Story Walk: "middle"
A Rude Awakening by Ken Fisher
In July of 1964 I was 17 and a junior at Brighton High School. I was living a typical middle class suburban life. My father owned a furniture store specializing in unfinished furniture; Superior Wood Furniture. He shared a building with a business, run by my uncle, that rented party supplies and medical equipment. The two businesses were located in the city at the corners of Joseph Avenue and Baden St.
Joseph Avenue was a commercial street that at one time had been the center of a thriving Jewish community. In the Fifties and Sixty’s the Joseph Ave. community began to change as African Americans migrated from southern states and located to that area of Rochester. By 1964 it was a predominantly African American community.
On week- ends I would work for my father, making deliveries, loading customer’s cars, and doing maintenance. One particular Saturday, I was outside sweeping the sidewalk. A passerby, an older man, accused me of sweeping on him. I was mortified, as I would never consciously do such a thing and I honestly didn’t think I had. He said as he left “Just wait and see- there’s gonna be a war”. I was dumbfounded, and went into the store to tell my father the story. I actually laughed uncomfortably when I told him, thinking the situation somewhat absurd. We didn’t think his statement made much sense.
Later that night, at a street party, very near to the store, the police were called and a police dog bit a young person. The area exploded and within an hour, a full-blown riot was underway. It was one of the first big urban riots of many that were to occur in the sixties across America. Our store was, to use a well-known phrase, “ground zero” for that riot, and it was to change Rochester forever.
For our family, things could have been worse- everything might have been burned down. As it was, Joseph Avenue was trashed. All of our six big picture windows were broken. The inside was devastated. Much of the furniture was stolen or destroyed. My Uncle’s side of the store was looted and vandalized as well. Looters used wheelchairs from his place to cart away TV’s and other big- ticket items from stores further down the avenue. It was a disaster and it spread to the west- side of town. It went on for days and was so insidious that the National Guard had to be called in.
Though reported to be a spontaneous event, the riot must have been, judging from the passerby’s comment, a foregone conclusion if not entirely pre- planned. The undercurrent of unrest due to years of poverty, poor housing, and subtle if not blatant racism, was palpable throughout the African American Community. There was an awareness of possibility, and it was tinder ready to be ignited. As a young man, the realization of the rage growing in the hearts of African Americans was an awakening.