In presentations or workshops I’ve led, I’ve often referred to the benefit my family received from the G.I. Bill after WWII, allowing my parents to purchase a home. I’ve cited this as one example of white privilege, since only 2% of returning African-American veterans were able to take advantage of that Bill. The value of that benefit has amplified over the years, while so many Black vets were stuck paying rent.
While I’ve continued to uncover countless examples of the privilege I’ve had as a white person, the following story, much of which was unknown to me until recently, is an even more pronounced and very personal example of the white privilege that has marked my life:
My father owned the Pepsi-Cola franchise in the Rochester area from 1952 until he passed away in 1972. The original production facility was on Merrimac St. between North & Hudson. In 1963 a fire destroyed an attached warehouse, some trucks, etc. The company had grown and facilities had already been inadequate, so he didn’t want to simply rebuild the warehouse. He decided to move.
He knew and was friends with then-Mayor Frank Lamb. Lamb knew of the situation, was committed to making sure Pepsi didn’t leave the city, and had a particular plot of land in mind (Joseph Ave./Nassau St.). I imagine there were property tax incentives to convince my father not to move to the suburbs, and the City sought to replace some sub-standard housing while retaining an employer.
What I’ve learned more recently from a man who has researched the history of urban renewal in ROC is that this plot had many homes, all of which were razed. A church was also torn down, one that had been built in 1940 by the small congregation led by Rev. Joseph Caldwell (Church of God in Christ pictured here). According to the researcher, neither the Church nor the tenants were adequately or fairly compensated, and Black tenants were forced into even more crowded conditions in the 7th and 3rd wards. The Church of God attempted to raise funds for a new church.
In July, 1964, as my father’s new Pepsi plant was being built on that site, Rochester experienced the Rebellion (known as the Riot, but spurred by justifiable grievances). He was convinced that people used some of the construction materials to throw at police cars. I’ve watched the documentary “July ‘64” several times, and I’m sure I can see that property in the background at least once. The building still stands today (Pepsi moved to the suburbs several years ago) like a fortress: concrete walls, no windows except 5 small ones at the second floor office area. The top 3 feet is unbreakable plexiglass which my father actually tested by throwing rocks against it before the builder installed it. The whole area was then surrounded by a high fence. My father said he wanted to be sure the plant was “riot-proof”. This new plant opened in 1965.
One other fact: we employed about 15 Puerto Rican men from the neighborhood, all of whom worked in the bottling operation. We had no African American employees. My uncle, who was in charge of production and operations, detested Black people. I didn’t pay attention to this fact when I joined my father in the business in 1970, nor after he passed away in 1972, nor while I was president, until we sold the company in 1976.
Learning/recognizing all of this, imagining the pain this produced, has been agonizing and embarrassing. That’s the cost of digging in. And so what! More important than my emotions is: Where do I go with this now? I have many questions:
- What did my father know, and when did he know it?
- What has been the actual benefit to him/the business/our family? And what was the actual cost to others who lost their homes?
- Whatever happened to Rev. Joseph Caldwell and the Church of God in Christ?
- What is my responsibility now that I recognize a very tangible benefit/injustice from my family’s past/present?
- How is this same mentality demonstrated in today’s City planning? What rights do people have when eminent domain is claimed? Who is in on the decisions?
- What specific actions do I undertake now regarding any of this?
I invite you to weigh in on this: comments, reactions, knowledge, suggestions.
I also need to say this: My only hesitation in relating this story is that it is “large scale”. White folks might read it and conclude “Well I’ve certainly never had any advantage like that handed to me!” I challenge you to uncover your own stories of privilege – instances where you were given a break, used an influential reference, or a cop let you go, or you were given preferential treatment, or secured a job when no Person of Color would even dare apply, etc., etc..
And what specific actions will you undertake?
You can reply below.
540westmain will be conducting a session on Urban Renewal history in ROC, including this story. Tuesday March 26, 6:30 – 8:30. For further info/registration: https://www.eventbee.com/event?eid=115077572#/tickets
540westmain will also conduct a community forum on present-day gentrification in ROC on Saturday March 3, 10:00 – 4:00. For further info/registration: https://540westmain.org/
The researcher, Shane Wiegand of City Roots Community Land Trust, has generously shared his presentation with us: https://bit.ly/2ET8l2Z