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.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. 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deeds” (Democrat and Chronicle, 12/18/20) and in a CORD press release, the restrictive racial covenant in the deeds was revoked.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)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 (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:
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.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.
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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.
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
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.”
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.
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.
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.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.
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.
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.