(Un) Writing an old wrong in Brighton’s Meadowbrook neighborhood and a look back at B.H.S. in the late 70’s and early 80’s

(Un) Writing an old wrong in Brighton’s Meadowbrook neighborhood and a look back at B.H.S. in the late 70’s and early 80’s

Antlers Road in Meadowbrook, 9/27/20 [Photo: David Kramer]

Last September, my mother walked a few blocks down her street to sign a “deed amendment” (or more precisely, an “indenture” to amend the deed) as part of the Confronting Our Racist Deeds (CORD) initiative.

Over the course of the summer and fall, a group of Meadowbrook residents set up tables around the neighborhood to gather signatures needed to formally renounce racially restrictive deed clauses. Anti-discrimination language would replace the expunged clauses.

9/27/20 Carol Kramer, in green pants, signing the indenture. [Photo David Kramer] See CORD: Confronting our Racist Deeds

As Carol was told, the original Meadowbrook deeds state, “No lot or dwelling shall be sold to or occupied by a colored person.” Although not enforceable since 1948, these racist covenants remained on Meadowbrook deeds.  Not until the Fair Housing Act of 1968 were racial restrictions fully prohibited.

The racial covenant highlighted here is in the deed of every home in the original Meadowbrook tract (Hollywood, Buckland, Antlers, Bonnie Brae north of Avalon, Avalon, Newton, Greenwich, Vernon, and Winton) From Meadowbrook and Rochester: Segregated by Design (Meadowbrook Neighborhood Association)

Avalon Drive in the 1930s from A Trip Through Meadowbrook, a Kodak Employees Realty Corporation promotional brochure [David Kramer’s collection] The brochure explained that Meadowbrook had a “Restricted Owner List.”

When Carol signed her deed in 1969 for her Avalon Drive home built in the 1930s, she noticed the clause, no longer legally binding but just as offensive. Carol was happy to un-write and re-write the deeds: righting an old wrong.

Recently, as seen in “Racial covenants removed from 300 Brighton property deeds” (Democrat and Chronicle, 12/18/20) and in a CORD press release, the restrictive racial covenant in the deeds was revoked.

Thursday, December 17, 2020. Rochester, N.Y. CORD (Confronting Our Racist Deeds) Initiative announces it has successfully filed an amendment revoking the restrictive racial covenant in the deeds of the original Meadowbrook tract, laid out in 1929 by the Kodak Employee Realty Corporation. Restrictive covenants and redlining worked hand-in-hand to create the segregated housing patterns that persist in Rochester to this day. (from HISTORIC MEADOWBROOK NEIGHBORHOOD REVOKES RACIST DEED RESTRICTIONS)

For a comprehensive account of the initiative, see CORD: Confronting our Racist Deeds (Meadowbrook Neighborhood Association)

9/27/20, David Kramer (left) and Brighton Town Council Member Jason DiPonzio. Although not eligible to sign the petition, I supported the cause. As explained in the press release, “In August of 2020, a small group of Meadowbrook neighbors formed the Confronting Our Racist Deeds (CORD) Committee. CORD held four (socially distanced) signature-gathering events and made house calls, exceeding the required 75% of original homes, with 225 owner signatures. Through their fundraising efforts, the cost of the filing with Monroe County was covered in full.” [Photos: Kimberley Wiedefeld and David Kramer]

Recently, I talked with two CORD members, Ed Wiltsie, Professor of English at Nazareth College, and Kimberley Wiedefeld, Vice President for Enrollment Management at Roberts Wesleyan College, who kindly answered a few questions.

1. How did people respond to the petition drive? How much did home owners know about the restrictive clauses? Were they surprised to learn of the neighborhood’s racist past?

ED: In general neighbors responded very enthusiastically to the campaign to amend our deeds. Where we met resistance it was nearly always from folks who didn’t see the value in doing this, since the racist restriction isn’t legally enforceable. When we explained that this symbolic gesture is accompanied by non-symbolic anti-racist efforts, nearly everyone was eager to sign.

KIMBERLEY: In general, neighbors were very positive and enthusiastic as evidenced the the numbers who showed up to sign amendments  as well as the  many volunteers and donors. As has been shared in a few of the interviews, I think there were many neighbors who had heard of the language in the deed covenant XII but there were also many who were surprised to learn of it. Our neighborhood includes families who have lived here for generations, as well as many newer owners who do not know much about Meadowbrooks’ history.  Because the Facebook page had circulated some of Justin Murphy’s research published in the Democrat and Chronicle over a year ago, and then more recently in August, there had been more awareness recently.  

2. I ask because I noticed that, prior to the CORD project, the HISTORY section on the Meadowbrook Neighborhood Association site made no mention of racial covenants. Much of the section’s information comes from a booklet, 98 ACRES: The Story of Meadowbrook (2001), written for Meadowbrook’s 70th anniversary.

98 ACRES: The Story of Meadowbrook (2001) [David Kramer’s collection]

98 ACRES (2010) includes an article describing a Kodak Employees Realty Corporation promotional brochure from the 1930s, A Trip Through Meadowbrook. The pamphlet contains a striking example of the racial covenants undergirding the founding of Meadowbrook. The “Essential Qualities of an Ideal Home” section includes:

RESTRICTED OWNER LIST, DESIRABLE NEIGHBORS A Trip Through Meadowbrook (1930s) 

98 ACRES, however, does not discuss the restricted owner list.

How might you account for these seeming omissions? Recently, two significant items, CORD: Confronting our Racist Deeds and Meadowbrook and Rochester: Segregated by Design were added to the History section, and A Trip Through Meadowbrook was amended to now include references to the racial covenants. How important is it  for CORD to revise earlier historical accounts of Meadowbrook?

KIMBERLEY: Sadly, I think it is all too easy, sitting in privilege, to omit history. I think that is what we as a nation have long wrestled with: including only the history that sounds heroic and something to be proud of retelling, while leaving out our devastating sin of the past that perpetuates the same into the future.  No one likes to acknowledge, let alone , retell the ugly past. The MNA webpage was likely a product of the privilege of a white upper class neighborhood.  One of the most important works of this first step has been to acknowledge the truth of the ugly past, as you’ll read in the history section of the MNA website.

ED: I’d say the omission up to now of this sad aspect of our history on the website is a microcosm of the way we’ve been encouraged to forget and ignore how racial segregation and exclusion were and are constitutive of the creation of the suburbs since the mid 20th century. White people got federally subsidized mortgages, roads, water and power, while people of color got locked into zones of disinvestment and decay. Hence, it’s very important for CORD to change all the narratives about how our neighborhood came to look like it does today, as a first step toward changing how it will look in the future.

9/27/20 Kimberley Wiedefeld holding the “Essential Qualities of an Ideal Home” section of A Trip Through Meadowbrook [Photo: David Kramer]

3. CORD was created to be more than a symbolic gesture, but as a catalyst for change. What are the next steps?

KIMBERLEY: CORD, in the name itself, was meant to be a double entendre. Confronting Our Racist Deeds uses the work deeds  to refer both to the land deeds and to the deeds of our past and our present. It’s meant to be an act of acknowledgement and repentance. And the land deeds were just the very first step, small though it may be. In starting with the land deeds, it is my hope that households who have been thinking about racism as something “out there,” were confronted with how local and systemic racism truly is, and therefore how much it has shaped our community and the greater Rochester Area — in  housing, education, criminal justice, health, and more.  Our goal is to become a more inclusive and equitable community, and identify ways in which to do so. 

One early initiative is a partnership with TCMS’s Extended Studies teacher Christine Coyle and work on a curriculum for middle schoolers to wrestle with how successfully the design of these Brighton neighborhoods  were perpetuating racism and segregation. Early in the new year, we will be hosting educator and activists Shane Wiegand and Conor Dwyer Reynolds to talk about initiatives that have been successful in other communities and work on the next step.  It will be important to understand how CORD can collaborate and support other successful anti-racist work in the community.

ED: Beyond the symbolic gesture, the CORD committee is looking at how changes in real estate and banking practices may lead to greater diversity in towns like Brighton.

* * *

The important issues raised by CORD prompted me to reflect upon my experience growing up in Meadowbrook and attending the Brighton Central School District.  I spoke with several members of BHS ’81 and also Van White ’80, founding member of the BHS Black Student Union and now the President of the Rochester City School District.  At that time, no Black families lived in Meadowbrook. BHS had about 75 students of color in a population of roughly 1,500, a mixture of Urban Suburban and Brighton-based students, like Van.¹

Looking back it become glaringly obvious how little social and educational interaction I had with students of color. The sad fact is that almost no students of color were in the AP Courses I took or in the school groups I inhabited: the newspaper and literary magazine, Model U.N, the math and chess clubs. One friend corroborates the reflection. He remembers playing with Jackson, an urban suburban student who entered with us in elementary school. However, by high school my friend’s interaction with students of color was limited. He rightfully says we did not ignore students of color, but the social dynamics of both school and town reinforced segregation.

Part of my limited exposure was due to social backwardness and a desire to stay under the social radar, but my experience was typical of the school as a whole.

David Kramer’s class ID’s and graduation photo. See A ribbon cutting and the Pages of the Brighton Memorial Library

Another friend was good friends with Carol Tolliver whose parents were the first Black family to buy a home in Brighton in 1960, and also Atecia, an urban suburban student with whom he later reconnected with on facebook. Yet, this friend regretfully remembers that he never visited Atecia in her city neighborhood nor did she visit his Brighton home. The friend added that the school administration rarely took proactive measures to encourage more connections between the urban suburban students and Brighton-based students.¹

The sale of the home to the Tollivers was initially resisted by many in the Varinna Drive neighborhood. Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, Aug 21 and Aug 31, 1960

I also re-read an essay written for Nazareth College’s Professor Brian Bailey’s course, Psychology of Adolescence in School. Autobiographical Analysis: Coming of Age in America: the Late 70’S and Early 80’s, David Kramer, Spring 2010. We were to incorporate course concepts within a narrative about our own adolescence. Although critical race theory was part of the course curriculum, race did not at all figure in my essay, not even in the opening paragraphs on the demographics of Brighton.

My essay had various categories: Religion, School, College and Sex (a very short section), but nothing on race or the lack of diversity in the high school. In noticing this autobiographical silence, I realized that race was for me a blind spot, both during adolescence and perhaps still when I wrote the 2010 essay.

I spoke with Van about his own experience, especially in the the Black Student Union, where, according to 1979 article in the school newspaper, The Trapezoid, Van was the the “BSU’s public relations man.”

Provided by Van White. From the BHS Trapezoid, 1979

We talked about the few interactions I had with students of color. For example, I was mostly oblivious to the Black Student Union and never attended a meeting. Van was neither surprised nor critical, especially given I was not a natural extrovert. Nonetheless, he concurred that my experience was pretty typical.

As mentioned in the article, the BSU had difficulty attracting non-white members. Also in the article, Van laments that in Cafe A, black students sat in a corner away from non-white students. When I was a Guest Teacher at BHS, I saw the same phenomenon, although perhaps not as starkly as in 1979. In his role as the President of the Rochester City School District Board of Education, Van sees similar self-segregation.

Van was not surprised that my 2010 autobiographical analysis of adolescence never mentions race.  In contrast to our Black Lives Matter moment, Van said that in the late 70s — although inequities abounded — race was not talked about that much in public discourse in Brighton and even Rochester. Much was left unspoken.

Van felt that sports was one arena where black and white students bonded, as “they both shared the Baron name on their jerseys.” (The nickname was recently changed to Bruins.)  Although Van admits to being mostly a bench sitter, he put all his heart into the football team.

Van White in his BHS football uniform. From a Feb 18, 2001 Democrat and Chronicle article

I was not on a sports team, but was on a team, the Captain of the Monroe County Chess League’s 1981 Brighton Barons Champions.

Democrat and Chronicle, 1981.  Brighton vs. Webster. Caption; Dave Kramer of Brighton concentrates on his next move. He lost. From Introductions

I probably cared as much for my team as Van did for his. For all the effort I made to expand our ranks, I never reached out to students of color. I don’t recall a student of color ever attending an after school chess playing session. Looking back, I see opportunities missed and friendships not formed.

Finally, we discussed my takeaway: a feeling that I would have grown and benefitted from richer and deeper relationships with students of color. I showed Van a 1967 Democrat and Chronicle about a BHS sophomore, Tom Hamburger, who participated in a mini-exchange program with then Madison High School. Hamburger went on to a still continuing Pulitzer Prize winning career in journalism and was inducted into the BHS Alumni Hall of Fame in 2019.

Democrat and Chronicle. Dec 12, 1967. Quote from BHS sophomore Tom Hamburger: “We Brighton students, like most suburban children, are shortchanged. We have no knowledge of ethnic diversity. We are totally enclosed in our own suburban environment. Such racial isolation leads to the formation of perjudice [sic] and fear.”

We both agreed with Hamburger’s assertion that students can be shortchanged  — or shortchange themselves — from valuable knowledge about ethnic diversity. Racial isolation diminishes both sides.

Democrat and Chronicle, Feb 18, 2001.  Van White relaxes in his cluttered office, located in the attic of his home. White says house calls are essential so that, “If a person needs to cry, they know where the tissues are. If a person needs a hug, there’s no door that needs to be closed.” Note the BRIGHTON pennant.

Van occasionally meets with the BHS Black Student Union and was the keynote speaker at the 2018 BHS MLK assembly. Van’s message today is not much different than from what he said in 1979: the importance of getting to know different people, that black and non-students must work together and the school must communicate as a whole.

¹POSTSCRIPT

When researching this article, Cleveland Uhuru-Sasa Brown contacted me. Cleve was close friends with the very first urban students in the Urban Suburban program. Cleve offers his powerful account of the difficulties faced by the Black students who far too often were not welcomed by the school and Brighton community.

“Urban Suburban” by C. Uhuru-Sasa Brown (2020)

SEE ALSO 

I Was Racially Profiled In My Own Neighborhood Today. Again.

An anti-racism vigil and Black Lives Matter signs in Brighton

About The Author

dkramer3@naz.edu

Welcome to Talker of the Town! My name is David Kramer. I have a Ph.D in English and teach at Keuka College. I am a former and still active Fellow at the Nazareth College Center for Public History. Over the years, I have taught at Monroe Community College, the Rochester Institute of Technology and St. John Fisher College. I have published numerous Guest Essays, Letters, Book Reviews and Opinion pieces in The New York Times, Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, the Buffalo News, the Rochester Patriot, the Providence Journal, the Providence Business News, the Brown Alumni Magazine, the New London Day, the Boston Herald, the Messenger Post Newspapers, the Wedge, the Empty Closet, and the CITY.  My poetry appears in The Criterion: An International Journal in English and Rundenalia and my academic writing in War, Literature and the Arts and Twentieth Century Literary Criticism. Starting in February 2013, I wrote for three Democratic and Chronicle  blogs, "Make City Schools Better," "Unite Rochester," and the "Editorial Board." When my tenure at the D & C  ended, I wanted to continue conversations first begun there. And start new ones.  So we created this new space, Talker of the Town, where all are are invited to join. I don’t like to say these posts are “mine.” Very few of them are the sole product of my sometimes overheated imagination. Instead, I call them partnerships and collaborations. Or as they say in education, “peer group work.” Talker of the Town might better be Talkers of the Town. The blog won’t thrive without your leads, text, pictures, ideas, facebook shares, tweets, comments and criticisms.

7 Comments

  1. Susan Miller

    I lived in Meadowbrook on Hollywood Ave from 6th – 10th grade (Class of 71 at BHS). I attended 12 Corners Presbyterian Church. It was in the late 60s that a few of us were involved in the various committees at the church. I recall that the youth were invited to present one of the sermons now and then. My friend Chris Hammond had put together what I believe was a slide presentation (too soon for power points) comparing the plights of inner city churches to our more affluent congregations in the suburbs. No words, just a back and forth photo montage comparison. It was obviously effective, as I can still see some of the photos in my head. Two things happened. 1) a good number of people walked out. 2) when the church voted on the possible inclusion of teens as Deacons (Chris and I were up for election) it was denied vehemently.

    Reply
    • dkramer3@naz.edu

      Thanks for sharing. Some good news is the 12 Corners Presbyterian Church recently had a Black Lives Matter sign on its lawn.

      Reply
  2. John Beisheim

    Nice article. It wasn’t just students of color with whom we generally did not interact. By my recollection, there were no members of our 1981 BHS class who were diagnosed as “developmentally delayed” to use current language. And the impact on diversity may be just as significant as the one you address.

    Reply
    • dkramer3@naz.edu

      Great point. In my analysis of BHS, I also did not mention “developmentally delayed,” another blind spot especially given the essay was written for an Ed Course.

      Reply
  3. Maryjane Link

    I graduated from Brighton in 1958 and there was not one student of color there. Luckily I worked in Buffalo for many years and half our staff was African American and are still some of my closest friends. My sons went to Pittsford and we were an urban suburban family and I am still in touch with that young man and his mother.

    Reply
    • dkramer3@naz.edu

      Maryjane, Thanks for sharing your story. Others BHS grads from the 50’s have said they don’t recall any students of color. The first student of color was probably around 1960, but it’s hard to know for sure.

      Reply
  4. Richard Gollin

    I recall driving with a fellow father to a Boy Scout meeting during the early seventies, an engineer I think, colored, also a Brighton resident. His complaint at the time was that no one discriminated various degrees of racial identity — you were either “colored” or white and that was that (like our President Obama, who is as white as he is colored, though no one seems to think so). No more than they bothered to discriminate other kinds and degrees of group appearance and behavior. Still true.

    I recall being told at the time that custom also decreed, no one Jewish could purchase a house south of Monroe Avenue. Anyone else hear of such a thing?

    Reply

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