RIT opens its doors to the community

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Photo courtesy of RIT Archive Collections

A holiday party hosted by RIT’s Kappa Sigma Kappa fraternity for neighborhood children, circa 1950s, helped create positive relationships within the community.

The look of delight on the faces of the children and RIT students says it all. The event depicted in the above photograph is a holiday party hosted by Kappa Sigma Kappa fraternity for children living near the downtown campus. (Note the children are wearing Kappa Sigma Kappa jackets.) The fraternity sponsored this event in the late 1940s and 1950s as part of its community service and outreach activities. Each year, one of the brothers would dress up as Santa and they would distribute gifts to the children. Refreshments would be served by members of Phi Upsilon Phi, their sister sorority.

The downtown campus was part of Rochester’s historic Third Ward, one of the earliest areas to be settled in the city. RIT was an anchor of the area and was perceived as a good neighbor—the students brought a youthful vibrancy to the area and the historical record reveals no major incidents. 

The campus encompassed a number of blocks just west of downtown and was adjacent to an area of older houses in the Third Ward. For many years, the area had been home to many well-to-do families in what is now Corn Hill, as well as a stable neighborhood of working class families, many of whom were African American and had owned their own homes for many years. 

The area changed during the 1950s. The neighborhood experienced an influx of poor residents, particularly from the Seventh Ward where they were effectively driven out by sub-standard living conditions and a lack of decent housing elsewhere. Crowding followed and many families lived in converted multi-family homes. A number of landlords did not care properly for their buildings and their dilapidated condition contributed greatly to a look of general decay in the neighborhood.

This condition reached its height in the late 1950s and early 1960s and contributed to unrest in the neighborhood. A town-and-gown dichotomy existed, with the condition of the buildings and poverty only serving to highlight the contrast between the residents and the staff and students of RIT. Staff generally lived elsewhere and students lived only temporarily in the neighborhood, leaving upon graduation. 

It is against this backdrop that students made efforts to reach out to the community. Other Greek organizations and campus groups worked on similar projects. There were Saturday morning basketball leagues and meetings with 
the leadership of community organizations and schools with the intention of bridging the divide. 

These activities, although small, likely contributed to the feeling that RIT 
was a good neighbor and cared about the community.