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Elmira bridge renamed to honor two African American trailblazers: A’Don Allen and Bessie Berry

The Madison Avenue bridge that connects Elmira’s Northside and Southside has been renamed the Allen-Berry Bridge to honor two African American trailblazers in the city: A’Don Allen and Bessie Berry

Prominent pioneering figures in the city’s history, Allen and Berry were both the “firsts” in many positions of local government and community leadership in Chemung County.

Family, friends, colleagues and community members gathered to honor both Allen and Berry at a dedication ceremony on June 19 for the Juneteenth holiday.

Bessie Berry, prominent figure in Chemung County.
Photo courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society
Bessie Berry, prominent civic and community leader in Chemung County.

“Bessie Berry was a champion,” said Georgia Verdier, president of the Elmira-Corning chapter of the NAACP. “She was not afraid to follow her dreams, whatever she determined she wanted to do, regardless of circumstances.”

Berry was Verdier’s predecessor at the NAACP and mentored Verdier to take over as president.

The recommendation to rename the bridge was introduced to the Elmira City Council earlier this year. In March, the city council unanimously approved a resolution (Resolution No. 2024-91) for the project (7-0).

James Hare is a former mayor of Elmira, colleague and good friend to Allen. He came up with the idea to rename the bridge.

Hare, along with the backing of community leaders Verdier, Holly Strickland and Jeff Aaron, formed a committee to work with the city and produce the Juneteenth ceremonies and plaque to adorn the bridge.

Verdier said the process began several years ago with a phone call from Hare. The plaque design shares a few of Allen's and Berry's most distinctive accomplishments, though she said their lists are much longer.

“We started building and meeting weekly to plan this ceremony for today and to pull some bullets out of their lives, some meaningful bullets, because that's too much to put on a plaque like that,” said Verdier. “But we thought we would get about four or five for each one, and then maybe people who are looking at that plaque would want to know more about these two individuals.”

Photo courtesy of Chemung County Historical Society
A'Don Allen, prominent civic and community leader in Chemung County.

Allen’s civic and community leadership achievements included: first African American appointed to the Elmira Civil Service Commission (1966); first African American member elected to the Chemung County Board of Supervisors, now known as the Chemung County Legislature (1969); first African American elected to the Elmira City Council (1977); and appointed deputy mayor (1988).

Some of the community and civic roles achieved by Berry included: first African American elected to the Elmira City School Board (1966); first African American appointed social worker and probation officer in Chemung County (1967); and first African American appointed corrections counselor for the Elmira Correctional Facility (1981).

Berry’s son, Ted Berry, who spoke at the event, said his mother was a doer and did not get caught up in the pomp and circumstance involved in the ceremony of events. He said she believed in the consequences and results of her efforts and attributed her success to her southern roots. Berry was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee.

The city closed the road to traffic and members of both families walked across the bridge to the pavilion at the foot of the bridge (and across from Brand Park) for the event.

James Hare, the bridge renaming committee and some members of the Catholic Social Ministry Solidarity Committee from the Most Holy Name of Jesus Parish in Elmira, joined the families for the bridge crossing.

“The dedication brought people together like A'Don and Bessie tried to do,” said Hare. “I was impressed by the number of people, and a diverse number, who came out on a very hot day to be a part of the event.”

Allen’s grandson, A’Don Allen III said his grandfather would have appreciated the ceremony.

“He was pretty quiet, he would have enjoyed it, and he would have respected it, because that's what he did,” said Allen. “But he didn't do things so that he could get accolades. I think he did things because he wanted to do the right thing, and the right thing in his mind was to make sure that he left the second district in better shape than it was when he moved there.”

Allen III said Hare was one of his grandfather’s best friends and the bridge renaming was especially important to see through.

“He, as a historian himself, understands the legacy of my grandfather and Mrs. Berry, and for him, this is now a space where they'll never be forgotten.”

City councilmember for the second district, Rev. Corey Cooke, was the emcee for the event.

The plaques bearing some of the major milestones and accomplishments made by Allen and Berry will be installed on both sides of the bridge later this summer.