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Clarissa Street Parade honors former doctor Juanita Pitts

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by Justina Wang, Democrat and Chronicle

In a little over half a century, Dr. Juanita Pitts has made a life of breaking molds.

Those who know her — and there are many — rattle off the ceiling-shattering titles that have attached themselves to any mention of her name.

The first black woman to run a private medical practice in Rochester.

The first to start a daycare center in a black neighborhood in the city.

The first black woman to work as a staff physician at the Rochester Psychiatric Center.

“She certainly was great at multitasking. She did everything,” said Charlotte Greenwood, a board member and former teacher at the Community Child Care Center, which Pitts founded in 1963.

Pitts will serve as parade marshal today at the 13th annual Clarissa Street reunion, a food-and-music throwback to the once predominantly African-American neighborhood in Corn Hill that bustled with black-owned businesses and swinging jazz. This year’s festival is dedicated to Pitts, and a $1,000 scholarship will be awarded in her name to an aspiring physician.

The honor is far from her first. Over the years, the retired doctor has piled up recognitions from organizations ranging from the Urban League of Rochester to the Empire State Federation of Colored Women.

“She’s got so many awards, I can’t name them all,” said John Ashford, president of the Clarissa Street event committee.

But ask Pitts about her accomplishments, and she won’t list any titles. Instead, she talks about bashful teachers who deserve many more awards, planting flowers around the community and making sure her seven children graduated high school.

“Those are the things I cherish,” said Pitts, who has spent the last year traveling between Rochester and Houston, Texas, where her mother lives.

A native of Birmingham, Ala., Pitts said she was pushed to succeed by a poor education in a two-room schoolhouse. “This was not a happy circumstance, but all of it was so that I will do better. I will get out of here.”

She graduated at age 15 from high school and wanted to become a doctor, Pitts said, because she saw the injustices faced by black doctors in her neighborhood. When she earned her medical degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C., in 1954, she was one of two women in the class of 64 students.

After graduation, Pitts and then-husband Dr. Julian Carroll moved to Rochester and opened a joint practice on West Avenue. A mother of six at the time, Pitts quickly realized how difficult it was to find child care.

In 1963, she opened the Community Child Care Center in the basement of her church, Memorial A.M.E. Zion on Favor Street. The young doctor pushed for diversity among her pupils and teachers, and was later awarded a Head Start grant to work among migrant children in the area. The child care center is now located on Troup Street.

After returning to school at the University of Rochester for a master’s degree in community health, Pitts worked for the state department of mental health, headed a children’s psychiatric unit in the city, and organized screenings for sickle cell anemia, hypertension and cardiovascular risk.

The Clarissa Street celebration today reminds her of her roots, and the importance of community, Pitts said.

“It’s been a great life, and at this age I would not like to weaken.”

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Written by Symphony

September 7, 2008 at 7:41 am

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