Preserving Rochester's African American past

| January 09, 2013
Potential landmark? A Hamilton street home once owned by Frederick Douglass.
Potential landmark? A Hamilton street home once owned by Frederick Douglass.
- FILE PHOTO

When local historian David Anderson met with Wayne Goodman, executive director of the Landmark Society of Western New York, he brought along a series of photos. They showed the former Adams Street home of James and Bessie Hamm, early 20th-century advocates of education for African American children, as it went from vital institution to vacant lot.

"It's incumbent upon on our organization to prevent that [kind of thing] from happening," Goodman says.

A small state grant out of the $96 million recently awarded to the Finger Lakes region for economic development will help preserve landmarks important to the region's African American history.

It will be a challenge, Goodman says, because many of the sites are not typical. They could be street corners, he says, or vacant lots.

"When people think of preservation, they often think of the big beautiful homes on East Avenue," he says. "But many of the sites important to the African American community are not going to be beautiful old homes."

Goodman says the African American Landmarks Project is as much about understanding and preserving heritage as it is about preserving structures. Heritage has value, he says, and it can be easy to overlook.

"What we've seen over the last couple of decades is that heritage can become the spark for smart growth and sustainable economic development," Goodman says.

The project will begin with a listening tour in the African American community with residents, clergy, community leaders, and others.

"Everyone knows this is the city of Frederick Douglass, but it is so much more than that," says Cindy Boyer, the Landmark Society's director of public programs.

For example, many people don't know that Clarissa Street was once the business and cultural heart of Rochester's African American community, Boyer says. In the 1950's, it became a jazz and entertainment hub.

Understanding heritage also requires knowing the individuals who helped shape it, she says. And there are so many important names that aren't familiar to the wider Rochester community, Boyer says. One such name: Cynthia Fitzpatrick, an activist and daughter of slaves who helped break up blockbusting in the 19th Ward.

Blockbusting was a practice used to make homeowners sell their property cheaply out of fear that blacks were moving into the neighborhood.

The African American Landmark Project is an example of being proactive and preventing losses like the Hamm house, says Larry Francer, the Landmark Society's associate director of preservation. Once the sites and individuals have been identified, the state grant pay for feasibility studies to determine, for example, how a building can be repurposed.

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Thank you for the feature, "Preserving Rochester's African American Past." It was just a few weeks ago that i sought out Landmark Society executive director Wayne Goodman to have the discussion that you quoted from.

I believe it was in 2000 that you covered our efforts to save the Hamm House (301 Adams Street), an historical structure that the previous summer had hosted a vibrant youth educational an cultural program, consistent with the legacy that Mr. and Mrs. Hamm established during their lifetime, that was continued by the late Alean Rush through 1999.

Our efforts were in vain, indicative of some inadequacies on our part, but certainly the victim of too many people, simply not viewing the legacy as worthy of heir attention. I shared some of this with Mr. Goodwin, as my colleague, Delores Jackson Radney and I , had shared it with many others.

Mrs. Radney is the "performance coach" for the annual "Walk the Walk: Encounters with African American Ancestors," program that will be presented to several hundred school children in February. Thanks to Delores and Landmark Society Education Director, Cindy Boyer, Mrs. Bessie Hamm, will join the Walk the Walk ancestors next month.

During my conversation with Goodman, I acquainted him with the home at Hamilton Street, a "Potential landmark? " Mrs. Jean Czerkas, whose determined research documented that the house had been owned by Frederick Douglass. Mrs. Czerkas, long-time officer in The Friends of Mount Hope (Cemetery), and Rochester-Monroe County Freedom Trail Commissioner, tried to rally forces to achieve landmark status for the house. She remains hopeful that the Landmark Society and the Freedom Trail Commission can rally the forces to achieve if not landmark status, certainly official recognition of the site as valuable resource in preserving our city's history.

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Posted by David Anderson on 01/10/2013 at 3:26 PM
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