By Tracie Isaac
The civil rights history of Rochester will have a future home emblazoned with the name of Rochester Icon, Minister Franklin D. Florence.
The new Civil Rights Heritage Site is located at Baden Park on the city’s northeast side and was named in honor of Florence, one of the luminary city residents whose tireless leadership and activism took place in the Baden St. and Joseph Avenue vicinity. The Civil Rights Heritage Site is a collaboration between the City of Rochester and the Black Community Focus Fund.
Rev. Myra Brown led the campaign to establish a landmark that would commemorate the struggles and achievements of the local African American community, beginning with Frederick Douglass up to the ongoing civil rights movements.
The journey of establishing the Civil Rights Heritage Site was supported with partial funding of $500,000 from the State of New York secured by Assemblyman Harry Bronson. The site will be an innovative and interactive environment which will inspire children for years to come.
On October 25, 2021, inside the Baden St. Park located at 525 Upper Falls Blvd.; Mayor Lovely A. Warren was joined by Rev. Myra Brown of Spiritus Christi, City Council President Loretta Scott, Simeon Banister of Rochester Area Community Foundation, Assemblyman Demond Meeks, County Legislator Vincent Felder and representatives from the offices of Commissioner Norman Jones, Department of Environmental Services and many supporters to officially unveil the future home of the Civil Rights Freedom Struggle.
Mayor Warren shared the answers to the initial elements of Rev. Myra Brown’s proposed idea for the site. The inspiration for the park was based on a trip that a group from Spiritus Christi took to Civil Rights Parks across the country. Mayor Warren responded favorably to the concept and felt that the city could partner with the Black Community Focus Fund to bring the idea to fruition. “The civil rights park would need to be in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement, not too far from where the riots took place in 1964 and where Minister Franklin Florence did all of his work, and we have to name it after him.” stated Mayor Warren.
Additionally, Mayor Warren acknowledged the diligence of Rev. Brown for connecting with community leaders and creating awareness and fundraising events with notable personalities like Susan Taylor, Editor-In-Chief Emeritus of ESSENCE Magazine and the matching funds of $500,000 from City Council to match the State of New York funds totaling $1,000,000 for the Minister Franklin D. Florence Civil Rights Heritage Park.
“I’m excited!” proclaimed President Loretta Scott who shared comments about the importance of the site naming and honoring the work of people who lead the struggles for civil rights. Many of the community leaders and activists were people that President Scott knew personally and knew their work.
The arrival of Minister Franklin D. Florence was filled with resounding applause and emotion as he was ushered to the front of the audience flanked by several generations of his family. “I am truly grateful and feel blessed that this honor has come to fruition and that you are here to see where people will be able to see the impact of your work,” stated President Scott.
Assemblyman Demond Meeks acknowledged the mentorship of Minister Florence to 1199 SEIU and recent retiree Bruce Popper. “The legacy of American Civil Rights is the legacy of Rochester. Alongside the work of Frederick Douglass, Susan B. Anthony and Minister Franklin D. Florence, countless individuals from our community and throughout our history have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of justice and equality. Their bravery, their struggles and triumphs have shaped the City of Rochester as we know it today. However, the work as we know it is far from over…” Congratulations were extended to Rev. Myra Brown and the members of Spiritus Christi Anti-Racism Coalition for making the historic accomplishment of the site. “There is no place more deserving of commemoration than in the heart of our community on Baden St. It is our responsibility and privilege to make sure that the lessons left behind by our sisters and brothers are never forgotten.”
As a college student at SUNY Brockport, current Minority Leader of the County Legislature, Vincent Felder shared fond memories of his college activism with an event held on the campus where Rev. Jesse Jackson was invited to speak. Rev. Jackson insisted that the students get Minister Florence to also come to the event. County Legislature Felder is not a native of Rochester, and didn’t know Minister Florence or his work in civil rights. However, Minister Florence accepted the invitation creating a monumental experience. County Legislature Felder soon learned of Minister Florence’s battles fought at Kodak, Xerox, Eltrax, Fight Village and the significance of having Minister Florence in the midst of the student issues at Brockport. County Legislature Felder shared that many hours of speaking with Rev. Myra Brown received his support for the idea of creating the civil rights park in the area of the city where the revolution in the city took place. Gracious thanks were extended to Mayor Warren, Minister Florence and Rev. Myra Brown.
In a written statement from Assemblyman Bronson who was absent due to an out-of-town Assembly meeting, J.W. Cook read the statement on the Assemblyman’s behalf, “Rochester has a history deeply rooted in Civil Rights and civic engagement. The Civil Rights Heritage Site will serve generations of Rochester families as an outdoor learning classroom displaying the stories of the struggles of those who walked these streets long before us. The racial inequities plaguing this city have long tried to silence the spoken history of Black people in our city.
Today’s groundbreaking affirms that Black History is Rochester’s history.” He continued stating that Assemblyman Bronson would like to thank the Baden St. Settlement and all of the local churches that worked to make the site happen. This could not have happened without the hard work and dedication of the Black Community Focus Fund and its President and Executive Director, Rev. Myra Brown. The statement ended with words from Frederick Douglass, ‘There is fire in the flint and steel that is friction that causes it to flash, burn and give light where all else there is darkness. There is music in the violin but the touch of the master is needed to fill the air and the soul with the concord of sweet sounds. There is power in the human mind but education is needed for its’ development.’ Let us continue to educate and share the stories here in this Civil Rights Heritage Site in Florence Park and bring Black stories forward in our community.”
Memories of an 8-year-old Simeon Banister, currently Executive Vice President of the Rochester Area Community Foundation who is headed for the President’s seat within the next year, remembered his experience of participating in a march led by Minister Florence to City Council to address acts of police brutality. Minister Florence imparted that the City Council has the power to change things and if they did not use it, they would lose it. Thanks were directed to Rev. Myra Brown for making the Civil Rights Heritage Site a hallowed place where we can lift up the forebearers like Minister Florence and remember the history and narrative of the community. “We thank you, Minister Florence, for the genius of your strategy, for the passion for our community, for the endurance of your leadership and legacy…” said Simeon Banister.
Reenah Golden, Co-Founder of the Avenue Black Box Theater and a supporter, welcomed the civil rights park as a “neighbor” and shared a poignant poem she authored of why “intentional place making” is critical to revolution. Ms. Golden recalled being able to see the vision of the park and is looking forward to sitting among the heroes of our city,
Remarks from Michael Marsh, Executive Director of Baden St. Settlement who stated that the organization has been the cornerstone of that community and is celebrating 120 years of existence. Marsh stated that the Civil Rights Heritage Site should be a symbol of our continued striving.
The work of Minister Franklin D. Florence was the catalyst not foreseen in bringing Rev. Brown’s family from Albion, NY to Rochester. At the age of 4-years old, Rev. Brown’s father relocated his family to Rochester where better opportunities to work were won by the civil rights work of Minister Florence. Fast forward to the childhood and school days of Rev. Brown at what was #6 School (now #22) and the rearing of her children in Chatham Gardens. The significance of the area was also where her parents lived and her father died on Herman Street (currently Upper Falls Blvd.). “This is a sacred area where it feels like the elders are lingering in this space. It matters who gets to tell the story first. We get to tell the story of the Black freedom struggle, unmuted. We will unsilence the voices and the work that happened in this community. We want to lift up Black brilliance and strategy that has paved the way for us. Rochester is full of Freedom Fighters and we will honor them here.”
Some of the attractions in the park will be an amphitheater, Legacy Garden, Legacy Walk, monuments and more. “It’s going to fabulous to tell the story and teach it to our children and they will teach their children. If we don’t understand where we’ve been, we can’t know where we are going.”
Organizations and churches that partnered in the project (partial list) include Spiritus Christi Chu, Universalist, Downtown Presbyterian Church, The Rochester Public Library, Nazareth College, R.I.T., the board of the Black Community Focus Fund, First Genesis Baptist Church, Antioch Baptist Church, Glory House International, St. Phillips International Church, Baden St. Settlement and Rochester Area Community Foundation, Avenue Black Box Theater, Colgate Rochester Divinity School and more.
A presentation plaque of the park sign was presented to Rev. Franklin D. Florence with his closing remarks, “…In this great enterprise of working in human rights it is a long struggle, one that cannot be fought and won by one individual. I feel strongly today standing on the shoulders of women like Mildred Johnson, Momma Lena Gantt, Maya Davidson, John and Constance Mitchell – whose home became a temple of strategizing, of crying and weeping after beatings on Joseph Ave. Also, people like Ray Graves and of course a guy who kept me on my knees praying, named David Gantt. As well as James McCullough. There are many people that all of us need to remember. Don’t stop working to make this country a more perfect union… we have to gain our place and to make people remember the cost that our forebears paid… Living in these troubled times I don’t see how anyone living in our community could stop fighting for human rights. I want to encourage the young people who stayed in the streets during these recent times to keep fighting nonviolently. We need to tell our own story, in our own way,” stated Rev. Franklin D. Florence