History has always done a poor job of representing inspirational black figures. Most don’t receive proper recognition until decades after their deaths and some never have their story told at all. Often, black youth grow up disconnected from the histories of black leaders, innovators and trailblazers who led civil progress. Rochester youth deserve to know the stories of black leaders who help cultivate the pathways for social change and prosperity.
The Rochester Association for Black Journalists (RABJ) decided to honor three Rochester legends: Dr. Walter Cooper, Constance Mitchell and David Anderson for their years of service to the community with a documentary, screening and community event in early April. President of RABJ Richard McCollough explains their goal to educate the youth about current heroes in Rochester instead of relying on customary ones such as Frederick Douglas.
“These individuals deserve to be honored… I can’t think of any better way for them to be honored than with a documentary and children’s book,” McCollough said.
The documentary titled “Rochester Legends” explores the life and legacy of these individuals while the children’s book will cater their stories to promote literacy in youth. The books are intended to be given out for free to for first, second and third grade classrooms in Rochester. As McCollough put it, “We’re in the business of literacy.”
The event was held in the historic Academy of Medicine where everything, from its wood engravings, auditorium or walls of books and paintings, was designed to impress. The guests for the event included Rochester’s elite such as independent filmmakers, members of the school board and even former mayor Bill Johnson. As a college freshman, originally from the west coast, it was easy to become overwhelm from the atmosphere of the room.
A nonnative to Rochester, I was unfamiliar with the legends as well as the gravity of their accomplishments. First of the honorees I was able to speak to was Dr. Walter Cooper. At nearly 90 years old he was as sharp as a whistle and could clearly recite his entire life from childhood clearly and vividly. I spoke comfortably with Dr. Cooper for most of the evening and listened to him recount stories.
Dr. Cooper’s father emigrated from the south during the Great Migration where an estimated six million blacks left to the north between 1916-1970. His father was uneducated so Dr. Cooper was pushed by many of the women in his family such as his mother, sister and aunt to read. Dr. Cooper’s mother would often tell him, “Books will set you free.”
At an early age Dr. Cooper was an advocate for social justice. When he was in ninth grade, during the height of World War II, a teacher showed a racist film about Arabs in class.
“I refused to stand for the national anthem. I was sent to the principal’s office but he didn’t expel me for three days because I was his star student and athlete,” Dr. Cooper said.
Cooper later attended Washington and Jefferson college for a football scholarship and received his Ph. D from Howard university. Dr. Cooper explained that although he was a well-qualified chemist he did struggle in the job market.
“I was told specifically we don’t hire blacks in our research facility,” Dr. Cooper said.
Eventually Dr. Cooper did receive a job at Kodak as a research scientist. As his professional career progressed Dr. Cooper became socially active as well serving as chair of committees such Action for Better Community (ABC) anti-poverty effort, working with greats such as Malcolm X or campaigning for Robert F. Kennedy. His list of accomplishments go on and on.
Before I knew it we were being called into the auditorium where the premiere of “Rochester Legends” was being showcased. In the documentary I learned about the other two honorees.
Dr. David Anderson/Sankofa is a legendary orator. He is the founder of the black storytelling league and avid mentor for the Rochester youth. His goal is to educate the youth about black history through stories and skits. Most notably his reenactments of the Civil War highlighting the valor of black regiments. As Dr. Anderson said, “They need to know that blacks fought.”
Dr. Anderson, the tallest and youngest of the legends, practically jigged onto stage with excitement while accepting his award. Like a true storyteller, he addressed the auditorium honestly about his struggles when first coming to Rochester in 1987 and not being “welcomed”. However, he praises the individuals who challenged him to listen to others as well as made him feel at home.
“Help others in the community survive some of their assaults. I am dedicated to them and they help remind me what ‘come unity’ means in ‘community’,” Dr. Anderson said.
I asked Dr. Anderson what does community means to him. He compared it to a matter of survival such that communication was the sure fire way to preserve humanity, stating: “In order to keep humankind as a species we have to communicate… to express, to enhance community otherwise we might as well surrender to the nature of our planet. In order to live on it we have to be kind to it and communicate,” Dr. Anderson said.
Last but not least, Constance Mitchell may actually be in a league all in her own. She is the exemplary example of what a determined black woman can accomplish. Mitchell was a prominent activist for social rights in Rochester from an early age. In 1959, she decided to run for office and lost. However, she didn’t give up and ran again until she won in 1961. Therefore, becoming the first black woman to obtain a seat in the Monroe County Legislature, breaking numerous racial and gender barriers of the time. She was serving throughout the 1964 race riots and continues to be a vocal leader in the community to this day.
While accepting an award that night, Mitchell expressed only humility and gratefulness to the city of Rochester. Offering that the city has been “kind and gentle” to her and her family. I was barely able to steal a moment of her time but did ask one question: What advice will you give to young black women who want to make an impact on their communities?
“They need to run.”