A Public History Project

Category: Sites & Stories

Genesee Baptist Church

Author: Daniel Gorman Jr.

Author’s Note: This essay was the first entry written for Digitizing Rochester’s Religions, as an example, in fall 2016. It has been updated to reflect recent events.

The history of Genesee Baptist Church spans nearly two centuries of the neighborhood known today as the Nineteenth Ward, but which was originally called Castle Town. Former Seneca Nation lands became the property of two white men, Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham; next, in 1790, the property went to James and William Wadsworth, who built the first Western-style settlement.[1] The Wadsworths’ tavern and general store, maintained by Col. Isaac Castle, became a local hub, but it was Castle, not the Wadsworths, who gave the settlement its name.[2]

Once the Erie Canal was built, river traffic shifted to the north, but Castle Town, also known as the Rapids, endured with a population of seasonal laborers.[3] No organized religious activity occurred in the Rapids until 1845, when the observant Baptist Col. Otis Turner moved to the area with his equally devout daughters Helen & Charlotte. Seeking to reform and revitalize the neighborhood, they opened the Rapids Mission, and a supportive resident, Silas Yerkes, ran the mission’s Sunday School initially out of his house.[4] In 1858, Augustus Henry Strong, future president of the Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, became the first minister to preach regularly at the mission. As the Rapids congregation grew, it entered into a partnership with the First Baptist Church of Rochester. The two groups opened a proper Rapids church, not only a mission, at Genesee Street and Terrace Park in 1868, using land that one Edward Frost donated.[5]

On October 29, 1871, twenty-five congregants voted to leave the parent church and form the First Regular Baptist Church of the Rapids. Joseph Gilmore, a minister and professor of English at the University of Rochester, affiliated with this congregation. Even so, First Regular Baptist (or “Rapids Baptist Church,” as it was also known) did not retain a permanent minister until Byron Caldwell in 1918.[6] This facility attempted to merge with Plymouth Avenue Baptist in 1887. It is unclear why precisely the merger did not pan out; one history cites transportation difficulties for congregants. Regardless, eighteen members left Plymouth and opted to preserve the Rapids organization. Under the leadership of deacon and benefactor Philip Kron, the Rapids families built a new facility, South Rochester Baptist Church (1894), later renamed Genesee Street Baptist (1899) and finally Genesee Baptist (1915–present).[7]

In 1922, four years into the tenure of Rev. Caldwell, the City of Rochester sought to acquire the church’s land for a road-building project. Pressured to move, the congregants acquired a loan from New York State’s Baptist headquarters and obtained a new site at 149 Brooks Avenue. Deacon Kron once again played a major rule in fundraising for and building a new church. The old church was physically moved and integrated into the new structure. The facility was completed in 1925, with the first service held on June 14, but Rev. Caldwell suffered a bad fall and resigned, his health to remain in permanent decline.[8]

Rev. La Rue Cober replaced Caldwell and instituted a robust program of youth education.[9] For instance, the 1927 Summer School became the largest summer program in Rochester, and the students produced an elaborate booklet full of photographs of the students. The school had a large faculty, consisting largely of mothers from the congregation. Few, if any, students of color appear in the Summer School class photos.[10] The 1927 summer program commemorative booklet contains a notable short story in which a religiously unaffiliated boy and his family are converted after he attends the school. This story conveys the importance of personal salvation in the Baptist tradition.[11]

Hard times befell Genesee Baptist in the 1930s–40s. The Great Depression spurred the church’s members to support each other financially and materially, even as the church finances suffered.[12] Of the Depression, Cober recalled, “We probably would have lost the building in 1933 had it not been for President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of a moratorium on mortgages for 10 years…. There were two other occasions when we came near to losing it, but very generous gifts from the New York State Baptist Convention and the Monroe County Baptist Association came to our rescue.”[13] Over 100 male congregants from the church served during WWII.[14] Rev. Cober remained at the helm during this time and pushed for open membership for all Christians, a policy that was ratified in 1946.[15] Jean Cober, the reverend’s daughter, made a major contribution to the sanctuary by designing artistic shields, in honor of the apostles (including Judas Iscariot). These shields remain in the church today.[16]

R. Claibourne Johnson, Cober’s successor (1946–54), is remembered for his devotion to social justice. He controversially ordained a Japanese minister, Isaac Igarashi, but he failed to appoint women to the church board of trustees, an event that ultimately occurred in 1963.[17] Humorously, Rev. Johnson burned the church mortgage in a public ceremony after paying off the balance. The mortgage burning of September 24, 1947, has become a favorite bit of church lore.[18]

Rev. Bruce Lambert, minister from 1954–64, supported racial integration as the neighborhood demographics changed from mostly white to increasingly non-white. The church integrated its congregation in 1964, the year of the Rochester race riot. As the 1960s progressed, the 19th Ward suffered from white flight, debates over racially integrated busing, block busting, and accompanying economic decline.[19] We can interpret Lambert’s commitment to social justice as a counterpoint to the racial anxiety that spurred longtime white residents to flee to the suburbs. Aside from his activism, Lambert oversaw renovations at the church and hosted its first live nativity pageant.[20]

Rev. Folke Ferre (1965–circa 1974) continued Johnson and Lambert’s social justice work, championing interfaith relations, aligning Genesee Baptist with the city’s Southwest Ecumenical Mission (SWEM), and collaborating with the 19th Ward Community Association.[21] Rev. John Elliott (1974–85) oversaw a greater range of programming, the creation of a thrift shop, new men’s and women’s groups, and structural repairs to the church.[22] Dr. Jesse Brown (1986–95) presided over a church with increasing ethnic diversity. His tenure saw the introduction of a new Gospel choir, the SWEM food cupboard, collaborations with Cameron Ministries and Fairport Baptist Homes, and what the church’s 2001 pamphlet Cherishing Our Diversity called “a slow revitalization process.”[23]

By the end of the twentieth century, what was once a white-only congregation had become a racially and ethnically diverse congregation. Rev. Dr. Vera Evans Miller became Genesee Baptist Church’s first female and first African American minister in 1996. A schoolteacher by training, Evans hosted the church’s 130th anniversary in 2001, celebrating the nineteenth-century Baptists who founded the Rapids Church. In her introduction to Cherishing Our Diversity, Miller foregrounded the church’s history of social reform.[24] Miller retired in 2018 and died in November of that year.[25] As of February 2020, her successor as senior pastor has not been publicly announced.


[1] R. La Rue Cober, “Castle Town: An Historiette of Southwest Rochester, and the History and Program of Genesee Baptist Church,” (Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church Board of Trustees, 1935), 7–11; Donovan A. Shilling, “A Brief Look at the 19th Ward’s Fascinating Past,” chapter 12 in Rochester’s Marvels & Myths (Victor, N.Y.: Pancoast Publishing, 2011), 95–96.

[2] Cherishing Our Diversity: Celebrating Our 130th Anniversary, 1871–2001 (Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church, 2001), 5, University of Rochester Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, BX6480.R6 G448 2001, permalink; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 95.

[3] Cherishing Our Diversity, 6; “Church History,” Genesee Baptist Church.org (N.d.), 1, accessed 30 Oct. 2016, http://www.geneseebaptistchurch.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Genesee%20Baptist%20Church%20History.pdf.

[4] “Church History,” 2; Cober, “Castle Town,” 25; Wilbur G. Lewis, 1871–1971, Genesee Baptist Church, 149 Brooks Avenue, Rochester, N.Y.: First and Oldest Religious Organization in Southwest Rochester (S.l.: s.n., 1971), 1, Accession No.: RB–17537, University of Rochester Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, Rochester, N.Y.; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 97.

[5] “Church History,” 3; Cober, “Castle Town,” 25–27; Lewis, 1871, 1; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 97.

[6] Cherishing Our Diversity, 7, 8; Cober, “Castle Town,” 25–27, 29; Michael and Glenn Leavey, Rochester’s 19th Ward, Images of America (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2005), 32; Lewis, 1871, 1; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 97.

[7] Cherishing Our Diversity, 8; Cober, “Castle Town,” 29; Lewis, 1871, 3; Shilling, “Brief Look,” 97.

[8] Cherishing Our Diversity, 9; “Church History,” 4–6; Cober, “Castle Town,” 33; Leavey, Rochester’s 19th Ward, 25; Lewis, 1871, 3, 6–10.

[9] Cherishing Our Diversity, 9, 11; Genesee Vacation Church School, Summer of 1927, Rochester, New York (Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church, 1927), 5, Rhees Rare Bks. Accession No.: RB–17233 (Pamphlet), University of Rochester Libraries, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation.

[10] Genesee Vacation, 19, photographs throughout; see pg. 7 for discussion of mothers who taught at the school.

[11] Genesee Vacation, 30.

[12] Lewis, 1871, 11–12.

[13] Cherishing Our Diversity, 10.

[14] “Church History,” 6.

[15] Cherishing Our Diversity, 11; Lewis, 1871, 15.

[16] Cherishing Our Diversity, 73­–75.

[17] Cherishing Our Diversity, 3, 11.

[18] “Church History,” 6; Lewis, 1871, 15.

[19] Cherishing Our Diversity, 3, 12; Lewis, 1871, 17. On block busting and urban decline, see: Leavey, Rochester’s 19th Ward, 8.

[20] “Church History,” 6–7.

[21] Cherishing Our Diversity, 3, 12; “Church History,” 7. I could not confirm Ferre’s resignation in 1974.

[22] Cherishing Our Diversity, 3, 11.

[23] Cherishing Our Diversity, 12.

[24] Cherishing Our Diversity, 3 (incl. Miller’s foreword), 13; Leavey, Rochester’s 19th Ward, 25; “Rev. Miller,” Genesee Baptist Church.org, accessed 21 Dec. 2017, http://www.geneseebaptistchurch.org/about-genesee/rev-miller/.

[25] “Rev. Dr. Vera Miller Retirement Concert! [Event Page],” Facebook, last modified 8 July 2018, acc. 15 Jan. 2019, https://www.facebook.com/events/2100040146939348/; homepage contents as of 15 Jan. 2019 [mentioning Dr. Miller’s retirement concert], Genesee Baptist Church.org, acc. 15 Jan. 2019, http://www.geneseebaptistchurch.org/; “Rev. Dr. Vera Evans Miller [Obituary],” Rochester Democrat & Chronicle (Rochester, N.Y.), 18 Nov. 2018, acc. 15 Jan. 2019, https://obits.democratandchronicle.com/obituaries/democratandchronicle/obituary.aspx?n=vera-evans-miller&pid=190767057&fhid=13386.

Building Bridges: The Immaculate Conception Church of the Past and Present, Rochester, N.Y.

Author: Sarah Ogunji


The Immaculate Conception Church in Rochester, New York, was originally a church of Irish immigrants, but over time it has become a Catholic church with African American traditions. This shift in the church demographics and traditions was due to social changes that occurred in the Immaculate Conception Parish and the Rochester community. To understand these changes, we must learn about the social atmosphere of Rochester, New York, and the Immaculate Conception Church during the nineteenth and twentieth century.

This map shows the current location of the Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s congregation.

The Early Demographics of the Immaculate Conception Church

Irish immigrants first immigrated to Rochester during the early 1820s, and they brought with them their Roman Catholic faith. During the mid-1800s to early 1900s, many Americans criticized Catholics because of their religion and often discriminated against them. The Irish population continued to grow amidst this unwelcoming society. There was an increase of Irish Immigrants immigrating to Rochester in the 1840s and 1850s because Ireland was experiencing harsh conditions caused by the potato famine of 1845–1847. In spite of the fact that Irish immigrants came to America for a better life, most of the Irish population could only get low- income jobs or no jobs at all. However, even though the Irish immigrants lived such hard lives in this new environment, it did not stop them from practicing their Catholic religion. Through their Catholic faith, they could form close-knit Catholic communities that helped them cope and adapt to living a new life in America.

Moreover, many Catholic parishioners would often make the journey to a parish in the Diocese of Buffalo because Rochester had a lack of priests who resided in the area.[1] To create a solution for these increasing Catholic population the Diocese of Buffalo’s Bishop John Timon established the Immaculate Conception Church in April 1849. The Immaculate Conception church was under the guidance and leadership of Father John Fitzpatrick, who volunteered to go to America when Bishop Timon asked Bishop Canfield of Kildare, Ireland, to send a young man to work in the Diocese of Buffalo. Bishop Timon ordained Father Fitzpatrick in the cathedral at Buffalo on October 15, 1848. Fr. Fitzpatrick would later establish Immaculate Churches in other parts of New York State — Oneida and Oswego. The original Immaculate Conception Church was built by Ft. Fitzpatrick and its parishioners on Rochester’s Edinburgh Street, but was later destroyed by fire in 1863. On July 11, 1864, the second church was built in the South Plymouth Area, where the Immaculate Conception church of today still resides.[2]

On July 12, 1868, the Vatican established the Diocese of Rochester and Rt. Rev. Bernard J. McQuaid, who served the parish from 1868–1909, was consecrated the first bishop of Rochester. As Rochester’s Catholic immigrant population continued to rise, the diocese required additional schools, specifically Catholic schools to educate the growing youths. The decision to establish a parochial school at Immaculate Conception was due to Bishop McQuaid, who was a pioneer in the field of Catholic education at the national level. Bishop McQuaid emphasized that it was the duty of each parish to provide a parochial school education for the children of the parish. The first Immaculate Conception Parochial School opened in 1871 and, due to the increasing number of children attending the school, a new school was built on Edinburgh Street in June 1893.


G.M. Hopkins Company 1875 map of Rochester, N.Y. Plate 6: Third Ward. Immaculate Conception Church is featured in this map. Map identified by Sarah Ogunji. Immaculate Conception Church is featured in this map. Published in Philadelphia by the G.M. Hopkins Company in 1875 (public domain). Source: Rochester Public Library Local History & Genealogy Division Map Collection. Series Uniform Title: Rochester Images Digital Collection. Repository: Rochester Public Library (Rochester, N.Y.). Catalogue entry. Scan. Published with the permission of the Local History & Genealogy Division, Rochester Public Library.

The African American Demographics of Immaculate Conception Church, 1950–1970s

The population of African Americans living in Rochester rose to 7,800 by 1950 due to African Americans who migrated from the Southern states. Of the African Americans migrating to Rochester, very few were Catholic. Some of these Catholic African Americans lived on Clarissa Street and attended the Immaculate Conception Parish. These African Americans, regardless of whether they were Catholic or not, still faced racial discrimination from both Catholic Caucasians and non-Catholic Caucasians. To create awareness of the racial discriminations faced by the African American population, Rochester attorney James P.B. Duffy, a member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and a fellow Catholic parishioner, took advantage of the Catholic Courier Journaliii as early as 1951 to urge his fellow Catholics to join the NAACP ranks.[3]

With the increasing population of African Americans in Rochester, the Diocese of Rochester requested the assistance of Rev. Harry J. Maloney, who was an expert in interracial work. Rev. Maloney served the Immaculate Conception parish for three years while also serving as an executive board member for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). While at Immaculate Conception, Rev. Maloney helped develop the church’s Catholic Interracial Council (CIC) into an active social force. Starting in 1961, the CIC sponsored an annual Interracial Sunday Mass and Communion Breakfast to better race relations. In 1963, the CIC also presented various panel discussions about race and religion. Additionally, Rev. Maloney tripled the number of African American Catholics attending Immaculate Conception. Rev. Maloney was later succeeded by Rev. Robert G. Kreckle, who continued his predecessor’s work with the advancement of African American Catholics in the parish and community.

During the 1960s, the Immaculate Conception parish council led the movement of the parish toward an ecumenical ministry.[4] This ecumenical ministry would differ slightly, from its original Roman Catholic foundation established in 1849. Father Kreckel, who served as pastor from 1966 to 1975, made a lot of contributions to help the African American parishioners and helped integrated the church community and the surrounding community. Father Kreckel advocated for an ecumenical ministry that served both its inner cities parishioners and also the surrounding urban community. In order to initiate this action, Father Kreckel contacted Larry Copper, a Protestant seminarian who was familiar with the Corn Hill neighborhood to serve as the community minister.

Although the parish was embarking on this new journey towards an ecumenical ministry, they were still left with financial problems. At the time, the Immaculate Conception parishioners were conflicted whether the church should be torn down or repaired, due to a lack of funding needed to serve the parishioners. The solution to this predicament was to rent out a part of the church and sell off the convent. Through this situation, there was a greater understanding that the Immaculate Conception Church was not just a building, but a place of tradition, history, and people.

Another problem the church faced was the urban renewal project that led to the demolition of numerous building around the Immaculate Conception. During the urban renewal process, many of the church’s longtime parishioners left the surrounding area to live in the suburbs. However, in 1968, the parish gained some 357 families, almost equivalent to the number lost. Of the 357 families, 216 lived in the surrounding area by the church, and the rest resided outside the parish limits. To draw more participation to the parish, there was a reduction of Sunday Masses from five to three a day. After Mass, parishioners would gather in the school for conversations regarding the urban crisis and the needs of the minority groups. There was also an increase of inner city kids attending the Immaculate school. Of the 280 students enrolled, four out of five children were African American. However, due to the parish’s declining funding, the school of Immaculate Conception closed after the 1974–1975 school term.

Immaculate Conception Church, 1980s–2000

During the 1980s, approximately two-thirds of the 275 registered families attending Immaculate Conception were African American, making Immaculate Conception the largest African American church in the Diocese of Rochester. The church also implemented some decorations in its interior that resonated with the African American community. For instance, the banner of black Jesus hung behind the altar of the church. Father Michael Upson, who served the Immaculate Conception Church from 1989 to 1993, was the only African American priest that served in the diocese at the time. Although the parish continued to strive for integration between ethnic groups, African American parishioners, who were significantly represented, wanted to come into a church where their culture, tradition, and history could be celebrated.


“Black Churches”: Jim Laragy, Cover Photograph for Upstate New York, Rochester Democrat & Chronicle, Jan. 28, 1980.

Editor’s Notes: Upstate New York was a weekend supplement for the Democrat & Chronicle. This photocopy of the magazine cover, which Sarah Ogunji identified, is held in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester Archives. The “Black Churches” cover is is reprinted with the permission of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, part of the USA Today Network (Gannett). Label Caption: “The banner of the black Jesus, on the cover, hangs behind the altar of Immaculate Conception Church on South Plymouth Avenue. Cover photography by Jim Laragy.”

Immaculate Conception Church, 2000–Present

As the Immaculate Conception Church enters the twenty-first century, it has become a church with diverse parishioners hailing from multiple ethnic groups and social backgrounds. The parish is known for conducting various activities — celebrations of Catholic traditions, honoring heroes and heroines in African American history, church recitals, prayer revivals, dance performances, and other events — in the church and around the community. Moreover, the church activities range from honoring Roman Catholic traditions to multicultural traditions, teaching the parishioners about different cultures. Outside activities also include church picnics, community service, fundraisers, and evangelism.

The parish reached a turning point in 2011, when the Immaculate Conception Church and St. Bridget’s Church merged together to become the joint Immaculate Conception Church/St. Bridget’s Church it is today. The parish mission statement reads, “The Parish of Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s is a Roman Catholic faith community whose worship reflects and celebrates the cultural gifts and diversity of its members. We welcome all believers to worship God, love one another, evangelize the good news of Jesus Christ, and serve those in need.”[5] The mission statement speaks of inclusivity and faith, and welcomes others into the parish wholeheartedly. The current parochial administrator is Rev. Raymond Fleming and the assisting priest is Rev. Robert Bradler.

To enrich my understanding of the Immaculate Conception Church, I attended its Sunday Mass. While in the church, I was impressed by how diverse the church was and how smoothly the service flowed. The Sunday Mass proceeded as follows: The congregation was ushered in, and then the choir sang an anthem to usher in the head and assistant pastors. The priest led the opening prayer, followed by the choir’s opening hymn and another prayer from the priest. A member of the church staff read the first Bible passage. After another Bible reading, the head priest read from the holy book that was carried into the congregation at the beginning of the mass. At the altar, the priest read from the Bible, and then the congregation stood to sing a hymn. Following the hymn, the congregation sat down again and the head priest, Father Fleming, gave a sermon that spoke about the unity and love parishioners should always show to the congregation and the surrounding community.

After the sermon, the congregation stood for the profession of the creed, and then a prayer was recited. Afterward, the choir performed praise and worship songs, leading the congregation in its monetary offering. After the offering, the priest called on the congregation to line up and receive Holy Communion. After the communion prayer, the whole congregation held hands and sang. After singing, everyone went around greeting and welcoming each other, while repeating “Peace be with you.” After the greetings, announcements were made, and visitors or new members introduced themselves. Then the priest said the closing prayer and the choir performed a song that led the walkout ceremony by the priest and holders of the cross and Bible. The service proceeded like an ecumenical Catholic service. My experience was insightful, and I felt welcomed by the parishioners.

Overall, from what I encountered, I truly felt that the Immaculate Conception Church has survived for over 150 years, even with various challenges, due to the parishioners’ faith and acceptance of change and community.

Bibliographical References

“Diocese of Rochester Scope of Collections.” Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, N.Y., Archives. http://www.dor.org/index.cfm/archives/. [Web link defunct as of January 2019. See the new diocese archive website: https://www.dorarchives.org/.]

Judge, Molly. “Immaculate Conception: New at 125.” Courier Journal, Dec. 4, 1974.

Latona, Mike. “Rochester Parish Set to Kick Off Sesquicentennial Celebration.” Catholic Courier (Rochester, N.Y.), Nov. 25, 1999.

McNamara, Robert. The Diocese of Rochester 1868–1968. Rochester, N.Y.: The Diocese of Rochester, 1968.

One Hundred Years 1849–1949; The History of Immaculate Conception Church. Rochester, N.Y.: Christopher Press, Inc., 1949. BX4603.R6i O58, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, University of Rochester Libraries, Rochester, N.Y.

“Parish Staff.” Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s Church. Accessed June 26, 2018. http://www.immaculateconceptionrochester.org/ParishStaff.aspx.

Reeves, Monica. “Immaculate Conception Inner City Success Story.” Courier Journal, Apr. 2, 1968, 8–9.

Souvenir of the Golden Jubilee of the Immaculate Conception Church, Rochester, New York, Dec. 10, 1899. Rochester, N.Y.: John P. Smith Printing House, 1899. BX4603.R6i S88, Dept. of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation, University of Rochester Libraries, Rochester, N.Y.


[1] At the time, Rochester was still part of the Diocese of Buffalo, but later became its own Diocese on July 12, 1868.

[2] The second church is the foundation of the present-day church, as the Immaculate Conception

Parish has resided there ever since.

[3] The Catholic Courier is the newspaper of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Rochester, New York.

[4] It was a mandatory policy that five out of nine members of the council must be African Americans.

[5] “Mission Statement,” Immaculate Conception/St. Bridget’s Church, http://www.immaculateconceptionrochester.org/OurParish.aspx.

Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward: A Brief History

Author: Madeline Blackburn [i]

Like so many neighborhoods in the United States’ sprawling cities, Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward began as a plot of land with enviable natural resources. In 1788, the state of Massachusetts sold a tract of land in Western New York to a Boston-based real estate company owned by Oliver Phelps and Nathaniel Gorham. Two years later, these men sold a portion of this land to James and William Wadsworth. In 1800, the Wadsworth brothers built a tavern on this land, and in 1804, the two brothers named this located at the intersection of Brooks and Genesee Avenue “Castletown.”[ii]

In its early days, Castletown was an important settlement centered on the transport of lumber, grain, and other goods.[iii] For years, Castletown’s proximity to the Genesee River and its dense forests attracted transient workers and other hoping to capitalize on the rapid economic growth spreading throughout Genesee country. In 1810, James Wadsworth set aside ten acres of land for the Rapids Cemetery currently located on Congress Avenue, where men and women who found a home in Rochester’s nascent Nineteenth Ward were buried. Frederic Pfeiffer, a sergeant of the Spanish-American War who died in 1968, is one of these people.[iv]

In 1817, however, Castletown’s good fortune began to change when the New York State government began its construction of the Erie Canal. This decision diverted river flow into Rochesterville away from Castletown, consequently displacing the village as a major stopping point for passing cargo ships.[v] Despite this setback, Castletown maintained robust trade with neighboring villages of Plymouth, Chili, and Scottsville. In 1818, Mary Ann Sibley became Castletown’s first teacher in the village’s one-room schoolhouse.[vi]

In 1822, Castletown was dealt a decisive blow when the feeder canal was built next to what is now known as the Brooks Avenue Pedestrian Bridge. This feeder canal diverted river traffic away from Castletown, thus eliminating the settlement as a conveniently located port for boats to unload their cargo along the Genesee River. Within a few decades, the settlement that once served as an important location for trade had fallen into infamy, and the community of Castletown eventually became known as a neighborhood called “The Rapids.” The majority of the Rapids’ inhabitants were transient and underemployed workers who, to pass the time, would often drink to excess.[vii]

Historic records have breathed life into these former residents through vivid descriptions of the brawling, heavy-drinking, and at times lawless lifestyle that was rampant throughout the Rapids. One of these residents, Ben Streeter, testified on behalf of a crewmember during a murder trial in 1855, only to be arrested himself nine years later for forgery. In 1861, Streeter was arrested for “pirating 483 bushels of oats frozen into the Genesee Valley Canal.”[viii] In 1904, Streeter was found unconscious at the foot of the stairs leading to a tavern. He died that night, leaving behind two wives and eleven children.[ix]

Streeter’s story is just one of many that scandalized neighbors but attracted missionaries who recognized the Rapids’ spiritual potential.  In 1845, having caught wind of the Rapids’ notoriety, Otis Turner came to the Rapids to establish the Genesee Baptist Church in an attempt to bring morality to the Rapids’ residents who were “a people by themselves and of themselves peculiar … and almost peculiarly bad.”[x]

With time, the rapids slowly recovered. Investors such as Hiram Sibley, the founder of the Western Union Telegraph Company, turned increasingly toward the Nineteenth Ward as the city of Rochester’s prosperity attracted workers in need of stable housing.[xi] In 1888, the completion of Elmwood Bridge and Genesee Valley Park made the Nineteenth Ward an attractive and accessible location for those seeking relief from crowded and increasingly substandard housing within the city. In 1902, Rochester’s Castletown became the city of Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward, and in the following year houses were rapidly constructed within the Sibley Family Estate Subdivision — some of which remain intact today.[xii]

Throughout the first few decades of the twentieth century, the Nineteenth Ward grew into a thriving neighborhood sought after for its schools, religious institutions, and its suburban-urban environment. In 1913, the Lewis Henry Morgan School (School No. 37) was erected on Genesee Street, and religious institutions such as Saint Monica’s Roman Catholic Church had become mainstays in the Nineteenth Ward’s burgeoning community. But while Rochester’s Nineteenth ward attracted people from a diverse group occupations and religions, the Nineteenth Ward’s ethnic diversity was more limited. A 1942 survey from the Council of Social Agencies indicated that only 512 of the Nineteenth Ward’s 4,482 residents were foreign-born[xiii], and black residents were greatly outnumbered by white residents until 1980.

During the decades of the twentieth century leading up to the 1964 Race Riot, the Nineteenth Ward was prime real estate for Rochester’s white working middle class. The Nineteenth Ward’s ample supply of single-family housing continued to expand throughout the twentieth century, in turn attracting Rochester’s growing middle class of workers, who hoped to start a family amongst others in their age and socioeconomic brackets.[xiv]   An advertisement from 1902 advertises Hillcrest Avenue as “the best spot” with a description of a neighborhood that is “free from smoke, dust, and city odors… no stores or factories can be built, or liquor sold. Houses must stand uniform distance from sidewalk, and cost at least $1,730 to $3,500.”[xv]

Shoddily constructed tenement buildings, unsanitary living conditions, and an apathetic approach to poverty and racial inequality hampered the housing market in Rochester. Housing developers were more interested in building sturdy and reliable housing for those who could afford trolley fair to the outskirts of the city.[xvi] Black Americans, immigrants, and anyone else who could not afford to live outside of Rochester’s Seventh Ward and neighboring areas were trapped in poverty, and forced to endure immense hardship. In 1935, the Northeast Neighborhood Conference conducted an investigation into Rochester’s housing problem, and concluded that “units occupied by Negroes, whatever the rents, were without exception found to be poor houses.”[xvii]

The city of Rochester failed to adequately address growing inequality that intensified during the period of mass migration of black Americans into northern states. From 1950 to 1960, Rochester’s black population increased by over two hundred percent, with an additional 110% increase during the following decade.[xviii] Black Americans were just one of the many groups of people who enriched the city of Rochester’s ethnic and religious diversity, though black Americans endured particularly vicious discrimination from journalists, law enforcement, employers, and others who wielded power.

Following the 1964 Race Riots, blockbusting, white flight, and other malicious variations of housing discrimination enshrined in federal law threatened the stability of the Nineteenth Ward. As part of their strategy to capitalize on fear and racial tensions in the wake of the 1964 Race Riots, real estate agents frequently coerced black and white Americans into selling their homes at a fraction of their value, then resold these homes to black Americans at inflated prices. Residents of the Ward’s Warwick Avenue received letters “introducing” black families to the neighborhood and asking recipients for listing information on their homes.[xix] Others reported incidents in which real estate agents came to their door and told them that “the Nineteenth Ward will be a ghetto in four or five years.”[xx]

ArcGIS map of the Nineteenth Ward and adjacent neighborhoods, using historic map layers from 1875 to the 2000s. Points represent historic neighborhoods and religious sites. For more information, visit the Mapping Religious Rochester page.

In response to these scare tactics menacing their community, hundreds of residents gathered together in 1965 to form what is now called the Nineteenth Ward Community Association (WCA). The Association’s objectives are “to create a conscious multi-racial community where individual and cultural differences are not only tolerated but accepted, to insure that the community determines and received the kinds of high quality services it needs, to encourage resident home ownership and oppose any threat to the residential character of the community, and to recognize our relationship and responsibility to the total metropolitan community.”[xxi] Since its founding, members of the WCA have refurbished hundreds of homes, fought against unfair zoning and established home ownership channels independent of corrupt real estate agencies, and worked extensively with city and federal government officials to counteract harmful racism and other forms of prejudice. The WCA’s “Urban by Choice” initiatives include House Tours, Square Fairs, Energy Conservation Workshops, and other community based initiatives that beautify the Nineteenth Ward and work to preserve the area’s economic, religious, and ethnic diversity.

Ultimately, the history of Rochester’s Nineteenth Ward is one defined by resilience, ingenuity, and multiculturalism. Despite numerous setbacks that have blighted many regions, the Nineteenth Ward’s residents have continually persevered. The Nineteenth Ward is now home to people from all walks of life who are bound together by the Ward’s unique character and history rich with struggle, survival, and cooperation.


Hill, Laura Warren. Strike the Hammer While the Iron is Hot: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, NY, 1940–1970. Ann Arbor, MI: ProQuest LLC, 2010.

LaRue Cober, R., Castletown: A Historiette of Southwest Rochester. Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church, 1935.

Mckelvey, Blake. “Housing and Urban Renewal: The Rochester Experience.” Rochester History 27, No. 3 (October 1965).

Meadows, Doris. Neighborhood As Community: The Nineteenth Ward in Rochester New York. Rochester, N.Y.: Nineteenth Ward Community Association, 1984.

Naparsteck, Ruth Rosenberg. “At the Rapids on the Genesee Settlement at Castletown.” Rochester History 54, No. 3 (Summer 1992).

Archival Material Consulted

Pamphlet published by Nineteenth Ward Community Association, undated. Box 63, Folder 1, 19th Ward Community Association Papers. University of Rochester Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Rochester, N.Y.


[i] This research was supported by the 19th Ward Community Association and the University of Rochester’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Library. Special thanks go to MaryDan Cooper, whose expertise is much appreciated.

[ii] R. LaRue Cober, Castletown: A Historiette of Southwest Rochester (Rochester, N.Y.: Genesee Baptist Church, 1935), 9–11.

[iii] Doris M. Meadows, Neighborhood As Community: The Nineteenth Ward in Rochester New York (Rochester, N.Y.: Nineteenth Ward Community Association, 1984), 2–3.

[iv] Information generously provided by Dr. Daniel J. Demarle.

[v] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 3.

[vi] Ibid., 11–12.

[vii] Ibid., 4.

[viii] Ruth Rosenberg Naparsteck, “At the Rapids on the Genesee Settlement at Castletown”, Rochester History Vol. LIV, No.3, Summer 1992, 7-9.

[ix] Ibid., 8.

[x] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 5.

[xi] Ruth Rosenberg Naparsteck, “At the Rapids on the Genesee Settlement at Castletown”, Rochester History Vol. LIV, No.3, Summer 1992, 18.

[xii] Taken from 2017 Nineteenth Ward Community Association House Tour Booklet with consultation of sources from the National Park Services, National Register of Historic Places, and “Two Centuries of Industry and Trade in Rochester”  Vol LI Fall 1989 No. 4, by Ruth Rosenberg Naparsteck

[xiii] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 17-18.

[xiv] Ibid.,  11.

[xv] Ibid., 13.

[xvi] Blake McKelvey, “Housing and Urban Renewal: The Rochester Experience”, Rochester History Vol. XXVII, No.4, October 1965, 8.

[xvii] Ibid., 11.

[xviii] Laura Warren Hill, Strike the Hammer While the Iron is Hot: The Black Freedom Struggle in Rochester, NY, 1940-1970. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Proquest LLC, 2010, 36.

[xix] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 15–17.

[xx] Meadows, Neighborhood as Community, 17.

[xxi] Pamphlet published by Nineteenth Ward Community Association, undated, Box 63, Folder 1, 19th Ward Community Association Papers, University of Rochester Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Rochester, N.Y.   

A Look into the City of Rochester’s Past

Author: Seyvion Scott

Seyvion Scott’s article about the lives of African American civic leaders Dr. Walter Cooper and Constance Mitchell was published through the University of Rochester’s Department of Rare Books, Special Collections, & Preservation Blog. You can read the full article at this link.

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