Present Corn Hill residents pride themselves on involvement in their neighborhood – something they have diligently worked to build and retain. Yet over 90 years ago and for a span of 40+ years, the Third Ward was home to a remarkably rich and successful community with thriving families, culture, businesses, and notable individuals – the African American community of the Clarissa Street corridor.
Rochester’s progressive history in abolitionism, feminism, and religious growth – along with the development of our city into a commercial and educational center in the North East – drew many African Americans to our city through the years of the Great Northern Migration.
Rochester’s Third Ward was an attractive settlement area because of its proximity to downtown and the existence of active, well-established Black churches along Clarissa Street. Churches were hugely important to early black communities for their role in sustaining families and giving people a sense of identity. Other ethnic groups, most notably Irish and Italian, also settled in this area.
Not to say that life in the Third Ward was easy. Discrimination in the North, even in a progressive city like Rochester, thrived in business, education and housing . Redlining policies and discriminatory housing practices in the 1930’s and beyond, largely confined Blacks and other immigrant groups to the Third and Seventh Wards of Rochester. In the Third Ward, this concentration of minorities resulted in a flourishing village – due in large part to its robust churches, the commitment of its people to education and the building of strong extended families, and a self-sustaining community of business and neighborhood life.
During the Clarissa heyday in the mid 1900’s, the Vallot family alone operated many business in the Third Ward; most right along Clarissa Street – Mitchell’s Collision Shop, Vallot’s Rendevous (later Tavern), Lopez Steak House, Stamps Cleaners, Paige’s Continental Lounge, Vic’s Barbershop, Fontenette’s Grocery, and the Gibson Hotel (the only black-owned hotel in Rochester.)
There were many other businesses along the Clarissa/ Plymouth corridor that existed over these years – LaRue’s Bar and Restaurant, Dan’s Tavern (where Clarissa’s now stands), the Flower City Lodge Elks Club (current home of the Flying Squirrel), the famed Pythodd Room Jazz Club, Smitty’s Birdland, Latimer’s Funeral Home (the oldest African American business in Rochester) , Scotty’s Billiard Hall, Ray’s Barbershop, the Chicken Shack, Bill Grayson’s Pool Hall, and Sandy and Lola’s Restaurant.
There were also several white-owned business as the Third Ward was actually an integrated area: Weber’s Bowling Hall, Larry’s Liquor Store, the Circle Market on Plymouth, Peck’s Pharmacy on Plymouth, Harts Grocery, Frank and Larry’s corner Store, Styles Corner Store, Al Bruce’s Corner Store.
There were Bakeries, Delis, Meat Markets, Gas Stations and Ice Cream Parlors! Even the early Rochester General Hospital on West Main was bordered by Tremont Street. As George Fontenette, a Clarissa Street Elder, describes, almost every daily need and major life event could be met and celebrated within the confines of the Third Ward.
Any discussion of the values of community must include cultural opportunities for its inhabitants, which the Third Ward did not lack. The most well-known cultural institution was the famous Pythodd Room , a three-story house that stood at the corner of Clarissa and Troup Streets from 1953 – 1973. The club became a must-stop on the jazz circuit and attracted big-time names such as PeeWee Ellis, Ray Bryant, Wes Montgomery, George Benson and the Mangione brothers among others. It was part of the fabric of the neighborhood and was integrated into the lives of its residents. The elders remember the reverence with which this club was regarded, even by children.
In the 1940’s, a professional organization – the Rochester Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs -established a new clubhouse at 183 Adams Street. This club included such groups as the Radio-Sewing Club, the Booklovers, the Pathfinders, and the Marion-Anderson Club. These groups were dedicated to cultural advancement, extending community, and supporting youth.
Churches also provided recreational opportunities. In the 1950’s the Corn Hill Methodist Church partnered with Mt. Olivet to run an annual inter-racial summer program for black and white youths. The Clarissa Street area was home to the Clarissa Street YWCA, the West Side YMCA at Mt. Olivet, and the Olivites – the Mt. Olivet Youth Group. The Elks Club formed a youth marching band – the Junior Herd Drum and Bugle Corps.
Educational opportunities were promoted by the pastors of the various churches, by the professionals such as Dr. Levy and Dr. Lunsford who worked to open up entry into the University of Rochester, and by the establishment of scholarship funds within the community, such as the James and Bessie Hamm Scholarship. Third Ward professionals acted as role models for young people by their participation in and leadership roles in business, politics, and civil rights organizations such as in the NAACP.
The parking lots of various churches off of Clarissa provided playing fields for young people interested in competitive athletics. The Rochester Trotters (baseball) and the Rochester Rockets (football) were highly successful local sports teams that drew Third Ward young adults into its ranks. Vallot’s Tavern sponsored the Rockets who won the city championship in both 1950 and 1951. Tavern owner Alpheus Vallot also owned and was the business manager for the Negro Baseball Team, the Rochester American Giants in 1948 – a team which included some Third Warders. The Rochester Trotter’s baseball team (1942-1957) was coached by Charles Frazier, prominent member of the AME Zion Church. Irv Wallace of the YMCA mentored many a Third Ward student through coaching athletics at the YMCA satellite program at the old #3 school on Tremont Street.
In the 1960’s, Doris Price of the prominent African American Dinkle family co-founded a Third Ward based group – YOUR NEIGHBORS – which in 1965, helped bring Malcolm X to Rochester to speak at the Corn Hill Methodist Church, only 5 days before his assassination on February 21, 1965. In May of 1968, Doris, along with Declan Brown, established the first bookstore in Rochester exclusively selling works on a whole range of cultural topics by African American authors – at 227 Edinburgh Street.
The Clarissa Street corridor of the Third Ward was truly an amazing place – a unique village in which residents were more than just neighbors. Joan Coles Howard, a Clarissa Street Elder and daughter of Howard Coles, especially remembers the sense of communal responsibility in raising the neighborhood’s children. Her friend Kathy Sprague Dexter recalls that if a child ever got into trouble, the parents would know about it well before that child got home. It is that community that the elders now hold only in memory.
Indeed, the Clarissa Street neighborhood of the early to mid 1900’s is one which we should not only document and remember, but celebrate as a legacy to Rochester and to the Corn Hill Community of today.
The examples of flourishing businesses and cultural opportunities of the Clarissa Street Corridor are remarkable in themselves, but the examples of notable people produced by this community are extraordinary, especially considering that during the era of the 1920s – 1960’s discrimination in education, career, and professional opportunities abounded. Nonetheless, the Third Ward boasted many accomplished individuals.
Fr. Charles Hall
Fr. Charles Hall was the first ordained African American Priest from Upstate NY. He was the oldest of twelve Hall Children who grew up on Clarissa Street. He graduated from Aquinas Institute and Epiphany College, a Josephite seminary. Three schools were named after Fr. Hall in Baltimore MD after his early death in 1967.
James and Bessie Hamm
Dedicated to education, they opened their home at 301 Adams Street in 1955 to help Black High School students prepare for College and they established a scholarship fund that eventually merged with the Ralph Bunche Scholarship in 1958. In 1971, Bessie received a special citation from President Nixon for her work.
Elizabeth Walls was the daughter of prominent grocer Jesse Stevens, lived on Clarissa Street (home still stands) and was for a time in the 1920’s and 30’s, the only black teacher in the Rochester City School District. She became Assistant Principal at School # 3 Annex.
Charles Price, also of the Stevens family – became the first Black Police Officer in Rochester in 1947, retiring as a captain in 1985. He also served as a Tuskegee Airman with the famous 332nd fighter group in Italy.
Dr. Anthony Jordan
Dr. Anthony Jordan came to Rochester in 1932 and for 40 years, he cared for the neighbors in the Third ward from his home on Adams Street – often without charge. The Anthony L. Jordan Health Center in Rochester was established in his memory/honor.
Dr. Charles Lunsford
Dr. Charles Lunsford was the grandson of a slave, he became the first African American doctor to establish a practice in Rochester on Clarissa Street in 1921, retiring in 1978. A tireless civil rights advocate, he put pressure on the University of Rochester to open the door of its medical school to black students and helped to integrate the workforce of Eastman Kodak Company.
Dr. Van Tuyl Levy
Dr. Van Tuyl Levy was the first licensed African American dentist in Rochester, he practiced from his home on Glasgow Street until the mid-1980’s. He earned both a BS and DDS from Columbia University where he was the first and only African American member of the track team.
Constance Mitchell was the first woman and African American to serve on the Monroe County Legislature. An advocate for equality and social justice, she co-founded (with her husband John) Action for a Better Community and helped to establish the Urban League Black Scholars Program.
Howard Coles was the grandson of a former slave, he founded and for 60+ years, published the Frederick Douglass Voice newspaper. He was president of the Negro Housing and Planning Council – conducting the first survey of African American housing conditions in NYS. He was also Rochester’s first Africa American radio announcer, helped found the FIGHT organization, and was the first local NAACP president. These are only a few of this giant’s many accomplishments. He died at the age of 93 in 1996 still living in his home on Atkinson Street.
These are only a few of the remarkable Rochesterians who claimed the Third Ward as home.
Information for this article came from the sesquicentennial Rochester NY Pamphlet, the Rochester Roots/Routes series from About Time magazine, reminisces of Clarissa Street Elders, Clarissa Street Reunion Publications, and various articles on early Rochester history, AME Zion Church, and displays at the Rochester Public Library.