In honor of Black History Month (February) and Women’s’ History Month (March), Corn Hill celebrates the accomplishments of the following African American women who had ties to the Third Ward through either residence, work, or worship. They all achieved outstanding accomplishments and leave a rich legacy of social activism and community spirit that remains the foundation and inspiration of our neighborhood.
Mildred Johnson was a well-known social activist who worked with Action for a Better Community and the FIGHT organization in the 1950’s and 60’s. She belonged to the Wilson Family – one of the founding families of Mt. Olivet Baptist Church on Adams and Clarissa Streets.
Virginia Wilson and daughters Mildred and Lydia acted as an informal social agency helping new Black families adjust to life in Rochester and advocating for their weakest members. Mildred continued her mother’s early advocacy work, especially in the area of justice and the courts. At a time when Rochester did not have a Public Defender’s Office, Mildred accompanied Black families to city court to serve as legal counsel, even though she had no formal training. In 1968, through the efforts of Mildred Johnson and the FIGHT organization, Monroe County established the first formal Public Defender’s Office.
Mildred founded the Negro Information Center to help people find jobs and in 1969 incorporated this Center as the Virginia Wilson Interracial Information and Helping Hand Center in Honor of her mother. She was once referred to as “Ambassador of the Inner City” by then Governor Rockefeller.
She died in 1992 after a lifetime of working to improve the lives of countless Rochester residents.
Kathryn Green Hawkins
Kathryn Green Hawkins was the first Black woman appointed to the Rochester Police Department in 1956. She graduated from Howard University in 1945 and lived with her Aunt, Ruth Jordan, (wife of Dr. Anthony Jordan) on Adams Street while she attended the University of Rochester. She served as a police officer for 25 years and rose to the level of Lieutenant in 1964. She also worked in the courts and the jails and was active in St. Simon’s Episcopal Church. She was the Department’s first Black woman supervisor, in charge of the Atlantic Station evening platoon until her death in 1980.
Bessie (Stevens) Walls
Bessie (Stevens) Walls was the daughter of Clarissa Street grocer Jesse Stevens. She graduated from the Rochester Normal School in 1928 and became a teacher. For a long time she was the only African American teacher in the Rochester City School District and eventually became the Assistant Principal of School #3 Annex. Bessie and her husband lived in her ancestral home on Clarissa Street until 1960. She died in 1962.
Bessie Hamm was a Virginia native who migrated from Baltimore to Rochester in 1925. She and her husband James – both African American community activists – opened their home on Adams Street to help prepare Black High School students for college. Under the name Parents and Students Want to Know Group, they set up a scholarship fund for these students. They eventually came to work with the Ralph Bunche Scholarship Committee and merged with the NAACP’s Bunche Scholarship in 1958. From 1971-1981, they aided 1150+ Rochester students to attend 60 different colleges and universities. Honored by many organizations, in 1971 Bessie Hamm received a citation from President Nixon for her work. She dies in 1972 at the age of 80. She was an active member of AME Zion Church.
Dr. Juanita Pitts
Juanita Pitts, a native of Birmingham, Alabama came to Rochester in 1954 after receiving her medical degree from Howard University. She was the first female doctor in Rochester to have a private practice, and she worked with the American Heart Association to implement the community’s first mobile health screening units. She also worked at the Rochester Psychiatric Center for nearly 20 years.
Dr. Pitts was a community activist involved in many groups including the local NAACP, the Urban League of Rochester, and AME Zion Church.
As a mother of 7 children, she was keenly aware of the lack of child-care for working families. She began the Community Child Care Center in 1963 in the basement of AME Zion Church, then on Favor Street. The Child Care Center is still in operation today in Corn Hill at 170 Troup Street. Dr. Pitts died in 2015.
Constance Mitchell and her husband James moved to a house on Greig St. in Corn Hill in 1950. Both were committed to political and social justice. They were cofounders of Action for A Better Community and held leadership positions within the Urban League and United Way Rochester. In 1961, Constance became the first African American woman elected to political office in Monroe County, when she was elected to the Board of Supervisors (representing the Third Ward) – the precursor to the County Legislature, where she served until 1965.
She served as the Director of Neighborhood Development at the Montgomery Neighborhood Center as well as manager for job development and training at Rochester Jobs, inc., always working for better employment opportunities for those encountering racial and gender barriers. She also developed the first citizen controlled block clubs in the Third Ward.
In 1965, she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. Known for her continuous civil rights work, national figures were often hosted in her Greig St. home, including Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy, and comedian Dick Gregory.
In 2017, the University of Rochester awarded Mrs. Mitchell the Frederick Douglass medal for Outstanding Civic Engagement. She died in 2018.
Dr. Alice Holloway Young
Dr. Alice Holloway Young, for whom Rochester City School #3 on Adams Street is named, was born in 1923. One of her earliest memories is traveling across state lines with her brothers in a horse-cart to attend a school for Black children in the south. From those humble beginnings, Dr. Young became a pioneer in Rochester Education. She came to Rochester in 1952 and eventually received both her Masters and Doctoral degrees in Education Supervision and Administration from the University of Rochester.
In 1952, she became one of RCSD’s first African American classroom teachers and eventually, the only African American reading specialist in the district. She was the first African American Vice Principal and Principal of elementary schools, as well as the first Title I Director of programs for educationally and economically deprived children. She was a founding trustee of Monroe Community College in 1961 and served as its Chair for 20 years. In 1965, she created the Urban-Suburban Program allowing children to attend schools in other districts. The Education and Community Awards she received for her dedication to the education of Rochester’s children are too numerous to mention, but of note are the University of Rochester Distinguished Alumni Award and the highest honor conferred by the State University of New York’s Association of Board of Trustees for Community Colleges.
Dr. Young is most proud of having a school in Rochester named after her. She attended and spoke at the graduation ceremonies of the first graduating class from Dr. Alice Holloway Young School #3 in 2021.