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Racist housing policies that shaped Rochester's past, present and future

by Kari Ashworth - Executive Editor
Wed, Feb 26th 2020 02:00 pm
 Barbara Karas, Calvin Eaton, Anne Macpherson, Shane Wiegand hosted the Sig Synnestvedt Memorial Lecture where they discussed issues of racism in Rochester 's History
Barbara Karas, Calvin Eaton, Anne Macpherson, Shane Wiegand hosted the Sig Synnestvedt Memorial Lecture where they discussed issues of racism in Rochester 's History

The Department of History hosted its annual Sig Synnestvedt Memorial Lecture entitled “Redlining and Race in the Greater Rochester Area” in the McCue Auditorium on Thursday, Feb. 20.

History Department Chair Anne Macpherson introduced the lecture with some background on Synnestvedt and invited Barbara Karas, Synnestvedt’s daughter, to say a few words,

Karas thanked everyone for coming and provided an anecdote about her father’s book, which she said encompasses who her father was. According to Karas, Synnestvedt was “always trying to get people to get out and do things,” preferably things that improve society and yourself.

Shane Wiegand took the podium to give his speech, where he explained his journey in this topic began about nine years ago when he started teaching fourth grade in a Rochester school district.

“One of my students said to me, ‘is there racism in Rochester? Was there a Civil Rights Movement in Rochester?” Wiegand said. “I said ‘I’ve lived here my whole life; I grew up in Webster schools, and I couldn’t tell you the name of a civil rights leader in Rochester.’ I said ‘I have no idea if there’s racism in Rochester.’”

Wiegand said he had never had a student of color as a peer or a black teacher in Webster, so he decided to research more for his students

Since then, Wiegand has lectured about this over 100 times, detailing the history of Rochester in relation to race. According to Wiegand, “both African Americans and Latinos are less than half as likely to own their homes as their white counterparts.”

Housing segregation is seen throughout Rochester, and Wiegand highlighted this by displaying a map of the 2010 census that showed the immense housing segregation. 

Wiegand also showed statistics on the segregation in New York school systems in 2020. According to one statistic, “the nation’s most segregating school district border divides Rochester from Penfield.” This disparity is further reflected by class in the separate school districts, Wiegand said, with 47% of all students being considered poor in the average classroom in the Rochester City School District (RCSD) whereas only 5% of students in the Penfield Central School District.

Life expectancy is also impacted by these racial disparities, Wiegan said. According to Common Ground Health, “a child from Pittford’s 14534 zip code born today will live up to nine years longer than a child from Rochester’s 14608 zip code.

“You can see huge disparities when it comes to life expectancy,” Wiegand said. “One of the privileges I have as a white person is the literal privilege of life itself.”

Wiegand then outlined the racial disparities at The College at Brockport, explaining 86% of faculty are white on campus and only 6% are black. The other 8% is made up of other faculty of color, including Asian and Hispanic or Latinx faculty. As for students, the racial makeup is similar, with 71% of students being white and 11% are black. 

Much of the housing segregation seen today can be traced back to racist housing policies. Redlining was one of these, as it was (and at times still is) practice to deny loans to someone due to the area they live in being deemed “high risk.” Oftentimes, high risk areas meant non-white areas. 

“Up until 1956, over 30 years in the real estate code of ethics read this: a realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood a character of property or occupancy, members of any race or nationality, or any individuals whose presence will be clearly detrimental to property values in that neighborhood,” Wiegand said.

As a way around this, people of color would broker a deal with a white buyer, who would then privately sell the home to them. Then, they would have to move in in the middle of the night so as not to attract attention. 

“They had to move in in the middle of the night to their home; first of all, they weren’t able to go in the home beforehand, they weren’t able to look at it, it was just, if you want it, you have to take it and then kind of snuck in the middle of the night with just a suitcase.”

Another racist housing policy is restrictive covenants, which are provisions in the deeds of houses stating people of color were not allowed in the neighborhood. According to Wiegand, this was not officially outlawed until 1968 with the Fair Housing Act. 

Wiegand also noted it was not only black people who were barred from certain neighborhoods; Italians and Jewish people were also barred from many neighborhoods. 

“It’s important to note that before 1944 when the G.I. Bill got passed, legally Italians and Jewish people were deemed people of color; they weren’t deemed white,” Wiegand said. “It wasn’t the same as being a black person, but it was somewhere in between, and you couldn’t get a mortgage financed by the federal government, if you were Italian of Jewish until the G.I. Bill passed. The Jewish and Italian veterans now had access, but black veterans did not have access to resources.”

Other instances of racism include minstrel shows, which featured people in blackface playing racist characters. In 1952, the Democrat and Chronicle published a photo of a minstrel show, and many places in the greater Rochester area held these performances. 

Wiegand said it is important to understand where those who performed these shows ended up.

“Now imagine how many of those kids dressed in full black face are still alive today; they’re still running our institutions, teaching our children and investing in our community,” Wiegand said. “Maybe they wouldn’t say the n-word; maybe they would say they’re the opposite of racist or bigoted or maybe they’d say they don’t have a racist bone in their body. And yet, it’s undeniable the majority of people in our community in Monroe County were socialized in a white supremacist society.”

Much of the housing disparities came to a head in July of 1964, when people up in the streets of Rochester over the course of three days. Wiegand said this was not abnormal for cities during this time period. 

“[Monroe County Historian Carolyn Vacca] found that the uprising was directly caused by people who’ve been displaced, people who didn’t have running water in their apartments and, of course, police brutality. But Rochester wasn’t alone; almost every northern city across the country had similar uprisings or rebellions in its redlined neighborhoods directly linked to housing segregation, urban renewal and issues with policing.”

Today, urban renewal and gentrification are still seen. The Rochester Homeless Union have held protests outside of Cadillac Hotel, which is suspected of being bought to make luxury hotels. 

“It kind of really displaced some folks because they had no adequate time to make preparations for them to find adequate places where they would like to live,” Tyrone Hodges with the Rochester Homeless Union said. “Because of the eviction, they were forced to just take any means. So we often protest in kind of our memorial that this is what’s happening in our city. It makes people aware of so many things, like legal eviction, which is something that we’re fighting for.”

Calvin Eaton, founder of 540W Main Inc., led the deliberate dialogue, asking how the audience has been affected by the racist policies. For Eaton, he had been affected directly. 

In the summer before sixth grade, Eaton’s parents told him he would be switching schools, joining the Urban-Suburban Program at Brockport Central School District. At the time, Eaton said he was upset that he had to leave his support system and venture to a new school. This, he said, is a common decision many parents of color must make for their children. 

“I share this story because it’s a story that is indicative still to this day for so many students of color to parents being forced to make very difficult decisions because all parents want the best educational and life outcomes for their students and so oftentimes because of racist policy and procedure, both systemic and institutions, marginalized families are required to make even more difficult decisions so their children will have the same access that other students have.”

Eaton told the audience a takeaway of the lecture should be how one could utilize this newfound information.

“I understand that there is a larger system that will take, not just myself, but really, other white people, other white institutions, other systems, to really look at issues like [the ones] we’ve discussed tonight and say, ‘why do we have the same outcome in 2020 that we’ve had in 1940, 50, 60? What are we going to do as an institution to make radical change to not continue to say that’s just how it is or that’s the card we’ve been dealt?’” Eaton said. 

Some organizations in Rochester have been doing the work, including the Rochester Homeless Union and the City-Wide Tenant Union, among others. Others have taken to school boards to change hiring practices, like three of Wiegand’s students who researched this topic with him and presented it to their school board. 

Regardless, Wiegand and Eaton both agreed more advocates are needed to fight racial inequalities in Rochester as well as across the country. 

540W Main will host its annual Gentrification Conference on Saturday, April 30, at the University of Rochester. For more information on participating, you can visit 540westmain.org/category/news/. 

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Taken by Vincent Croce:
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