The Crooked Lake Review

Summer 2003

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A Consideration of

Racial Aspects

of Corning History


John H. Martin

From a speech to the Corning Rotary Club on April 18, 2002

Phyllis and I moved to Corning in 1958 when I was hired as the first faculty member for the new Corning Community College, and we rented a house on First Street in Corning. We were impressed that around the corner was the new, modern house of the Holmes family, a black family. Across the street was Old School Two, then serving as the School district headquarters, and Katie Bernhannan, a local black, was the telephone receptionist. We felt that we had moved into a well-integrated community. Perhaps that vision was a little naive.

We began to see another side of the situation, however, when two years later we purchased a house at the top of Wall Street and had as a neighbor Omar Lerman, one of the Directors of the Corning Summer Theater. One summer evening Omar came to us and said he was having trouble finding a room for an actor who had to be in Corning for two weeks preparing for a performance of Othello which was being offered by Summer Theater. Actor's salaries weren't adequate for them to stay in a hotel, and thus the actor needed an inexpensive room in a private home.

“You have a spare bedroom,” said Omar, “would you rent it to the actor in order to help me out of a problem?” We said we would, and the actor could be our guest and would not have to pay rent. As he thanked us and prepared to leave, Omar paused and said, “Does it make any difference to you that the actor is black? That is why I could not rent a private room for him in town.” We said that that made no difference—but it did open our eyes to some limitations to Corning hospitality and tolerance.

Thus the young actor stayed with us for two weeks, using some of our books on Shakespeare (since I taught English literature). He proved to be a delightful guest. You may have heard of him since—his name is James Earl Jones.

In time, we learned of other incidents of an unhappy racial nature, some of which have been reported in The History of Corning by Lois Janes and Tom Dimitroff, as well as in a long article in the Corning Leader in 1988. In the 1920s there was a Klu Klux Klan unit in Corning with some 187 local members. On a Saturday evening they would burn a cross on Denmark Hill just outside of the city of Corning since they opposed having blacks, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants in Corning. In 1924 the Klan, in full regalia, marched into one of the Northside churches in Corning to an ovation from the congregation—and a reputed $100 “free will offering.” Then on October 15, 1927, the Klan paraded in Corning, again in full regalia, happily the last recorded incident in this unhealthy situation.

In some ways, these events were not surprising. When the MacBurney plot on the north side of East Pulteney Street in Corning was opened for the sale of building lots in 1920, the ads read “Lots of $375 to $795 down, and $2 a week. Lots restricted to good residences and desirable white families.” There were also other covenants in town against blacks or Jews where housing was concerned. These facts can be found in the February 21, 1988, Corning Leader.

On the other hand, there was a more generous side to Corning that we encountered soon after. There was a time when the western part of Steuben County relied heavily on migrant labor to harvest its crops, mostly itinerant black laborers from the southern states of the United States. In September of 1963 there was a fight in one of the labor camps in Wheeler, and one of the migrants was stabbed and killed. The perpetrator was arrested, but so was 18-year-old Andrew Horton, a young black from Mississippi who was here to earn enough money so he could finish his last year in his trade high school in Mississippi.

The innocent Andrew Horton volunteered as a witness, but he was arrested as a principal witness and placed in jail in Bath out of fear that he might leave the area. He could be freed on deposit of a $1500 bail. The kid had but 40 cents in his pocket when he was jailed. Not only that, but the next grand jury was not scheduled to be called for another five months, and the lad would have to remain in jail for that length of time.

Charlie McGrady, a local Corning black who worked in the Corning Glass factory, was deeply disturbed at the boy's predicament. Thus he approached Bill Belknap of Corning Glass for help. Charlie and Bill formed a committee of which Don Brown, Dick Wardell and I were members, and we set about trying to raise the bail money in order to free the young man. Here was another side of Corning: within one week, eighty-eight individuals and groups had raised the money for what we called “The Friends of the Court.” Leland Bryan, President of the First Bank in Corning, served as Treasurer for the group while Doris Gorman, served as the Committee's lawyer without fee.

With the bail money raised, the young man was released from jail. Then individuals in Bath provided him with new clothes, and local businesses and individuals hired the young man so as to keep him solvent until the grand jury met. In time, Andrew Horton served as a witness and then went back to Mississippi to finish his schooling. He did return briefly to Corning eventually to thank Charlie McGrady and other individuals who had helped him in a time of need. This was our first official involvement with anyone in the local black community.

Our next involvement, unexpectedly, followed soon after. The year, 1963, was the time of the bombing of black churches in Georgia and Alabama, and in the latter incident two young black girls were killed. Members of Corning's very small black community (some 30 families) were concerned about these incidents, and they asked the local Council of Churches to sponsor an evening discussion of the situation. The Council agreed to do this, and some one on the Council called Dr. William Perry, the President of Corning Community College, to ask him if he could send an individual to serve as a moderator for the evening discussion. Bill called me and asked if I would serve as moderator. I agreed to do so.

The day of that evening discussion finally rolled around, and that afternoon I had a telephone call from Ed Underhill, the publisher of the Corning Leader, asking me to stop by his office before I went to the dinner meeting at the Big Flats Community Baptist Church. This I did, and, to my amazement, I found that I was being threatened. “There are no problems in Corning, and anyone who tries to stir up trouble will be attacked editorially,” I was told. The implication, naturally, was that such an editorial could affect my position at the College. I was astounded at Ed Underhill's attitude, the discussion for the evening was about Alabama, not about Corning. Was he paranoid? Or were there problems he did not want brought up? At any rate, we had a most unpleasant argument, and I went on to the evening discussion which had nothing to do with Corning.

Of course, I had been threatened. The next morning I called Phil Hunt, the only officer in the Corning Glass Works I knew, and I asked him for advice. He heard me out, and then he said, “I will get back to you shortly.” A memo in our files from Robert Edwards of Corning Glass, dated some two weeks later, confirms the following: Bill Belknap of Corning Glass appeared at our door one evening, and he said, "We have a plan for you." He had been talking to Charlie McGrady, and he had learned of some of the problems local blacks were having. Evidently there were problems in Corning.

Bill asked Phyllis and me, “Are you willing to have meetings of local blacks and whites in your living room whereby the blacks could enlighten the white community of some of the problems with which local blacks are faced?” We agreed to do so. Charlie McGrady suggested to Bill that the discussions be limited to three black couples and three white couples who would meet at sessions in which blacks could discuss some of their problems in Corning. After three such meetings, the whites would be changed so that a broader sense of the situation could be reached within the white community. Given the size of our living room, which is hardly spacious, this was a maximum number of individuals we could seat.

Thus we began to canvass whites who were willing to attend such meetings. What we ended up with were primarily whites who were members of the Glass Works' middle range of employees. We were unable to reach into the union membership. We were also unable to enlist any of the long-term, local white citizens, many of whom were sympathetic but feared that their participation might hurt their business. This was understandable—but it did say something about the community.

Actually, the black members of the new group also had difficulty at first in recruiting local blacks for the meetings, for some of the local blacks had little trust that anything would come of such discussions. In time, there did develop a core of well-intentioned blacks who were willing to discuss the realities of their life in Corning. At any rate, Charlie and Odessa McGrady, John and Marsha Driggins, and Bob and Cleo Watkins formed the first black members of the living room meetings. Sufficient white families were recruited, and on March 1, 1964, these meetings began in our living room.

The one situation which the black members related, which still angered them greatly, was the unhappy time for local blacks which had occurred in the 1930s in Corning. At that time, a number of black families lived at the top of Wall Street in Corning, as well as on East Street (the lane between the houses on the west side of Wall Street and the Knoll). There were also six houses on Harvey Street, a street which once existed just above the present houses on High Road today, between Chemung and Wall Streets, a street now obliterated. One Friday evening in the mid-1930s, the black families in the area were called to a meeting, and they were informed that they would have to move since the area was to be cleared for houses for white families. (The three white families in the area at the time were not to be moved.)

Bob Wilkins related that his aunt, who owned her house, asked a local realtor for help in finding a place to move to. She was told, “I do not rent to niggers.”

John Driggins' family had a house, paid for, facing onto East Street across from the Knoll. A local realtor showed John's father a house at the corner of Walnut and Sixth Streets which he could buy. However, he had to make the purchase without first being permitted to see the inside of the building. With no choice, the Driggins family bought the house, only to be confronted with a petition being circulated against their acceptance in the area.

Then on July 28, 1937, the Corning Evening Leader reported on a real estate plan to plow under Harvey Street for the creation of larger houses for white families. Harvey Street did disappear, and today it is but a bit of flat land behind the houses on the upper side of High Road. A new street was put through the area between Chemung and Wall Street (the present High Road), and a new apartment complex was planned for Corning Glass employees. Most of the former black residents of the area were forced into an enclave in South Corning on Tuxhill and Roberts Avenues. The bitter remembrance of how their families had been treated had not been forgotten by the black community, and the pent up unhappiness poured out in the meetings.

There is an irony to their story being recounted in our living room, for when we bought our house at the top of Wall Street in 1960, we did not own all the land back to East Street. (Our house was one of the three houses owned by white families in the 1930s which were not demolished for the new houses being proposed.) That property to the rear of our house still had the foundation of a house on it, and the area had been used as a dumping ground by the neighbors for years. We were able to buy the land from the Glass Works which owned it, and thus we came to own the property of the one-time home of the Driggins family.

Other problems were brought forth by the black members at these meetings. They could not rent property in Corning except at the east end of old Market Street. They could not get their hair cut in Corning since barbers would not deal with them, and thus they had to go to Elmira for haircuts. If they ordered a drink at one local bar, they would be served—and then the glass would be smashed in front of them when they had finished their drink. Black customers were ignored in some stores and had to wait for whites to be served before they would be helped. Thus for the first time the local blacks were able to discuss some of their frustrations with the white community. The meetings proliferated. Eventually those who participated in the early meetings began to hold meetings in their homes, both black and white families serving as hosts. The local blacks were therefore becoming involved with the white community in a new way.

There is a side story to the racial situation which is perhaps worth recounting. In late 1963 and early 1964 the new Corning Community Campus was coming to completion. One morning Bill Perry, the College President, in his usual cryptic manner, called me and said, “You are to go down to New York City—and don't come back until we have a program for the dedication of our new campus.” What he really was saying was, “Go see Arthur Houghton.”

I had been seeing Arthur Houghton regularly in the planning of the new College Library collection, and thus once more I went to Manhattan to the Steuben Building to see Arthur Houghton to explain the latest situation. Arthur thought awhile, and then he said, “I tell you what. I'll invite all the heads of all the African countries to Corning, and we will have an African Conference in your library as part of the dedication of the College campus.”

I flew back to Corning and told Bill of Arthur's idea. Bill looked at me in astonishment, spluttered, and exclaimed, “What in hell does he…” He paused for a moment, and then he said, “All right, we'll do it.”

Thus the African Conference had nothing to do with the local biracial situation. Except that Bob Edwards in Corning Glass Public Relations leaped on the idea of involving the local black community in a portion of the events being planned. While the conference was not to be open to the public, there would be public events as well. On May 16, 1974, the conference would begin with a public performance by the West Philadelphia Negro Choir. Two days later there would be an address by Ambassador Averill Harriman in the Glass Center Auditorium for the public. On May 21st there would be a public concert in the Glass Center auditorium by Duke Wellington and his band. Finally, on May 22nd, there would be the official dedication of the college campus. Although the conference was not a part of the ongoing biracial meetings, it was used by Corning Glass as a way to include the local black community in the events of the week.

With his usual sardonic thrust, Bob Edwards, who was involved in all of this planning, said, “We shall send free tickets to the Wellington affair to the black members of the biracial meetings—and two tickets for you and Phyllis, but only because we are using your library for the Conference meetings.”

The other aspect to the Conference was that the main reading room of the College Library was the place of the African Conference for a full week. Multi-lingual translation equipment and interpreters from the United Nations served as translators of the speeches into French and English for those who only spoke one of these languages, some of the African leaders being more proficient in one of the two languages. Although this happened to be the week for final examinations for College courses, students could not be permitted into the library all this week because of security measures!

Then in the summer of 1964, I was awarded a fellowship at Columbia University by the State University of New York for re-training in East Asian Studies. Therefore, on July 17, before leaving for Manhattan, I sent a report to Phil Hunt as to the progress of the living-room meetings which were going on. In that report, I indicated that we needed to go beyond the living-room meetings. Some of the whites, I pointed out, were trying to assume leadership of the program and were growing too emotionally involved in the situation.

What I saw was the need for a more official organization which would have representatives from Corning Glass, the City government, Ingersoll-Rand, Market Street, and the local educational units. It would be a committee to look at the situation as reported by the local blacks, and it would both try to alleviate problems as well as to keep the private meetings from getting out of hand. The proposal evidently met with some approval, for I had only been at Columbia University a few days when I had a call from Phil Hunt asking if I would fly back to Corning that Friday night at the Company's expense to meet with him and one or two others from Corning Glass the next morning. This I did.

What was proposed was that I return to Corning each Friday night while I was at Columbia and meet with the editor of the Corning Leader on Saturday mornings to see if the more official committee I had suggested might be set up with Mayor Joseph Nasser's approval. George Bevan was the editor of the newspaper, and he was the one it was suggested with whom I should meet. This was approaching the unit, in a sense, which had led to the living room meetings through Ed Underhill's original unpleasant meeting with me. Besides, it was suggested that the proposed committee be one established by the City's mayor—and George Bevan was influential in local Republican matters. (It is almost needless to point out that the mayor was a Republican.)

I agreed to the proposal, particularly since we had three small children, and this would permit me to be at home each week-end and to be of help to Phyllis. Thus began the weekly flights back to Corning and a meeting with George Bevan in his office every Saturday morning at the newspaper. We developed a very pleasant relationship, but the Mayor was not interested in the proposed “Mayor's Committee.” No progress was being made.

Then a chance situation was to make the difference.

That summer, Alanson Houghton had decided to go into the ministry, but before he could enter seminary, he had to take some additional courses at Columbia University. Thus, by chance, we flew on the same Mohawk Air flight to Corning every Friday night and the same flight back to La Guardia Airport every Sunday evening. We therefore began to share a taxi from La Guardia Airport to Columbia University each Sunday evening on the way to our respective housing units.

One Sunday evening in August of 1964 we arrived back at La Guardia Airport, got into a taxi, and the driver set off across the Triboro Bridge and down 125th Street toward Columbia University. That same Sunday evening saw the start of the first of the Harlem race riots, and we, unsuspecting, drove right into the riot. Fortunately, our taxi driver was black, and he got us through the melee and to the University with no problem. That next Saturday morning when I met with George Bevan in his office, the die was cast. There was to be an unofficial “Mayor's Bi-racial Committee” which could meet privately and with no publicity whatsoever. Somehow, word of Alanson's and my taxi ride had got back to Corning, and there was a quite unfounded fear that there might be racial problems in Corning in the future as well as in Manhattan.

At any rate, the so-called "Mayor's Committee" began to meet with George Bevan and me as Co-chairmen. The goal was to look at any problems that might exist and to solve them quietly behind the scenes. Thus Ralph Baker, Dix MacDonald, Art Wooster, Doris Gorman, Dick Wardell, Charlie McGrady, John Driggins, and Bob Watkins made up the committee. The Mayor was a member ex-officio, but he never attended any of the meetings, although George Bevan kept him informed of the committee activities. Additional individuals were available to be called upon as we saw fit.

We met through the autumn and winter of 1964-1965, laying the ground work for the solving of racial problems in Corning, be they real or imagined. Meantime, I had met with Father Brennan of St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Corning to try to reach beyond the primarily Protestant individuals who had been involved in the discussions. An approach was made to the two Jewish synagogues in Elmira as well. Next, a meeting was held with Father Brennan, the Reverend Mr. Witmer of the Corning Presbyterian Church, and Mrs. James Jones of the Corning Area Council of Churches. A city-wide ecumenical approach was to be made to assist in the attempt to achieve greater racial integration in the community. For the Lenten services in 1965, the local churches would have as their theme "The Negro in Corning." Out of this came a statement by the three major faiths of the area calling upon their congregations to institute a good neighbor policy to all races, particularly where housing was concerned.

A memo in our files indicates that on July 5, 1964, Bob Edwards of the Glass Works requested that he and Edith Patey meet at our house to discuss with Phyl and me how the living-room groups could assist Edith to help Corning Glass newcomers, especially employees from minority groups, to find housing.

By February of 1965, we felt that progress was being made. Since Phyl and I and our three children were about to leave for six months in Europe, the "Mayor's Committee" agreed to suspend formal meetings but to continue to work through individuals, as necessary, for the goals the Committee had set.

When we returned to Corning from Europe in August of 1965, we found that some of the participants in the living-room meetings had decided to go public and to form a "Biracial Council" under the leadership of Charlie McGrady and Richard Woodbury. Their goal was to foster better understanding between local blacks and whites, as well as to inform others in the community for the need for greater cooperation among the races. Phyl and I felt that their goals were commendable, but we did not join the group. We felt that the ground work had been laid among the major forces which guided the community, or as one local critic of local government likes to put it, we had worked “among the powers that be.” Thus we did not participate in the new group. There were other challenges to be met in Corning, and so we moved on in different directions thereafter.

Eventually, the "Mayor's Committee" was quietly dissolved in 1972, never having made itself known publicly. Amo Houghton meantime had asked George Bevan and me as to what could be done to reward Charlie McGrady who had been a pillar of commonsense all through these years. We both suggested sending Mr. McGrady for training in computers, since they were a coming thing in industry. Amo thought otherwise. Thus in 1968 the Corning Glass Foundation funded a three-year experiment in which Charlie McGrady could serve as a community-relations specialist. His purpose was to help individuals in the community in solving their difficulties: providing for legal advice, help in finding jobs or housing, or in the resolution of discriminatory problems. At the end of the experimental period, Corning Glass thereafter underwrote Mr. McGrady's position and office at 65 East Market Street in Corning where he could help individuals of all races and nationalities in the solving of their problems.

Obviously, Corning is now a very different community from what it was back in the 1920s and again in the 1960s. We are now a multi-racial, multi-national, and multi-religious community. Much of the change which has come about in Corning is due to the many individuals who worked to make this a better community. Particular credit must go to Corning, Inc. under Amo and Jamie Houghton and their associates and successors who have made diversity one of their major concerns.

One very obvious physical change can even be seen in Wegman's food store where there is now a section of shelves devoted to ethnic foods. Of course, even this can be carried too far—since one section is devoted to British comestibles. I had never thought of the British as being one of our unknown local minorities!

That, then, is the story of Mayor Nasser's unknown “Biracial Committee.”

© 2002, John H. Martin
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