Never wanting to miss a good story, a month or so after our adventure, we met in his (above ground) office to talk more about how he became involved in civil rights in the first place. Daan’s answer — about a defining moment — piqued my interest. Modestly calling his “defining moment” maybe trite, for Daan it was August 1963 when as a 15 year old sophomore at Brighton High School he attended the March on Washington. While after Daan, I also went to Brighton.Daan’s civil rights journey began in 1962 when Dr. David Tolliver and his family became the first African-American homeowners in Brighton.
Like others who know Brighton history, I had heard the basics of the story, having been in the same class as Dr. Tolliver’s daughter Carol, and speaking a couple of times with David, still going strong in his 80s.
In 1962, some deed agreements in Brighton still prohibited blacks and Jews (Daan is Jewish), while throughout the town African-American homeownership was widely discouraged.
Apparently — as Dr. Tolliver was negotiating the purchase — attempts were made to buy out the owner and prevent the Tollivers from moving into Brighton. (for more on exclusionary practices in Brighton, see At the 1957 Brighton Town Hall mural with Sandra Frankel)Daan remembers reading about the situation in the papers. While Daan had never met Tolliver nor even seen the house, the attempt at discriminatory exclusion bothered him.
While only 15, Daan took it upon himself, along with two other Brighton students, to attend meetings of C.O.R.E (Congress of Racial Equality), a mostly black activist group including Tolliver that met at the Corn Hill Methodist Episcopal Church on Plymouth Avenue.
As Daan pointed out, it was the same church where Malcom X spoke five days before his assassination. (see Constance Mitchell recalls Malcolm X’s February 1965 visit to Rochester)
Perhaps too young to understand all that was said, the messages Daan heard resonated.
In August 1963, Daan was invited to C.O.R.E’s trip to the March on Washington. And he went, along with four or five busloads of pilgrims. It was stiflingly hot in the non-airconditioned bus. Daan still vividly recalls one nauseous person getting sick. What was he getting into?Over 50 years later, the details of the March itself are etched in memory.
There was lots of singing, especially We Shall Overcome. And Peter, Paul and Mary could be heard. And for some reason, a Detroit radio station interviewed him. Daan sat to the right of the steps of the Lincoln Monument when King dreamed. He remembers thinking, as a 15 year old boy, he should go to law school and become a civil rights lawyer. And Daan did.
We also discussed how one we really knows or defines a “defining life moment.” Daan is certain at the March he did imagine himself becoming a civil rights lawyer. But had Dr. Tolliver not been harassed when buying his home, would it have been different? Was it mostly defining in retrospect? A re-creation. Looking backwards and weaving his personal story into historical narratives that now make sense?
Daan actually doesn’t talk that much about the March or its impact on him. The March was about a lot more than a 15 year old sophomore from Brighton. And for all Daan has contributed, the civil rights movement is about a lot more than a law professor turned college president. But he will always be glad he went. Even if it was pretty gross when that person got sick.
ALSO on MLK in Rochester
ALSO ON NAZARETH COLLEGE