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Exhibit Reveals Rochester's Racial History

February 21, 2019 10:31 PM

(ABC 6 News) -- The Olmsted County History Center is giving people a new way to celebrate Black History month by showing what life was like for people of color in Rochester in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

“When I first came to Rochester, I didn’t see another black person, other than my wife at the time, for two weeks,” said George Thompson, who first moved to Rochester to work for IBM in 1968.

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“Rochester, when we moved here in ’63 – it was a lily-white town,” said Dave Keillor, who also moved to the city for IBM.

“IBM was, in particular, very non-racial,” Keillor said.

 The story of Rochester’s changing racial landscape is the star of the history center’s new exhibit, ‘Traveling While Black.’

“Rochester needs to know about its history, particularly the black history, particularly about the discrimination,” Keillor said.

“History gives you an awareness of what used to happen and what hate can do,” Thompson said.

Rochester’s history is far from perfect.

One example, Keillor said, is the Pill Hill neighborhood.

“There were covenants in the deeds that you could not sell your property to a black or Jew,” he said.

But there were many examples; there was a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in the city and for black people coming to Mayo Clinic for treatment, finding a place to stay was difficult.

There was the Avalon Hotel, which is now a registered historical landmark, and would allow anyone to stay – regardless of skin color.

“The Avalon Hotel was a refuge for blacks who needed a room here,” Keillor said.

It was listed in the Green Book, a travel guide dating back to the late 1930’s that served as a travel guide for black Americans, identifying which hotels and restaurants would serve them.

Frank White traveled with his dad as a teenager, but didn’t know about the Green Book until later in life.

“It really kind of hit home and made much more sense to me why, when I would travel with my father it seemed from year to year they would always stop at the same place,” he said.

The exhibit shows discrimination and segregation weren’t far from home.

“Segregation was here,” White said, “we just don’t really appreciate that it was.”

The history center is open Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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