate the struggles, and from whence they've come, the intimidations, and all the things that have happened to their parents and grandparents that have enabled them to be where they are today.

Thank you to Dr. Walter Cooper and the Rev. Lawrence Hargrave for help in selecting the participants in this series.

Read part 1 from this 2 part series here

Speaking of...

  • Out of the segregated South: oral histories from the Great Migration


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