It’s hard to believe, but there was a time not so long ago in Rochester when the color of your skin determined if you could be served at a restaurant or stay at a hotel.
In the early 1940s, Rochester was basically a white man’s club.Eventually, amid the racially charged climate, something had to change—and it did—at the Avalon Hotel.
The building that eventually became the Avalon Hotel has always been synonymous with racial, ethnic and religious diversity. In 1919, the building opened as a kosher hotel called the Northwestern, catering to Jewish travelers. The building changed owners in 1944 and became the Avalon Hotel. Its clientele changed from Jewish to African American.
The building was purchased by Verne Manning, who couldn’t find a hotel that would rent him a room in the city because he was black. His wife was in the hospital, and he needed a place to stay. Manning saw an opportunity and he struck. The Avalon hotel became well known in African American circles around the country, hosting several notable celebrities such as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. The Mannings also ran the Avalon Café, which gave Rochester a total of two restaurants in which African Americans were allowed to eat.
Rochester’s simmering racial tensions reached a disturbing peak in 1963 when, after a sparsely attended civil rights march through the city, a cross was burned on the Avalon Hotel’s front lawn.
Rochester continued to deal with open racial discrimination throughout the latter half of the 20th century. George Thompson, former executive director of the Rochester Diversity Council, moved to Rochester in 1968 and has seen the slow process of societal integration first hand. Thompson says when he first moved here, he didn’t see another black person for two weeks. But he stayed, basing his decision on the city’s good schools and access to health care.
“People are basically good. Racial change takes place over a long period of time,” he says. “Most people don’t consider that there is an issue of racial injustice until something major happens or something affects them personally; they aren’t interested in making changes if they don’t perceive there’s a problem.”
Rochester has seen many changes throughout the years and so has the building that was known as the Avalon Hotel. It is still in use today, not as a hotel but as a music store. Stephen Lalama bought the building in 2009 and christened it “Avalon Music, Inc.” Lalama says he kept the name to honor the groundbreaking hotel.
Learn more about the history behind the Avalon Hotel on Off 90, Sunday, January 15 at
7 p.m. on KSMQ Public Television.
Matthew Bluhm and Maria Bartholdi are legacy producers for Off 90 at KMSQ Public Television.