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A new exhibit tells the story of a once thriving Black neighborhood

Corn Hill Historic District was once Rochester's Third Ward neighborhood.
James Brown
Corn Hill Historic District was once Rochester's Third Ward neighborhood.

A new exhibit at the RIT City Art Space tells the story of one of Rochester's once-thriving Black neighborhoods.

"Clarissa Uprooted: Unearthing Stories of Our Village (1940s-early 1970s)" features oral history and artifacts showcasing Rochester's third ward, now known as the historic Cornhill district.

The exhibit is inspired by a 2020 documentary produced by The Center for Teen Empowerment. Gloria Winston is in the film. She shared her memories of growing up in the neighborhood during the 1960s and 70s.

"We really did not have to leave our neighborhood for anything," Winston said. "The Pythodd was there. There was a black motel called the Gibson. There were at least five or six grocery stores."

People visiting the exhibit can see the film and hear the oral history of Clarissa Street from Winston and other elders. There is also a partial reconstruction of the stage of the Pythodd Club, a popular jazz club until 1972, on display.

Gallery director John Aasp said the exhibit focuses on what made the once predominantly Black neighborhood great, and the contributing issues that caused it to break up.

"It's sort of about trying to recapture the original spirit of that neighborhood," Aasp said. "It's also about some of the civil tension, the racist policies and some of the things that contributed to the disappearance of that neighborhood."

Aasp said RIT's previous location in Rochester’s Third Ward made the college an appropriate partner to host the exhibit.

Faculty and students from the College of Art and Design and the College of Liberal Arts joined forces with Teen Empowerment to bring the exhibit to life.

The building of Interstate 490 through downtown Rochester caused the campus to move to the Henrietta campus in 1968.

Project manager, Mekko Griffin-Mongeon said both RIT and the Third Ward residents were affected by urban renewal during the late 60's.

"They (RIT) were able to make a very sound decision in relocating, but many of the residents at the time were not," Griffin-Mongeon said.

"If racism is something that you really identify with affecting economic development, then Corn Hill is an example," Winston said. She said many Black businesses ended up closing and residents sold their homes.

Giffin-Mongeon said at the time, the college had very few students of color, and the exhibit was a way to "reimagine what the neighborhood would have looked like if there had been collaboration with the college."

"Clarissa Uprooted: Unearthing Stories of Our Village (1940s-early 1970s)" runs from June 3 until July 24 at RIT City Art Space.

April Franklin is an occasional local host of WXXI's Weekend Edition.