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Screenshot (7)William L. Gaiter Parkway was a newer street relative to many of Buffalo’s streets.  The Parkway was constructed during the 1990s on an abandoned railway line from Kensington Avenue to Delevan Avenue.  The Kensington Expressway (Route 33) is near the middle of the parkway.  The road follows a portion of the path of the former Erie Railroad.  During planning for the roadway, it was referred to as the Northeast Parkway, but was quickly named after William (Bill) Gaiter.

7._bill_gaiter_-_akg8324William Luther Gaiter was born in 1927 in Alabama in a small town outside of Selma.  Mr. Gaiter moved to Buffalo by the 1950s and worked in Buffalo as a bus driver.  After events that happened in his hometown of Selma and throughout the south, he wanted to get involved in the Civil Rights movement by attending a 1966 meeting of BUILD(Building Unity, Independence, Liberty and Dignity) – the activist Black federation of religious and community groups.    The day after Reverend Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, April 5, 1968, he became President of BUILD.  In 1970, he became Executive Director of BUILD.    While he was director, he helped to develop the halfway house that BUILD ran, as well as an outreach recruitment center.

During this time, BUILD was a large part of the changes that were happening in the Black community.  BUILD confronted, demonstrated, picketed and fought for a better community.  City Hall, the School Board and the Police Headquarters were targets of change for the organization.

The organization convinced the Buffalo Board of Education to establish the BUILD Academy in the public schools.  BUILD Academy was established in 1969, serving as basically a charter school years before charter or magnet schools were a thing.  BUILD Academy was the first school in the city to provide free breakfast for poor children and the first to offer full day kindergarten.  Parents had a major say in how the school ran.  The school promoted Black cultural awareness and tolerance towards others.  The school moved from Clinton Street to Fougeron Street in the 1975.  The BUILD Organization faded in the 1980s and the school operated until 2018 when it was closed.  The school reopened the following year as PS 91 BUILD Community School.

Mr. Gaiter also headed a counseling program, STAR – Student Timeout for Academic Renewal.  He also developed a Behavior Counseling Program for high school students who were at risk of dropping out.

During Mr. Gaiter’s tenure as director of BUILD, working with Claudia Sims and Judson Price, he organized the first Juneteenth Festival in Buffalo in 1976.   Juneteenth celebrates the end of slavery and is also known as Freedom Day, Emancipation Day, and Jubilee Day.  It is officially on June 19th, which is the date the Union Army General arrived into Galveston Texas in 1865 to free the people in slavery.  Since Texas was the most remote slave owning state, it took the longest for the Union troops to arrive there and officially free the slaves.  While Juneteenth recognizes the end of slavery, it was still legal and practiced in Delaware and Kentucky until the 13th Amendment was ratified in December of that year.  The first Juneteenth celebrations were held in Texas beginning the following year and were held across the South into the 1920s and 30s.  After the Civil Rights Era in the 1960s, Juneteenth celebrations began to spread across the country.

Juneteenth Buffalo was established as a cultural alternative to counter the Bicentennial Celebrations happening across the country and in Buffalo during the Fourth of July 1976.  Juneteenth was originally held on Jefferson Avenue, which served as “Main Street” for Buffalo’s Black community.  The festival eventually outgrew Jefferson Avenue and moved to Martin Luther King Jr Park.   Buffalo’s Juneteenth celebration is one of the largest in the Country (often listed as 3rd largest or the largest, but I could not find sources to verify this fact.)

In 1984, he formed the Western New York Council for African Relief.  This organization worked to improve the quality of life in a selected African community and develop ties between Africa and Western New York.  He went to the village of Malika in Senegal to deliver more than $75,000 raised by 47,000 Buffalo school children.  During the famine in Ethiopia, he organized a fundraising effort to bring relief to the victims.  He developed a student Exchange Program that allowed 500 American students to study the Senegalese Culture.  He served as President of the Institute of People Enterprises, which he organized in 1978.  The Institute for People Enterprises served as a support organization for community groups to connect people and organizations.

BUILD fought to make sure that minority construction workers got their fair share of the work.  Mr. Gaiter fought with the University at Buffalo in 1968 to get minority workers on construction jobs.  In 1983, he was appointed Equal Employment Opportunity Coordinator for Erie County.  this position monitors and improves the county’s hiring of minorities and helps provide opportunities for minority businesses.  He remained a part of the struggle to increase opportunities for minorities – in 1996, he made sure that Roswell Park Hospital gave contracts to minorities as the Affirmative Action/EEO Officer for Roswell’s Remodernization Project.  He also worked with the Buffalo Affirmative Action Program, which recruited, trained and unionized minorities in the construction industry in Buffalo and WNY.

Mr. Gaiter was named Buffalo News Citizen of the Year in 1988.  In 1993, he received the Buffalo Urban League Evans-Young Humanitarian Award.  He was recipient of  many other honors, including the Buffalo Challenger Buffalo Citizen Award, Phyllis Wheatley Club Certificate of Appreciation,  and the Black Educators Association Community Service Award.  He also served on the Board of Erie County Crisis Center, City of Buffalo Manpower Planning Advisory Council, Board of Directors Sheehan Memorial Hospital,  and the Board of Architectural and Environmental Planning Traineeship Program at UB.

Mr. Gaiter also worked as a political strategist.  He was Field Operations Coordinator for Arthur Eve’s mayoral campaign in 1977.  He coordinated a Voter Registration Campaign which registered 10,000 new voters!  The democratic primary turnout for that election was a historic 81%.  That was the highest voter turnout in the history of the Northeast.  Mr. Gaiter also worked hard on the campaigns for Wilbur Trammel and George K. Arthur when they ran for Mayor.  He taught a course on Social and Political Organizing at the Cora P. Maloney College at the State University of New York in Buffalo.

William L. Gaiter died on April 20, 1997 while attending services at Free Spirit Missionary Baptist Church.  He left behind his wife and 14 children.

In August 1998, ground was broken for the Northeast Parkway project.  The road construction project was designed to connect American Axle directly to the Kensington Expressway.  The commitment to build the road was an agreement between American Axle and Mayor Masiello.  The road was built partly in an effort to save United Auto Worker jobs at the East Delevan Avenue plant.  The idea was that the road would provide better access in and out of the plant for both raw materials and finished products, allowing the plant to remain open.  Before the shovels were even in the ground, it was decided that the road was going to be named in memory of William Gaiter.

gaiter business center

William L Gaiter Business Center

Opening of William Gaiter Parkway also allowed vacant or underutilized brownfield land along the rail corridor to be put back to use.  In addition to supporting American Axle, the road improved access for a dozen other business when it opened.  Buffalo Economic Renaissance Corporation (BERC) created the William Gaiter Business Center, which opened in October 1999.  The center was designed as a business incubator to help grow the industrial, commercial warehousing and distribution companies in Northeast Buffalo.  The 25,000 square foot Business Center was 100% leased when it opened, occupied by five businesses.  Three of the businesses were minority or women-owned.  The businesses created 50 new jobs and retained 25 existing jobs.  The companies included QTA Machining,  American Window Creations, Quality inspection Services, American Rated Cable & Communications, and Gas Technology Energy Concepts.  Business Incubators such as this one are designed for businesses to get a cheap rent while they are starting out in order to grow and become successful.  The Business Center was purchased by Safetec International in 2015.

A multi use trail also runs parallel to William Gaiter Parkway.  There are currently efforts by the University District Community Development Association to build the Northeast Greenway Trail which would connect the existing trail along William Gaiter Parkway with the North Buffalo Rail Trail in North Buffalo.

So think of Bill Gaiter the next time you pass by William L Gaiter Parkway or next year when we celebrate Juneteenth, and as we continue our fight for more justice.

If you’d like to learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Sources:

  • “William L. Gaiter”  Uncrowned Community Builders.  https://www.uncrownedcommunitybuilders.com/person/william-1
  • Obrien, Barbara and Mike Vogel.  “William Gaiter, Activist, Civil Rights Leader, Dies.”  Buffalo News.  April 21, 1997.
  • “Mayor Breaks Ground for Northeast Parkway”.  Buffalo News.  August 27, 1997.
  • “Remembering Bill Gaiter”.  Buffalo New.  August 25, 1998.
  • Sapong, Emma and Susan Schulman.  “Juneteenth Celebrates Slavery’s End”.  Buffalo News.  June 15, 2001.

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JFK parkToday’s post is is a little different.  We’ll be learning about JFK Park.  Unlike most of our posts, we’re not going to look much at the person for whom this was named, but rather the circumstances that created the park.  You can google President John Fitzgerald Kennedy if you’d like to learn more about him – there are plenty of books, movies, documentaries about him – see Note 1 for recommendations.    JFK Park and the Community Center were created in the 60s, and, like many things built following President Kennedy’s death, named after him.

I spent the summer knee-deep in the history of the neighborhood surrounding the park, researching for the blog.  I have written about the Ellicott Mall on one end, and the Talbert Mall on the other.  To learn more about the Ellicott and Talbert Malls, and about the namesakes of some of the streets that run through this area, you can read the following posts:

20201004_152725JFK Park fills most of the space between the Ellicott Mall and the Talbert Mall. This is also my neighborhood park, and I’ve spent a lot of time here the last few months during the pandemic.  I walk through the park often during my daily walks. Sometimes, I’ll bring a blanket to sit and read while listening to kids play in the playground and (during non-pandemic times) on the ballfields, basketball court, pool, and tennis court.  The photos I’m sharing here lack people out of respect for not wanting to post pictures of children without consent, but even during the pandemic, this is a well used and well-loved park.  It also serves as recreation space for the JFK Community Center, Bennett Park Montessori (PS #32), and Buffalo Elementary School of Technology (PS #6).

Screenshot_20200925-193528_Photos

427 and 429 N Division

This is also the place where my Italian immigrant family’s roots here in Buffalo started.  My Great-Great Grandparents Anthony and Angeline Valerio lived across Hickory Street from what is now the park, at 429 North Division Street.  Anthony and Angeline’s daughter, my Great Grandma Susan married my Louis Violanti at St. Columba Church in September 1927.  The church has merged with St. Brigid’s and has built a new building, but it is still located near the same spot on Hickory, across from JFK Park.  The Violantis moved into 427 North Division Street, located right in front of the Valerio’s house at 429 North Division, along with Louie’s parents – my Great-Great Grandparents Joseph and Rosie Violanti.  My Grandpa, Joe Violanti, was born on the kitchen table at one of these houses in December 1928.  One generation later, the entire neighborhood as they knew it was gone.

This neighborhood was called the Ellicott Neighborhood.  It’s a name that isn’t used much anymore.  Sure, there’s the Ellicott Council District, but you don’t hear people refer to the neighborhood as much any more.  It may have had earlier names as well, before it was called Ellicott, I often struggle to find information about historic neighborhood names.  If you know, I’d love to learn more.  Like much of the East Side, it’s identity is lost and it’s lumped into a larger area.  It gets assigned a vague description “the area between Downtown and Larkin”.  It was demolished, and therefore lost much of its identity.

This park that I love so dearly was 7 blocks of active city life.  In 1950, the neighborhood looked like this:

jfk PARK 1950

Sanborn Map of JFK Park area in 1950

In 1950, there were 253 buildings with the following uses: 36 stores, 3 schools, 2 restaurants,  2 churches, 1 synagogue, 1 junk exchange, 1 contractor’s yard, 1 filling station, 1 clubhouse, 197 private dwelling units,  4 buildings of flats, and 3 apartment buildings.  At the time, a private dwelling referred to a building that was home to up to two families, flats referred to a frame structure where a family occupied each floor (the common Buffalo upper-lower houses).

288 south divison - wny heritage

288 South Division Street in the 1950s. Now part of JFK Park. Source: WNY Heritage

What remains of those 253 buildings?  Just two buildings, both are schools –  the former Technical High School, now administrative offices for the Buffalo Public Schools and other is PS 6, still an active elementary school.

In 1950, the average household size in Buffalo was 3.4 people per dwelling unit.  Assuming that there were 2 units in each of the flats buildings and 4 units in each apartment building, that gives a conservative population of about 737 people on these seven blocks.  (For comparison’s sake, the average number of people per dwelling unit in 2018 is 2.24)

20200921_174344

Example of houses stacked on a lot. Picture houses on either side of these houses as well to picture how dense the neighborhood was.

This is just 7 blocks, and we demolished at least 32 blocks of this area, basically everything surrounded by William, Jefferson, Swan, and Michigan. Picture if the Allentown Neighborhood was shifted from north of Downtown to just east of Downtown, that’s about how dense the Ellicott Neighborhood was, except it was actually even more dense.  A common thing in this neighborhood was houses stacked on lots – so there’d be both a front house and a back house on the lot.  You can still see evidence of this on some of the blocks there weren’t completely demolished, and on the historic maps showing just how many houses were crammed onto these blocks.

“Urban Renewal” is typically used to refer to a series of programs that were used by cities in the middle of the 20th Century to address urban decay in cities.  The programs cleared out blighted areas of cities by clearing out areas that were declared slums.  The programs were designed to replace the “slums” with new, higher class housing and new businesses.  Often, the projects were implemented by local public housing authorities, which is the case in the Ellicott Neighborhood Redevelopment projects.

Most urban renewal programs involved municipalities taking land within a designated urban renewal area by purchasing properties or taking the properties by eminent domain.  The properties would then be razed and selected developers would build a new development on them.

The Housing Act of 1937 created the US Housing Authority, a federal corporation able to loan money to states and local governments to build housing for those unable to find suitable housing themselves.  Under this act, one housing unit of slum clearance resulted in one unit of new modern low-income housing built.  About 150,000 units of housing were built across the country under this act before the start of WWII.  Most of the housing authorities found that new housing alone was not enough to remove the slums and provide urban redevelopment.  The new housing often became the new slum a few decades after it was built.  The idea became that we need urban renewal- including housing, zoning, schools, enforcement of health standards, transportation, and minimization of racial restrictions.

The GI Bill (The Serviceman’s Readjustment Act), passed in 1944, allowed veterans to obtain mortgages, allowing many to purchase houses in the suburbs.

The Housing Act of 1949, also known as the Taft-Ellender-Wagner Act, provided loans to cities to acquire and clear slum areas to be sold to private developers to develop under a plan prepared by the city.  The act also provided grants to cover up to two-thirds of the city’s costs.  Under this act, the programs implemented were known as “urban redevelopment”.

The Housing Act of 1954 made these projects more profitable by providing mortgages backed by the Federal Housing Administration.  Programs implemented under this act were known as “urban renewal”.

The first major modern Urban Renewal project was completed in Pittsburgh in 1950.  This project demolished a portion of Downtown Pittsburgh and converted it to parks, office buildings, and a sports arena (the former Mellon Arena).

Urban renewal programs had an immense impact on our cities.  Highway construction was often a part of urban renewal programs – getting cars out of crowded city streets and routing them onto highways to allow people to get places more quickly was the reason so many urban highways were built during this era.  These highway projects had the additional consequence of exacerbating sprawl, as they allowed people to live further away from Central Business Districts in the suburbs and commute to work via the new highways.

20201012_164131In 1955, Buffalo Common Council designated the 160-acre Ellicott District Redevelopment Project Area to be totally cleared and rebuilt except for religious and education buildings.  I have heard that this was the first Urban Renewal project in New York State, but I could not verify.  In December 1957, a $10 Million Capital Grant (approximately $92 Million in 2020 dollars) was funded to begin to acquire the 1050 parcels and relocated residents and businesses.  In 1961, a $600,000 ($5 Million in 2020) addition was added to PS 6 and $450,000 ($4 Million in 2020) in renovations were completed a the Former Technical High School (at the time, it was Clinton Junior High).  25 acres were set aside for the $1.5 Million ($13 Million in 2020) Elliott District Recreation Center, which became JFK Park.

The Urban Renewal Area was appraised in 1959 and there were 2,219 households in the area.  Average household size was 4 people, and a total population of 8,836 people.  There were 1004 parcels, 1447 improvements (buildings), and 2,215 dwelling units.  Most of the dwelling units were 2 and 3 family buildings.  Seventy percent of the buildings in the area were classified as substandard.  When inventoried, there was only a vacancy rate of 2% throughout the neighborhood.  There were 81% rental units and 19% owner-occupied units.  At the time, the City considered a slum and blighted area to be when there were fewer than 45% owner-occupied units.

Relocation continued for 27 months.  In total, 1600 family groups and 400 roomer households were relocated.  Others had left on their own volition when they saw the writing on the wall, or just the normal course of moving due to life circumstances.  The average household size of households relocated by the government was 3.14 people.  The average length of time of residence before relocation was 7 years, with owners having a longer tenure in the neighborhood than the renters.  Black owners in the neighborhood had lived there an average of 12 years.  The white owners in the neighborhood, in particular, had lived there for a long time, with 50% of white owners being 60 years or older and 67% of them had lived in the neighborhood 20 years or more.  Most of the relocated families, approximately 70%, remained in the Ellicott District or moved north into the Masten District.

20201012_163202.jpg

Graphic showing the “problem neighborhood” as an octopus

The housing here in the Ellicott Neighborhood was some of the oldest in the city.  Most of the housing was a typical 2.5 story frame structure with a peaked roof and a front porch that you see throughout Buffalo.  It was run down and crowded.  The Ellicott Neighborhood was labeled as the highest in the city in terms of crime, delinquency, disease, and mortality.  In the 1950s, Buffalo was the 15th largest city in the Country, but still had the same boundaries as it did in 1854 (and basically still same area today).  As Buffalo grew, many people were tired of the crowded dirty inner-city neighborhoods.  Swan Street, just south of here, was once the fashionable neighborhood where “important” people lived – Mr. Blossom, Mr. Tillinghast, Mr. Pratt, to name a few. The rich started to move out to areas where they could have larger houses in the Elmwood Village or mansions along Delaware Avenue.  Even regular folks started to want to move into houses in newer, less crowded sections of the City.  The blocks between Seneca Street and the Thruway were particularly run down during the 1950s because they had originally been designated as the route of the NYS Thruway.  The Thruway shifted south to the railroad corridor, but structures had seen little maintenance and improvements as they had been planned for demolition for highway construction.

Redlining by banks allowed mortgages for white people to move to new houses in newer sections of the city, or in the suburbs.  Mortgages and housing loans were not granted to Blacks.  This meant that the worst, most crowded housing was often all that Blacks moving to the North during the Great Migration could afford, mostly the housing that was being left behind by those moving into the newer neighborhoods.  This furthered decline in the Black neighborhoods as there was no new money coming into the neighborhoods or new investments happening in the neighborhoods.

The City of Buffalo had at least 44 Urban Renewal Plans.  The “Ellicott District Redevelopment Project” was approved by Common Council on August 2, 1957.  The area was described as “predominantly residential in use but characterized by predominance of substandard and insanitary dwellings, the infiltration of mixed commercial and industrial uses, obsolete subdivision, undesirable street layout and traffic hazards, overcrowding of families, and inadequate public utilities and community facilities”.   The plan was to divide the land use in the area as follow: medium density housing suitable for middle-income and lower middle income families (63.18 acres), expansion of public schools and public recreation areas (26.99 acres), community business districts (8.31 acres), existing public school sites (6.94 acres), land for expansion of existing charitable organizations (13.12 acres), existing charitable institutions (3.07 acres), and streets (39.78 acres).  (161.39 acres total)

My Great Grandparents, they moved to South Buffalo.  Their new house on Ladner Avenue was much closer to Great Grandpa’s job at the steel mill and they were able to own a large two-family house, with lots of land around it for Great Grandpa Louie to grow his large gardens.  South Buffalo was kind of like the suburbs back then, but easily accessible via streetcar.  Their house was at the end of a row of houses, with nothing beyond their home except fields.  My other set of Great Grandparents lived one street over, on West Woodside, and the two families would cut between the fields to get to each other’s houses.  I am not sure of the exact circumstances of their move.  At the time, there was a lot of discrimination against Italians, but my family was likely able to benefit by their ability to purchase a home outside of the crowded inner city.

20201021_161343Robert T. Coles, the Buffalo-born architect, wrote his thesis in 1955 at MIT about a plan for Recreational Facilities in the Ellicott Community Renewal Area.  In 1960, Robert Coles returned to Buffalo and was placed in charge of programming, design, and construction supervision of the recreation center that became JFK Community Center.  The Rec Center building is a great example of Coles’ modern architecture style.

The lead demolition contractor on the project for the JFK Park project was Schwab Brothers.   The Schwab Brothers were a demolition company from Buffalo that eventually had offices across the country – they became the largest demolition company in the country and held the demolition contract for the old Madison Square Garden and the old Yankee Stadium.  Robert Coles teamed up again with Schwab Brothers to form Mid City Gardens, Inc, which designed the Mid City Gardens Apartments.  The plan that had been created for the Ellicott Redevelopment Area was determined not to be urban enough for the area, so the Schwab Brothers proposed their plan.  The plan looked at closing streets to prevent traffic congestion and keep local traffic moving – Clinton Street was disconnected from Downtown at this time, making William Street the main east-west thoroughfare to serve this neighborhood.  William Street was widened at this time to its current configuration.  Mid City Gardens consisted of 1,370 dwelling units and off street parking for each unit.  The units were in a combination of high and low-rise buildings with “breathing room” between them.  Two-story garden apartments were grouped with their own parking area and play space.  There were 616 units in towers and 74 in garden apartments.  The towers consisted of 77 units ranging from studios to two bedrooms and the garden apartments were two-story 3 and 4 bedroom units.

What eventually got built was garden apartments – the Ellicott Park Apartments, Towne Gardens, etc and single-family housing along William Street.  Clinton Street was eventually reconnected through to Michigan and single family housing was built along there as well.  The neighborhood is still home to three schools, five churches and is anchored by JFK Community Center in the middle of it all.

In the 1960s, novelist James Baldwin called Urban Renewal “Negro Removal”, after the way that the programs targeted neighborhoods primarily lived in by Blacks.  As we’ve looked at in our previous posts about the Ellicott Mall and the Talbert Mall, the housing projects created by Urban Renewal programs were often not successful.  High-rise towers often saw an increase in crime.  The buildings were built quickly and inexpensively, so they often were run down quickly, without money to cover maintenance costs.  While I covered an overview of urban renewal, this is by no means a conclusive study and I recommend looking into other sources for additional information.  Public housing projects were built and demolished in many areas, not just in Buffalo (See Note 3 for additional resources).

20201021_161218So the next time you’re walking through JFK Park, or any park or neighborhood, think about what used perhaps used to be there.  Neighborhoods change over time, both my forces we can control and by those we cannot.  Our cities are built on what came before.  There might be more to the story than what you first see.  A peaceful park might have been a whole neighborhood that no longer exists.  Take a moment and remember.

We’ll be back to talking about streets in my next post – which will about William Gaiter Parkway.  Some of you may remember Bill, who was a founder of the Juneteenth Festival here in Buffalo.  Stay tuned for that!  If you’d like to learn about additional streets, please check out the street index.

Note 1: If you’re looking for a biography about JFK, I recommend An Unfinished Life:  JFK 1917-1963 by Robert Dallek or Jack: A Life Like No Other by Geoffrey Perret.(Side Note from Angela:  in addition to Buffalo history and streets, one of my other hobbies is reading political biographies.)

Note 2: You can read the City of Buffalo Urban Renewal Plans here: City of Buffalo Planning Library

Note 3:  For more information about public housing and urban renewal , I recommend watching the following documentaries:  The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, about a housing project in St. Louis, Ken Burns East Lake Meadows, about a housing project in Atlanta, and James Baldwin’s Take this Hammer about San Francisco.   For more about what happened locally, I recommend reading Partnership for the Public Good’s report:  A City Divided:  A Brief History of Segregation in Buffalo.

Sources:

  • US. Department Of Commerce, Bureau of the Census.  “1950 Census of Population Preliminary Reports:  Characteristics of the Population of Buffalo, New York”.  Washington, D.C. May 14, 1951.
  • City of Buffalo.  “Redevelopment Project for the Ellicott District Redevelopment Project”.  August 2, 1957, as amended Oct 5, 1971.
  • Cities Under Austerity:  Restructuring the US Metropolis.
  • Coles, Robert T.  Community Facilities in a Redevelopment Area.  Thesis submitted for the Degree of Master of Architecture, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, September 1955.
  • Rashbum, William and Charles Bagli. “Demolition Man”.  The New York Times.  July 23, 2009.
  • “MidCity Gardens:  A Proposal for the Ellicott District Redevelopment Area” Schwab Brothers – Developer, Robert T Coles – Architect.  undated.  From the Collection of the Grosvenor Room, Buffalo Library – HT177.B8 S34
  • Davidson, Mark and Kevin Ward.  Cities Under Austerity:  Restructuring the US Metropolis.  State University of New York Press, Albany.  2018.
  • Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority.  Ellicott Relocation:  A Preliminary Report.  March, 1961.
  • Brown, Harris, Stevens, Inc.  Appraisal Report Ellicott District Urban Renewal Area, Buffalo NY.   Prepared for the Board of Redevelopment, City of Buffalo.  April 14, 1959.

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talbert mall

Former Talbert Mall property shown in red. Gladys Holmes Blvd shown in

Today we are finishing up our series on streets in the Talbert Mall/Frederick Douglass Towers.  For more about the area, I suggest you start with the series on Mary Talbert and the Talbert Mall, which can be found at this link.  Today, we will be discussing the two other women that streets were named after here – Gladys Holmes Blvd and Mary Johnson Blvd.

In 2001, during the renovation of the towers and the building of the townhouses, Mayor Masiello renamed the streets.  The tenant council selected the names and submitted them to City Council, choosing the names of three women important to the community.

mary johnson - shared by Geneva Anaya

 Source: Geneva Anaya, Ancestry.com

Mary Johnson was born in Buffalo on August 25, 1925.  She worked as a Staff Assistant and Manager a the Buffalo Urban League for 23 years before retiring in the 1990s.

She was very involved in the community and served on the Board of Directors of the Community Action Organization, the Board of the JFK Community Center, the Urban League Education Auxiliary Group, AMVETS Auxiliary Post 5, Ellicott Neighborhood Advisory Council and the YMCA Heart of the Home Club.

20200914_182422Mary Johnson lived in the Talbert Mall/Douglass towers starting in 1960.  Her family had lived in the neighborhood for a long time – she and her parents are listed in the 1930 Census living at 61 Spring Street.

Mary died in Niagara Lutheran Nursing Home in June 2013 at the age of 87.  She was survived by her Son George Jr, and six daughters – Jean Ann Robinson, Estelle Arlene Blue, Catherine Lee Watkins, Virginia Beard, Ann Mae Hoskin and Mary Harris.

20200914_182312Gladys Holmes was born in 1927 in Macon, Georgia.  Gladys married Grady Holmes in 1943.  Grady served in the Marine Corps during WWII.  After the war, Grady and Gladys moved to Buffalo, arriving in 1952.  Grady worked at Bethlehem Steel.

111530256_137000136352Gladys and Grady lived in the Talbert Mall/Frederick Douglass Towers for 37 years before she died in 1997.  When they named the street for her, they called Gladys a “community mom”.  In addition to being mother to the community, she had five daughters of her own – Betty Holloway, Jeannette Bishop, Annette Holmes, Graleen Dowell and Barbara Ann Singletary.  She is buried in Forest Lawn.

I was unable to find much information about Gladys Holmes.  Part of the difficulty in researching more contemporary subjects is that they’re not yet written about in history books!  If anyone knew either Gladys or Mary, I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

Another difficulty in my research of Gladys is that there was at least one other Gladys Holmes living in Buffalo at this time.  The other Gladys Holmes was the first Black woman to give birth in Children’s Hospital in Buffalo.  You can read more about her in the book Born in Mississippi, Raised in Buffalo New York.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  To learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

If you’re interested in hearing me speak, I am on the fall schedule for Erie County’s University Express program. I will be giving two talks. Programs will be streamed live so you can watch from the comfort of your home.  For more information, visit the University Express website here.

Sources:

  • “Mary Johnson, Buffalo Community Activist”.  Buffalo News.  June 12, 2013.
  • Campagna, Darryl and Tom Ernst.  “Housing Authority Honors Three”.  Buffalo News.  June 16, 2001.
  • “Grady Holmes”.  Buffalo News.  October 10, 2001.

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talbertst today

Mary Talbert Blvd, shown in orange. The Talbert Mall property is outlined in red.

This post continues the series about the streets around the Frederick Douglass Towers/Talbert Mall and Mary B Talbert Blvd. If you haven’t read the first two parts, I suggest you start with Part 1, about Mary Talbert’s early life or continue with Part 2 about Mary’s life in Buffalo.  Today, we will discuss the legacy of Mary Talbert, and continue the story of the Talbert Mall and the Ellicott Neighborhood.

Mary B Talbert

Mary Talbert (and this commonly used photograph) was  included in Twentieth Century Negro Literature or A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro, published in 1902.

When we left off, Mary Talbert had died on October 15, 1923.  Her obituary in the Buffalo News called her “probably most noted woman in the world”.

After her death, there were some efforts to save the house at 521 Michigan Avenue.  On the day her obituary ran in the paper, the Buffalo Times also ran an editorial calling for the house to be made a national shrine, saying that “no member of the Negro race ought to knowingly pass it without feeling a deep and solemn sense of gratitude emanating from a reverent heart, for one of the grandest figures in the annals of Negro History in America”.  The newspaper went on to say that she fought to save the Frederick Douglass Home and that Buffalonians should not stand by and lose her own house.  It continued, “In ages hence, when Negro people shall come to Buffalo, the city in which Mrs. Talbert worked and died and ask to be shown the house in which she lived and worked, the house in which she and Dr. Washington used often to exchange vices, what are we to say:  an ingrateful people have allowed the house to rot and crumbled to dust with her.  God forbid!”

In 1926, the Michigan Ave Baptist Church led an effort to try to save the house as a shrine, but was unsuccessful.  At the time, the house was noted for having the “good fortune that two of the greatest leaders of their time, and, indeed all time to come, used to sit and speak of the great questions confronting the negro race”.  The house was one of the oldest in the city and in the 1920s, it was close to 100 years old.

In 1932, two memorial trees were planted at the new Centennial Park (now Lasalle Park, currently being re-branded and reconstructed to become Ralph Wilson Centennial Park).  One tree was planted for Henry Williams, a black man who fought with Commodore Perry during the War of 1812.  The second tree was to honor Mary Talbert.  Dr. Nash spoke at a ceremony honoring the two.  The Negro Legionnaires and the Boy Scouts were involved in the ceremony.

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Assemblywoman Crystal People-Stokes laying flowers at Mary Talbert’s Grave in 2017. Source: Buffalo News

In 1935, the National Association of Colored Women laid a wreath on Mary’s headstone.  Mrs. W. Sampson Brooks of San Antonio, Texas, Miss Robert Dunbar of Providence Rhode Island and Miss Estella Wilson of Worcester, Massachusetts accompanied Mary’s daughter Sarah to lay the wreath.

In 1939, Mary McLeod Bethune, another influential Black woman like Mary Talbert, gave a talk at the Michigan Street Baptist Church and inspired a group of local civic, fraternal, political and church organizations to pledge financial support to reclaim and save the house.  Newspapers reported they raised $3,000 ($46,000 in 2020 dollars).

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Current view of 521 Michigan Avenue (foreground), Michigan St Baptist Church can be seen to the right of the photo. Photo by Author.

Despite these attempts to save the house, both of the Talbert family houses at 521 Michigan and 515-517 Michigan were demolished sometime between 1940 and 1950.  The site of 521 Michigan is now a parking lot and 515-517 Michigan is a grassy lot. A historical marker was placed at the site of Mary’s house in 1998.  The marker reads:
“Mary B Talbert helped found Niagara Mov’t, forerunner of NAACP, chaired US Anti-Lynching Commitee, delegate to 1920 Internatn’l Council of Women.  1866-1923.”

In addition to Mary Talbert Blvd, her name can also be found on:

  • Mary Talbert Way at UB.  Source:  UB Campus Planning

    Talbert Hall on North Campus at the University at Buffalo(UB), which was built in 1977.  The building is home to the University Honors Program, Bert’s Dining Center,  international student services and classrooms.   Just this week, UB also installed markers on the newly named Mary Talbert Way.  This road replaced Putnam Way, which was named after James Putnam, who was a NYS Senator and UB Council member who held openly expressed racist views.

  • Mary B. Talbert Hospital, Cleveland. Source: CSU Archives.

    Mary B Talbert Home and Hospital in Cleveland was founded as Mary B. Talbert Rescue home in 1925, and provided assistance for unmarried, pregnant women and girls. In 1960, the home merged with Booth Memorial and was known as the Booth-Talbert Clinic. The Clinic closed in 1976.

  • NACW Club Branches were named in her honor in various cities including Buffalo; Detroit, Michigan; Gary, Indiana; New Haven, Connecticut and Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  In Rocky Mount, the Club purchased the first athletic park for Blacks, which they named Talbert’s Park after Mary.  The park was later purchased by the City and still goes by “Stith-Talbert Park”.
  • City Federation of Women’s Clubs Branches are named for her in Florida and Texas
  • In 2000, Child and Family Services named their Main Street Clinic at 923 Main Street in her honor
  • During WWII, emergency housing was built on Clinton Street that was called the Mary B. Talbert Homes. This housing was built for workers (many of whom were Black) coming to Buffalo during the war to work in the war industry.   These houses were demolished after the war.

While Mary’s father-in-law, Robert Talbert, did own property in Oregon, and Mount Talbert is named after a prominent family there.  While there’s some evidence that some of the Talberts may have moved out west, I couldn’t find any evidence linking the Talberts of Mount Talbert with the Buffalo Talberts.  If anyone knows for certain, I’d love more info!

During Mary’s lifetime and into the 1930s, most of Blacks in Buffalo lived in integrated neighborhoods.  While there were groups of Blacks in sections of neighborhoods, most Blacks would report that they had white neighbors and at least one white friend.  The Federal Housing Authority programs during the 1930s and 40s began to change that.  The programs meant that mortgages were not given to Black residents in the suburbs or in white neighborhoods of the City.  The white residents were able to get mortgages to move and establish themselves in modern and more aesthetically pleasing neighborhoods.  As a result of this, combined with the increasing Black populations due to the Great Migration, Blacks were forced to move into the houses vacated by the whites in what was often the oldest and least favorable housing of the city.  This resulted in children going to school with all blacks or all whites, with residents having neighbors of only one color.  Within one generation, Buffalo and become a very segregated city.

PhotoGrid_1598717935709

Location of the Talbert Mall outlined in red. Sanborn Map from 1950.

During the Urban Renewal era, this resulted in Black neighborhoods being declared “slums” and being demolished in hopes of building new projects for people to live in.  When Talbert Mall opened, it was considered to be an urban renewal success.

1959

Talbert Mall in 1959

The Talbert Mall were named after Mary when it opened in 1959.  At first, the apartments reportedly had a strong community feel. In 1964, the tenant council debuted an art show.  German Gonzales was praised for his work – a series of oil paintings depicting “the History of the American Negro”. The apartments became run down and deteriorated quickly during their first decade.

1966

1966 Aerial Photo of Talbert Mall. Note the demolition of properties all around the Talbert Mall property (outlined in red)

During the 1970s, the Talbert Mall had a reputation for issues, particularly gangs. The New York Times and other Northeastern United States newspapers reported about a crime wave through the area during the spring and summer of 1971.  Gangs had taken over the Talbert Mall and other housing projects in Buffalo.  The crime wave at the Talbert Mall prompted 145 families (approximately 1/4th of all residents at the time) to request transfer to another project. Reports of snipers shooting from roofs and robberies were rampant.  Some reported that someone would call the police so that they could shoot at them when they arrived.  Several people were murdered, including a construction worker and a 14 year old boy named Jerry Wise. At the time, 150 of the units were vacant. Mayor Sedita responded through the creation of a Black Squad of police officers to patrol the neighborhood from 8pm to 4am nightly.

In 1973, the Talbert Mall was renamed Frederick Douglass Towers.  As Donn Esmonde reported in the Buffalo News in 2000, someone had thought that we needed to have a housing project named after an abolitionist, and didn’t even realize that we already had named it after a prominent civil rights advocate!

In 1974, Mrs. Carolyn D. Thomas founded the Mary B. Talbert Civic and Cultural Club after she realized they changed the name of the towers because they didn’t realize Mary was a Black woman.  Every year, the Club recognizes individuals or outstanding leadership, commitment and cultural contributions to the Buffalo community.  Mrs. Thomas also founded the Food Bank of Western New York in 1980.

Due to the vacancy, the buildings in the Talbert Mall/Douglass Towers began closing in the early 70s. Occupancy reached it’s lowest point in 1980, when only 221 of the units were rented, less than 30% of all units. During the 90s, 5 of the 12 towers were vacant.  The vacant towers were not boarded up.  In 1992, a mother was beaten to death in the entrance hallway to her building, while her 1 year old was nearby.  Mayor Griffin opened a police substation on the complex in 1993 at 180 Jefferson Ave.  In November 1992, a $4.6 million renovation was completed on one of the towers.  The project took the vacant tower at 515 Clinton Street and replaced it with 59 modern units.  The building became the only building fully occupied on the site.

The City of Buffalo looked to redevelop the entire site in 1996.  At the time, 321 of the units were occupied.  The tenants insisted that any redevelopment plan would require that 321 units be created, one for every tenant currently at the site.  None of them wanted to be displaced.  Many of the families had originally lived in the Ellicott Neighborhood and were shuffled into Dante Place when the Ellicott Neighborhood was demolished.  They were then pushed out again and relocated to the Talbert Mall/Douglass Towers when Dante Place became Marine Drive Apartments.  They did not want to be displaced again.  The tenants worked closely with Norstar Development to come up with a plan they could all live with, with all of the neighbors remaining on site.

In 1999, a $40 million redevelopment was proposed for the complex.  The plan called for demolition of 9 of the towers.  Two towers would be renovated and converted into senior apartments, with 60 units each.  The third remaining tower was the one that had been renovated in 1992/3.  Additionally, new townhouses would be constructed, along with a community center, garden and a park.

In May 2000, demolition of the towers began.  Phase I of the redevelopment included demolition of two towers and construction of 87 town homes.  The street names were added to honor three women who were important to the community living in the neighborhood – Mary Talbert, Mary Johnson and Gladys Holmes.

2002 Aerial photo. Talbert Mall property shown in red. Note that some of the towers had been demolished and new townhouses had been built.

BMHA continues to manage the apartments.  In 2010, the complex held a 50th Reunion party for tenants who had lived there over the years.  In 2017, 87 of the apartments got new kitchens, bathrooms, windows, roofs and heating systems.  The neighborhood is relatively quiet these days, with the exception of families enjoying their backyards and eating at their picnic tables.

Mary Morris Burnett Talbert Marker

In 2005, Mary Talbert was finally inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls.  That year was also the centennial anniversary of the Niagara Movement so it was a fitting time for Mary to be recognized.  At that time, the women of Empire State Federation of Women’s Clubs held a tribute at the grave of Mary Talbert.  They were recreating a similar memorial that had happened in 1955 where 100 women gathered for a service and pilgrimage to her grave.

In 2006, a historic plaque was placed in Forest Lawn near her grave.  Some of the funds to place the marker were raised by students at Bennett High School.

As we continue to think about civil rights and what that means to all of us today as a nation, think about Mary B. Talbert and her life’s ambition and fight.  We continue to fight for justice for all people.  And we remember all of those who fought for justice, for those who have died and for those neighborhoods we’ve lost, and we remember Mary as we do.  #blacklivesmatter

Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  To learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

 

Sources:

  1. “3 New Projects to Provide 1724 More Dwelling Units”. Buffalo Evening News. October 30, 1954, pg. 8.”Crime Engulfing Buffalo Project”. New York Times. July 19, 1971, p 26.
  2. “Editorial” Buffalo American. March 4, 1926, p. 2.
  3. “Frederick Douglass’ Properties Handed Over to New Owners!” The Competitor, v.3, no2. April 1921, p 34.
  4. “Death of Peyton Harris” Buffalo Morning Express. Feb 3, 1882 p.4.
  5. “Death Takes Prominent Race Woman” Detroit Independent, October 19, 1923.
  6. “Downtown Oberlin Historic District”. US Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. Prepared by O.H.I.O. 2002. Accessed from ohiohistory.org
  7. “Ghetto Growth Traced” Buffalo Courier. February 16, 1968, p 26.
  8. “Home of William Talbert May be Made a Shrine”, Commercial Advertiser, March 4, 1926
  9. “Housing Site Opens After Renovations”. Buffalo News. Nov 17, 1993.
  10. “Local Woman Benefactor of Negro People” Buffalo Morning Express. July 15, 1923. Sec 8, p1.
  11. “Memorial Tribute” Buffalo Courier Express. July 31, 1935, p 9
  12. “Mrs. Talbert, Champion of A Race, Dead”. Buffalo Express Oct 16, 1923.
  13. “Mrs. Talbert, Local Woman Who Has Worked for Advancement of Race for Twenty-Five Years”. Buffalo Morning Express. Nov, 30, 1919, p.36.
  14. “Negro Women Support Talbert Home Project” Buffalo News. December 11, 1939.
  15. “To Plant Trees Honoring Two Negro Pioneers”. Buffalo Courier. June 1, 1932.
  16. Allen, Carl, et al. “Killing Prompts Tenant Call for Better Security City Safety Official Vows Cooperation at Frederick Douglass Towers”. Buffalo News, November 10, 1992.
  17. Campagna, Darryl and Tom Ernst. “Housing Authority Honors Three” Buffalo News. June 16, 2001.
  18. Culp, D. W. Twentieth Century Negro Literature or A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro. J.L. Nichols& Co: Toronto Canada, 1902.
  19. Esmonde, Donn. “Buffalo Woman Near Forgotten as Civil Rights Figure”. Buffalo News. Feb 28, 2000.
  20. Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. “Mary Morris Talbert Burnett”. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn NY: Carlson Pub, Inc. 1993.
  21. Locke, Henry. History of Blacks in Buffalo. Buffalo Courier Express, 1973. Booklet found at F129.B8.L7 at Buffalo Library.
  22. Mather, Frank. Who’s Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent, Volume 1. Chicago, 1915.
  23. McNeil, Harold. Douglass Towers Plan Reviewed. Buffalo News. Jan 22, 1999.
  24. Morton, Marian. And Sin No More: Social Policy and Unwed Mothers in Cleveland 1855-1990. Cleveland Public Library, 1993.
  25. Nahal, Anita and Lopez D. Matthews, Jr. “African American Women and the Niagara Movement.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol 32, Issue 2. July 2008.
  26. Payerchin, Richard. “Oberlin Historians Share Favorites of Forgotten Lore”. Morning Journal. April 29, 2019.
  27. Reif, Michelle. “Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: The International Agenda of African American Clubwomen, 1880-1940”. The Journal of African American History, vol 89, no.3.
  28. Tan, Sandra. Razing of Douglass Towers Heralds Redevelopment of Housing Complex. May 3, 2000.

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talbertst today

Mary Talbert Blvd, shown in orange. The Talbert Mall property is outlined in red.

Today, we’re continuing our series looking at Mary B. Talbert Boulevard and the Talbert Mall.  If you haven’t read Part 1, I suggest you click this link to start at the beginning.  Part 2 today will cover Mary’s life while she lived here in Buffalo.  Part 3 will be coming on Saturday, September 5th, and will talk about the legacy of Mary Talbert and the Talbert Mall projects.

When we left off in Part 1, Mary had just moved to Buffalo in 1891.  Will and Mary’s daughter Sarah was born in 1892.  Sarah graduated from Central High School in 1911 and the New England Conservancy of Music in 1915.

phyllis wheatley club

Phyllis Wheatley Club – Source – Library of Congress

In 1899, Mary became a Charter Member of the Phyllis Wheatley Club.  The Phyllis Wheatley Clubs were the local affiliates of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW).  Phyllis Wheatley Clubs existed across the country, named after an 18th Century Black poet.  The Club created programs and strategies to advance Buffalo’s Black Community.  The second biennial convention of the NACW was held in Buffalo in 1901.  In 1905, the Phyllis Wheatley Club of Buffalo opened a settlement house to help mothers and give job support to women.  They also opened a house for the elderly and donated books by black authors to the public libraries.

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African Village Exhibit on the Pan Am Midway.  Note the Pan Am Electric Tower in the background.  Source: Uncrowned Community Builders

In 1900/1901, Mary Talbert challenged the Board of Commissioners of the Pan American Exposition to appoint an African American to the Board and to include an exhibit on modern Black American life, such as Booker T Washington’s Negro Education exhibit that had been featured in Atlanta in 1895 or WEB DuBois’ Negro Exhibit in Paris in 1900.  She protested the Old Plantation Exhibit, which perpetuated the “happy slave” narrative and the “Darkest Africa” village on the Midway.  Many people came out for the protest, and they were successful, the exhibit was included in the Manufacturing and Liberal Arts Building.  Because the exhibit was added later, it was not included in marketing information about the Pan Am, and little information exists about what was included in the exhibit.

In 1905, WEB DuBois and others met secretly in the home of Mary Talbert.  This began the Niagara Movement.  WEB DuBois invited a group of 54 members from 17 different states to come to Buffalo from July 11-13, 1905 to discuss plans to achieve equality.  Twenty-seven delegates from 13 states and Washington, DC came to the meeting in Fort Erie.  It is often said that the Niagara Movement held its first event in Erie Beach Hotel in Fort Erie, Ontario because hotels in Buffalo would not allow them.  This myth has been debunked and more about that can be found in an article by Cynthia Van Ness that can be found at this link.

The Niagara Movement continued as a series of conferences and publications between 1905 and 1909.  The group was led by WEB DuBois who had a difference of opinion with Booker T. Washington as to the best way to achieve equality.  The “Bookerites”, led by Washington felt that economic prosperity and education were more important than civil and political equality.  WEB DuBois and the Niagara Movement were looking to demand civil rights immediately.  Mrs. Talbert was an acquaintance of both Booker T. Washington and WEB DuBois.  In a letter, Booker T Washington asked his wife to ask Mary Talbert to keep her informed about what was going on with the Niagara Movement meetings and who was attending.  The meetings in July 1905 started at the Talbert home and moved to Fort Erie the next day.

By 1908, the Niagara Movement started to falter.  They suffered from lack of press and lack of funds.  In 1909, a race riot occurred and several Blacks were lynched in Springfield Illinois.  Mobs of white men roamed the city – looting, burning, shooting, and assaulting Blacks.  The riot shook both Black and Whites alike and served as a catalyst for a meeting in 1909 which evolved into the forming of the NAACP, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In 1910, as leader of the Phyllis Wheatley Club, Mary hosted a meeting with Jesse Nash, John Sayles (secretary to Mayor Louis P. Fuhrmann) along with WEB DuBois and Fanny Garrison Villard of the National NAACP organization.  This was the start of the Buffalo NAACP chapter, which officially formed in January 1915.  The first president of the chapter was John Brent, the first Black Architect in Buffalo.

Mary Talbert was a Charter Member of the Empire State Federation of Colored Women and later became its President from 1912 to 1916.  She also served as statistician, parliamentarian, Vice President, and President of the National Association of Colored Women.

Amenia Conference NAACP - LOC

Amenia Conference. Mary is in the center of the photo, fourth from the left in the 2nd row.  Source:  Library of Congress

In 1915, Mary was a part of the NAACP Conference, called the “Amenia Conference” in Amenia, New York (near Poughkeepsie) at Joel Spingarn’s estate, Troutbeck.  Joel Spingarn was a Jewish man from New York City who fought for racial justice and was influential in the NAACP, one of the first Jewish members of the organization.  He served on the board of NAACP for more than 25 years, as Chairman of from 1913-1919 and President from 1930 until his death in 1939.  The NAACP’s highest honor award is named after Mr. Spingarn.  This conference was held one year after Booker T Washington’s death, with the hopes of uniting the activist movement with Washington’s contingency.  The attendees agreed to a unity platform at this conference, agreeing to work together on civil rights issues.

Mary Talbert addressing servicemen during WWI. Source: Kautz Family YMCA Archives, University of Minnesota 

Second myth debunked:  It is often written that Mary Talbert served as a nurse with the Red Cross during WWI.  This is not true.  In Mary’s own words, after Armistice for the First World War, she went overseas for four months to serve with the YMCA in the Meuse sector near the Argonne Forest.  Of her time there, she said, “I helped the boys who buried 26,000 American dead…we remained in France until the last American soldier was in a grave properly located and marked”.  Sixteen Black women went to Europe to support the YMCA’s war efforts.  Many organizations did not allow Black women to serve overseas during the war effort.  The YMCA was one of the only organizations to allow them.  The YMCA recruited these women to work with the 400,000 black soldiers stationed in Europe.  These women were called secretaries.  She offered classes and prayers for the soldiers stationed there.  She had led Liberty Bond drives during the war and had raised $5 million to support war efforts.

Mrs. Talbert and other YMCA Secretaries used their war work abroad to help secure participation in international conferences after the war.  Gatherings of many groups were occurring, coinciding with the peace treaty negotiations.  Mary attended the Women’s Peace Conference in Zurich in May 1919, as well as the Congress of Women held in Norway in 1920.  Several black women were forbidden by the US government to attend many of these international peace talks.  The US feared that sending too many “protesters” would draw attention to some of the US government’s deficiencies.  Mary’s influence was strong enough that she was one of the few women allowed abroad.  While she was abroad, she went on a tour of Europe and was a guest of Lord and Lady Aberdeen in England and Queen Wilhelmina in the Netherlands.  Mary Talbert became one of the first black women to join the Women International League for Peace and Freedom.

Mary Talbert was an early supporter of the Dyer Anti Lynching Bill, sponsored by Missouri Congressman Leonidas Dyer in 1918.  The bill would make lynching a federal offense.   She spoke publicly in favor of the bill in 1920, even before the Anti-Lynching Crusaders were founded in 1922.  She traveled thousands of miles across the country speaking to crowds of both black and white audiences.  Her motto was “a million women united to suppress lynching”.  The legislation passed in the House of Representatives in January 1922, but was held up in the Senate due to filibusters by the Southern Democrats.  Between 1882 and 1968, nearly 200 anti-lynching bills were introduced in Congress.  According to the Tuskegee Institute, 4,743 people were lynched during those years, with almost 70% of the victims being Black.

Mary Talbert described post-WWI Buffalo as “a hard nut to crack”.  Conditions for Blacks had declined.  As the Black population of Buffalo increased, so had the discrimination and segregation tactics by the white residents.  When Mary arrived in Buffalo in the 1890s, the Black population of the city was about 1,100, out of a population of 255,000.  By the 1920s, the Black population had grown as Blacks had come from the south to work in the new industrial production of war equipment during WWI.  After the War, many of those jobs ended.  Employment for Blacks was hard to come by and in the 1920s, many Blacks lived on little to nothing.  Blacks continued to come north during the Great Migration, and the City government did little to help conditions, which were deteriorating in the Black communities.  While Buffalo had nationally known champions for Black rights in people like Mary Talbert and her neighbor Reverend Nash, they mostly ignored the problems that were happening and didn’t use them to help spearhead policy changes that could have helped improve conditions for the Black community.  She was considered to be the most well-known Buffalonian in her time, fighting for change across the country and internationally.  Mary was invited to speak across the country and was published in many newspapers and journals during her lifetime.  The Buffalo Express interviewed her in 1923 and reported that it was likely she was better known outside of Buffalo than inside Buffalo.  She didn’t like publicity and was often very modest about her accomplishments.  In 1920, when she spoke in Cincinnati, advertisements described her as “Our Greatest Woman!  Madam Mary B Talbert.”

In 1921, she spoke in front of the International Council of Women in support of equal right of inheritance for illegitimate as for legitimate children.

10399185-1DD8-B71B-0B3A595790E8119A

Frederick Douglass Home. Source:  National Parks Service

During her time as President of the NACW, the group purchased and restored the home of Frederick Douglass in Washington DC.  On March 5, 1921, the deed to the house was received by Mary Talbert, representing the NACW.  She also served as President of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historical Association, which maintains the home.

Mary Talbert Spingarn Medal. Source: Uncrowned Community Builders

In 1922, Mary Talbert was awarded the Spingarn Medal.  This is the highest award of the NAACP, given for “the highest or noblest achievement by a living American Negro during the preceding year or years”.  Mary was present the medal for her continued service to women of color.

Before her death, she had been scheduled to lead a group of more than 200 black clergymen on a tour of the Holy Land and Egypt, but was forced to postpone the trip due to her poor health.

Mary Talbert died on October 15, 1923, of coronary thrombosis.  She was 57 years old.  She is buried in the Talbert family plot at Forest Lawn Cemetery.  Her obituary in the Buffalo News called her “probably most noted woman in the world”.

To learn more about Mary’s legacy and the legacy of the Talbert Mall apartments, you can read Part 3.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right hand side of the home page.  To learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Sources:

  1. “3 New Projects to Provide 1724 More Dwelling Units”. Buffalo Evening News. October 30, 1954, pg. 8.”Crime Engulfing Buffalo Project”. New York Times. July 19, 1971, p 26.
  2. “Editorial” Buffalo American. March 4, 1926, p. 2.
  3. “Frederick Douglass’ Properties Handed Over to New Owners!” The Competitor, v.3, no2. April 1921, p 34.
  4. “Death of Peyton Harris” Buffalo Morning Express. Feb 3, 1882 p.4.
  5. “Death Takes Prominent Race Woman” Detroit Independent, October 19, 1923.
  6. “Downtown Oberlin Historic District”. US Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. Prepared by O.H.I.O. 2002. Accessed from ohiohistory.org
  7. “Ghetto Growth Traced” Buffalo Courier. February 16, 1968, p 26.
  8. “Home of William Talbert May be Made a Shrine”, Commercial Advertiser, March 4, 1926
  9. “Housing Site Opens After Renovations”. Buffalo News. Nov 17, 1993.
  10. “Local Woman Benefactor of Negro People” Buffalo Morning Express. July 15, 1923. Sec 8, p1.
  11. “Memorial Tribute” Buffalo Courier Express. July 31, 1935, p 9
  12. “Mrs. Talbert, Champion of A Race, Dead”. Buffalo Express Oct 16, 1923.
  13. “Mrs. Talbert, Local Woman Who Has Worked for Advancement of Race for Twenty-Five Years”. Buffalo Morning Express. Nov, 30, 1919, p.36.
  14. “Negro Women Support Talbert Home Project” Buffalo News. December 11, 1939.
  15. “To Plant Trees Honoring Two Negro Pioneers”. Buffalo Courier. June 1, 1932.
  16. Allen, Carl, et al. “Killing Prompts Tenant Call for Better Security City Safety Official Vows Cooperation at Frederick Douglass Towers”. Buffalo News, November 10, 1992.
  17. Campagna, Darryl and Tom Ernst. “Housing Authority Honors Three” Buffalo News. June 16, 2001.
  18. Culp, D. W. Twentieth Century Negro Literature or A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro. J.L. Nichols& Co: Toronto Canada, 1902.
  19. Esmonde, Donn. “Buffalo Woman Near Forgotten as Civil Rights Figure”. Buffalo News. Feb 28, 2000.
  20. Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. “Mary Morris Talbert Burnett”. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn NY: Carlson Pub, Inc. 1993.
  21. Locke, Henry. History of Blacks in Buffalo. Buffalo Courier Express, 1973. Booklet found at F129.B8.L7 at Buffalo Library.
  22. Mather, Frank. Who’s Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent, Volume 1. Chicago, 1915.
  23. McNeil, Harold. Douglass Towers Plan Reviewed. Buffalo News. Jan 22, 1999.
  24. Morton, Marian. And Sin No More: Social Policy and Unwed Mothers in Cleveland 1855-1990. Cleveland Public Library, 1993.
  25. Nahal, Anita and Lopez D. Matthews, Jr. “African American Women and the Niagara Movement.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol 32, Issue 2. July 2008.
  26. Payerchin, Richard. “Oberlin Historians Share Favorites of Forgotten Lore”. Morning Journal. April 29, 2019.
  27. Reif, Michelle. “Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: The International Agenda of African American Clubwomen, 1880-1940”. The Journal of African American History, vol 89, no.3.
  28. Tan, Sandra. Razing of Douglass Towers Heralds Redevelopment of Housing Complex. May 3, 2000.

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talbertst today

Mary Talbert Blvd, shown in orange. The Talbert Mall property is outlined in red.

This next series of streets will be streets around the Frederick Douglass Senior Community: Mary B. Talbert Blvd, Mary Johnson Boulevard and Gladys Holmes Boulevard. The Frederick Douglass Towers were formerly known as the Talbert Mall Development, sometimes called the Jefferson Ave Projects. The area is bounded by Clinton, Jefferson, Division, and Spring Streets, part of the Ellicott Neighborhood.

This will be a multi-part series. We will begin with the story of Mary B. Talbert.  Her story will be divided into three parts. This post covers her early life and what brought her to Buffalo. Part 2 covers her life in Buffalo. Part 3 will discuss Mary’s legacy and the legacy of the Talbert Mall.

The Ellicott Neighborhood where these streets are located was historically a mix of Jewish, Italian, and Black families. Twenty-nine blocks of the neighborhood were demolished between 1958 and 1961, displacing 2,219 families and 250 businesses. Here is a map showing the Talbert Mall area in 1950:

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Location of the Talbert Mall outlined in red. Sanborn Map from 1950.

The Towers were built in 1957, opened in 1959, and consisted of 12 towers each 7 or 8 stories tall. The buildings were designed by James William Kideney Associates. When they were built, they were named for Mary Talbert. On 16 acres and containing 763 units, the Talbert Mall was the largest of three developments built during this time period. The other developments, include the Ellicott Mall, which we discussed previously, and Kensington Heights, which we will likely cover on another date. It was planned for 3,612 people to live at the Talbert Mall site. The housing that was demolished to build the Talbert Mall was reported to be “the worst kind of blight in Buffalo. The apartments were supposed to be an urban renewal success story. We’ll talk more about what actually happened in Part 3. Here is an aerial photo of the Talbert Mall Towers in 1959 when they first opened:

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Talbert Mall in 1959

mARY FREEDOM WALL

Mary B. Talbert on Buffalo’s Freedom Wall. Photo by Author

The Talbert Mall was named after Mary Morris Burnett Talbert.  Mary Burnett was born in born in Oberlin, Ohio on September 17, 1866. Mary was the child of Cornelius and Caroline Burnett.  Of the nine Burnett children, only Mary and her younger sister Clara were born in Ohio, the rest were born in North Carolina.  Cornelius Burnett was born to free parents in Chapel Hill, North Carolina in 1816. Caroline Nicholls Burnett  was born in 1833 in Raleigh, North Carolina. Caroline was a descendant of Richard Nicolls, the Englishman who captured New York from the Peter Stuyvesant and the Dutch in 1664. Nicholls became Governor of New Netherlands.  While he was Governor, New Netherlands/New Amsterdam became New York, as it was now under control of the Duke of York, whom Nicholls served under.

15 South Main

Modern Image of 15 South Main Street in Oberlin.

While still living in North Carolina, Cornelius and Caroline Burnett purchased land in Oberlin in 1860. They hoped to give their family a better opportunity and education in hopes of a better life up North. The Civil War prevented their travel. They arrived in Oberlin in 1866, shortly before Mary’s birth. Mr. Burnett built a two-story building at 15 South Main Street. It became a restaurant and boarding house, run by Mrs. Burnett. It was one of the first hotels in Oberlin. Mr. Burnett also had a barbershop in the building and worked as a barber. The family lived behind the business. The building suffered from a fire, one of the worst in Oberlin history, where many structures were damaged. The building was rebuilt in 1886, incorporating parts of three older buildings. The middle, one-story portion of the building is believed to be the original brick house where the Burnett family lived after the fire. The building was significantly remodeled in 1906 when it became a bank and again in 1980. The building is currently the location of Black River Café. The building is a contributing structure to the Downtown Oberlin Historic District and is known as the Carpenter-Burnett Building.

When Mr. Burnett died in 1896, his obituary called him “one of Oberlin’s best known and highly esteemed colored citizens”. After his death, Mrs. Burnett moved to Buffalo to live with Mary.

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Mary Burnett in Oberlin Days. Source: Oberlin Heritage Center.

The Burnett family were respected members of the Oberlin Business Community. Mary graduated from Oberlin High School at age 16 and attended Oberlin College, receiving an S.P. in 1886. She graduated at the age of 19, the only Black student to graduate that year.

In 1894, Oberlin granted a Bachelor of Arts degree to Mrs. Talbert based on her accomplishments and her studies. This degree was granted at this time to many Oberlin students who had previously earned an S.P.(Specialist) degree. She then became a member of the Association of Collegiate Alumnae. At the time, she was the only Black woman in the City of Buffalo eligible for admission to the association.

First myth debunked: It’s often said that Mary was the first African American to receive a PhD from the University at Buffalo. However, according to sources, including the UB archivist, this is not true. At the time, UB was only Law, Medicine, Pharmacy, and Dentistry. The College of Arts and Sciences did not exist yet. By the time Mary had died, UB had only awarded 2 PhDs total. Some believe this story began because of the confusion when she received her second degree from Oberlin. Additionally, those who took continuing education at UB at the time were awarded certificates that were called “doctorates”, so Mary may have received one of those doctorate certificates.

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Union High School was located on this corner, now parking lots.  Photo by Author.

After college, Ms. Burnett taught in Little Rock, Arkansas for six years, first teaching at Bethel University (which became Shorter University). It was said that she was a born teacher. After a year of teaching at Bethel, she became Assistant Principal of the Little Rock Union High School in January 1887. At the time, this was the highest position held by any women in Arkansas.   (Note from Angela:  I was in Little Rock in March and I was saddened to learn that much of what Mary knew of the city is gone – The site of Union High School is now a parking lot.  The original site of Bethel University is now a Starbucks.  The house where Mary lived in Little Rock is now a vacant one story commercial structure.  I asked the staff members at Mosaic Templars – the African-American museum in Little Rock- and they did not know her, but said they’d look her up.  I hope they’re reading this now.)  Mary left teaching after her marriage but was often asked to reconsider and return to the profession.  Regulations in Buffalo at the time forbid married women from teaching in the public schools.

william talbert

William Talbert. Source: Uncrowned Community Builders.

In 1891, she married William Herbert Hilton Talbert, who went by Will. They were introduced to each other by Mary’s sister Henrietta, who married Will’s brother Robert. Mary and Will were married on September 8th in Oberlin. Harry Burleigh served as Will’s best man. Harry Burleigh, a musician from Erie, PA. Will and Harry had become friends as Harry’s father would pass through Buffalo working on the Buffalo-Chicago run of the Lake Shore Railroad. Harry Burleigh is well known for his compositions, including arrangement of many Negro Spirituals. Both the Talbert and the Burnett families were musically inclined.

Will Talbert worked as a clerk in the City Treasurer’s office and helped managed his family’s real estate holdings. The family’s real estate office was at 79 Clinton Street. Will’s grandfather, Peyton Harris, was one of the early Blacks in Buffalo, settling here around 1833. Peyton Harris came from Powhatan County, Virginia. He served in the Army during the War of 1812. When he came to Buffalo, he worked as a dyer and in the clothing repair business. He had a shop at 21 Commercial Street near the Erie Canal. He was known around town as “Uncle Peyton” and helped to establish the Michigan Street Baptist Church.  On October 3, 1850, Uncle Peyton was part of a group of Black men who resolved to speak out and fight against the Fugitive Slave Act. Their resolution stated: “We unhesitatingly accept the issue forced upon us and of the two evils presented choose the least, preferring to die in resisting the executive of so monstrous a law rather than submit to its infamous requirements…we pledge ourselves to resist the execution of this law at all hazards and to the last extremity”.

Peyton Harris and his son in law, Robert Talbert (Will Talbert’s father) were successful real estate men. They owned many properties, including a large portion of Grand Island. In the 1870s, Peyton Harris was reported to own parcels valued at $12,000. Robert Talbert had gone to California during the Gold Rush and had been successful. Will was born while the family was in California. Robert Talbert invested his gold in real estate in California, Oregon, and New York.

In addition to owning a great deal of real estate, Uncle Peyton is believed to have built the house at 521 Michigan for his family. The house was one of the oldest in the city. Some sources say it was built in 1827, but other sources have Peyton Harris arriving in Buffalo during the 1830s and building for himself to live. Uncle Peyton also built the house next-door in 1845 for his daughter Anna and her husband Robert Talbert, at 515-517 Michigan Avenue.  These houses had stood witness to emancipation and the signing of the 15th Amendment, when the parishioners at the Michigan Street Baptist Church held a large celebration, with a parade through the streets and a dinner at St. James Hall to honor the occasion.  Will Talbert inherited both houses after his mother died. After Will’s death, the houses went to his and Mary’s daughter.

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Michigan Street Baptist Church

The Talbert and the Harris families were members at the Michigan Street Baptist Church. Uncle Peyton had helped found the church. When Mary arrived in Buffalo after their marriage, she founded the Christian Culture Congress at the Church and served as president of the organization for more than 20 years. Since she couldn’t teach in public schools Mary continued her educational pursuits and established classes at the church. She trained more than 300 Sunday School teachers.

Will and Mary Talbert lived at both 515 and 521 Michigan Avenue at different times, along with other members of the Talbert and Harris families. Mary and Will had one child, Sarah May, born in 1892.

Stay tuned as we cover more about Mary’s life after she moved to Buffalo in Part 2, which you can read here.   And more about her legacy will be coming in Part 3, coming next weekend.

Don’t forget to subscribe to the page to be notified when new posts are made.  You can do so by entering your email address in the box on the upper right had side of the home page.  To learn about other streets, check out the Street Index.  You can also follow the blog on facebook.  If you enjoy the blog, please be sure to share it with your friends.

Sources:

  1. “3 New Projects to Provide 1724 More Dwelling Units”. Buffalo Evening News. October 30, 1954, pg. 8.”Crime Engulfing Buffalo Project”. New York Times. July 19, 1971, p 26.
  2. “Editorial” Buffalo American. March 4, 1926, p. 2.
  3. “Frederick Douglass’ Properties Handed Over to New Owners!” The Competitor, v.3, no2. April 1921, p 34.
  4. “Death of Peyton Harris” Buffalo Morning Express. Feb 3, 1882 p.4.
  5. “Death Takes Prominent Race Woman” Detroit Independent, October 19, 1923.
  6. “Downtown Oberlin Historic District”. US Department of the Interior, National Parks Service. Prepared by O.H.I.O. 2002. Accessed from ohiohistory.org
  7. “Ghetto Growth Traced” Buffalo Courier. February 16, 1968, p 26.
  8. “Home of William Talbert May be Made a Shrine”, Commercial Advertiser, March 4, 1926
  9. “Housing Site Opens After Renovations”. Buffalo News. Nov 17, 1993.
  10. “Local Woman Benefactor of Negro People” Buffalo Morning Express. July 15, 1923. Sec 8, p1.
  11. “Memorial Tribute” Buffalo Courier Express. July 31, 1935, p 9
  12. “Mrs. Talbert, Champion of A Race, Dead”. Buffalo Express Oct 16, 1923.
  13. “Mrs. Talbert, Local Woman Who Has Worked for Advancement of Race for Twenty-Five Years”. Buffalo Morning Express. Nov, 30, 1919, p.36.
  14. “Negro Women Support Talbert Home Project” Buffalo News. December 11, 1939.
  15. “To Plant Trees Honoring Two Negro Pioneers”. Buffalo Courier. June 1, 1932.
  16. Allen, Carl, et al. “Killing Prompts Tenant Call for Better Security City Safety Official Vows Cooperation at Frederick Douglass Towers”. Buffalo News, November 10, 1992.
  17. Campagna, Darryl and Tom Ernst. “Housing Authority Honors Three” Buffalo News. June 16, 2001.
  18. Culp, D. W. Twentieth Century Negro Literature or A Cyclopedia of Thought on the Vital Topics Relating to the American Negro. J.L. Nichols& Co: Toronto Canada, 1902.
  19. Esmonde, Donn. “Buffalo Woman Near Forgotten as Civil Rights Figure”. Buffalo News. Feb 28, 2000.
  20. Hine, Darlene Clark, ed. “Mary Morris Talbert Burnett”. Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia. Brooklyn NY: Carlson Pub, Inc. 1993.
  21. Locke, Henry. History of Blacks in Buffalo. Buffalo Courier Express, 1973. Booklet found at F129.B8.L7 at Buffalo Library.
  22. Mather, Frank. Who’s Who of the Colored Race: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent, Volume 1. Chicago, 1915.
  23. McNeil, Harold. Douglass Towers Plan Reviewed. Buffalo News. Jan 22, 1999.
  24. Morton, Marian. And Sin No More: Social Policy and Unwed Mothers in Cleveland 1855-1990. Cleveland Public Library, 1993.
  25. Nahal, Anita and Lopez D. Matthews, Jr. “African American Women and the Niagara Movement.” Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, Vol 32, Issue 2. July 2008.
  26. Payerchin, Richard. “Oberlin Historians Share Favorites of Forgotten Lore”. Morning Journal. April 29, 2019.
  27. Reif, Michelle. “Thinking Locally, Acting Globally: The International Agenda of African American Clubwomen, 1880-1940”. The Journal of African American History, vol 89, no.3.
  28. Tan, Sandra. Razing of Douglass Towers Heralds Redevelopment of Housing Complex. May 3, 2000.

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kingpetersonrd

Ellicott Mall properties shown in red. King Peterson Road shown in orange.

Given what is going on these days, we are featuring streets named after our Black brothers and sisters this month here on Discovering Buffalo, One Street at a Time.  Specifically, this is Part 4 in a series of  four streets built in the 1990s in the Ellicott Neighborhood.  To read more about how the Ellicott Mall urban renewal project changed this neighborhood and to learn about Minnie Gillette, please read Part 1.  Part 2 is about Delmar Mitchell and can be found here.  Part 3 looks at Ora Wrighter and can be found here.  Part 4 is about King Peterson Road.

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King Peterson’s portrait on the Freedom Wall.  Source:  Albright Knox

King W. Peterson was born in July 1915 in Pelham, Georgia to Samuel and Aurilla Carter Peterson.  The family moved to buffalo and King attended Buffalo Public Schools.  Following his graduation from Hutchinson Technical High School, he attended Morehouse College in Atlanta Georgia.  Morehouse is a historically black men’s college that was founded in 1867, right after the Civil War.  At Morehouse, Mr. Peterson was a member of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity.  He founded the Buffalo Alumni Chapter for the fraternity.

 

Mr. Peterson worked at the Buffalo Assembly Plant of Ford Motor Company.  He was elected to the Union Bargaining Committee.  He was also appointed International Representative of the United Auto Workers (UAW).

He began his public service when he was elected to the Erie County Board of Supervisors, representing the old Fifth Ward in the City of Buffalo. He served two terms on the Board and was then elected to the Buffalo Common Council as the Ellicott District Councilmen.  While on Council, he served as Chairman of the Legislation Committee and was President Pro Tem.  In 1956, he served as Acting Mayor for 10 days while Mayor Pankow and Common Council President William Law Jr. were attending the Democratic National Convention.  Under Council rules, when the Mayor and Council President were out of town, the President Pro Tem serves as Acting Mayor. While temporary, he was the first African American to serve in the capacity of Mayor of Buffalo.  There was some opposition to the idea of having an African American mayor, even for just a few days.  A public meeting was held to discuss the issue.  Only one person attended the public meeting – Rufus Frasier – who was black himself and attended to support Mr. Peterson.  Acting Mayor Peterson’s term as Acting Mayor of the second largest city in New York State was significant enough that it was reported in national newspapers of the time.

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Acting Mayor Peterson with Luke Easter (on the left), Dick Fisher and Joe Caffie. Source: Buffalo Courier

While serving as Acting Mayor, Mr. Peterson issued a proclamation to designate August 24, 1956 as “Luke Easter – Joe Caffie Night” in Buffalo.  Luke Easter and Joe Caffie were two black baseball players on the Buffalo Bisons.  A special celebration was held that night during the game at Offerman Stadium.

In 1967, Mr. Peterson was elected as a delegate to the New York State Constitutional Convention, representing the 55th Senate District.  He also served as Assistant Project Manager for the City of Buffalo where he executed the Hamlin Park Neighborhood Improvement Program.  The Hamlin Park program was one of the more successful of the City’s Urban Renewal Programs, as large scale demolition didn’t occur in Hamlin Park the way it did in the Ellicott neighborhood.  If you’re interested in a more in depth look at Urban Renewal and how it shaped the Hamlin Park neighborhood, I recommend this series by Mike Puma that can be found on Buffalo Rising. 

Mr. Peterson was a member of First Shiloh Baptist Church from the age of ten.  He served on the Board of Trustees for the church, and was named Trustee Emeritus.  He helped to establish the food pantry at First Shiloh, which still serves the community by providing food and clothing for those in need.  Mr. Peterson also served as a member of the building committee for the congregation when they built a new sanctuary and educational facility in 1965.

Mr. Peterson retired from public service in 1979, but was still involved with the community.  He served as President of the Buffalo Central Home Finders, Director of the United Way, Director of the Food Back of WNY, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Towne Garden Housing Development, Director of Shiloh Housing Development Corporation.  He was also a member of Buffalo Urban League and NAACP.

97918711_137864513074Mr. Peterson was married to the former Jannie McCarley.  They were married 72 years and had three children – Kenneth, Lawrence and Lorraine.  Jannie was the daughter of Reverend Burnie McCarley, the founder of St. John Baptist Church in Buffalo, and the namesake of the McCarley Gardens apartments.  Mr. Peterson died a few months after his wife, on September 23, 2012.  His portrait is represented on the Freedom Wall at Michigan and Ferry Streets.  Both King and Jannie are buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.

Our next series of streets will continue to focus on the Ellicott Neighborhood and urban renewal, as we move on to the Frederick Douglass Towers.  Stay tuned!  To read about other streets in Buffalo, please check out the Street Index.  Follow the blog on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/buffalostreets.

Sources:

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orawrighter

Ellicott Mall property shown in red. Ora Wrighter Drive shown in yellow.

Given what is going on these days, we are featuring streets named after our Black brothers and sisters this month here on Discovering Buffalo, One Street at a Time.  Specifically, this is Part 3 in a series of  four streets built in the 1990s in the Ellicott Neighborhood.  To read more about how the Ellicott Mall urban renewal project changed this neighborhood and to learn about Minnie Gillette, please read Part 1.  Part 2 is about Delmar Mitchell and can be found here.  Today, in Part 3, we are focusing on Ora Wrighter.  Part 4 will be about King Peterson and will be posted this coming weekend.

2763f426e294e938308017588262ae2cOra Perry Wrighter was born in December 1920 in Birmingham Alabama, to Owen and Alberta Perry.  She came to Buffalo as a child with her family and graduated from the Buffalo Public Schools.  She attended Hartwick Seminary.  At the time of her death, she was a student at Medaille College.

Mrs. Wrighter began working at Community Action Organization in 1967 as a Community Aide. She was considered to be a fighter for the people.  She attended community meetings to fight for the poor.  She was involved in many grassroots organizations, and was often sought for her expertise by other organizations.  She served on the 7th District Planning Board, New York State Urban Development Corporation Community Advisory Committee for the Urban Development Corporation-Ellicott Neighborhood Advisory Committee Ellicott Housing; and the Steering Committee for Buffalo’s Model Cities Program. She served as the manager of the Ellicott center located in the County multipurpose center she fought to have built.

She was given a Distinguished Service Award from Mayor Joseph A. Sedita for her service to the Model Cities Program.  The Models Cities Program was a part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms.  The programs emphasized social and anti-poverty programs as well as physical renewal.  As the country moved away from social programs in the late 60s-early 70s, the program shifted away from the social programs towards brick and mortar apartment building projects.  Buffalo was one of 75 cities awarded Model Cities program funding in the first round.  The program ended in 1974.

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Mrs. Wrighter hosting a Christmas Party in her apartment. Source: Buffalo Criterion, January 10, 1976.

Mrs. Wrighter lived in the AD Price Courts at William and Jefferson for 17 years.  The AD Price Courts, also known as the Willert Part Courts, was built in 1939.  Willert Park was the first housing project in New York State built exclusively for African Americans.  Mrs. Wrighter was involved in the construction of Ellicott Houses, a complex of 200 townhouses built near Hickory and Swan Street between 1970 and 1972.

She was Vice President of the Community Interaction Committee at Sheehan Memorial Hospital.  She was also a member of the Board at Jesse Nash Community Health Center.

Mrs. Wrighter died on August 23, 1977 of a heart attack.  After her death, the Ora L. Wrighter Memorial Fund was created at Sheehan.  Sheehan Hospital was a private hospital on Michigan Avenue that had been established as “Emergency Hospital” in 1894.  It was run by Sisters of Charity, who also ran Sisters Hospital.  The hospital closed in 2012.

Sources:

 

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delmarmitchell

Ellicott Mall Property shown in red. Delmar Mitchell Drive shown in orange.

Given what is going on these days, we are featuring streets named after our Black brothers and sisters this month here on Discovering Buffalo, One Street at a Time.  Specifically, this is Part 2 in a series of  four streets built in the 1990s in the Ellicott Neighborhood – Minnie Gillette Drive, Delmar Mitchell Drive, Ora Wrighter Drive and King Peterson Drive.   To read more about how the Ellicott Mall urban renewal project changed this neighborhood and to learn about Minnie Gillette, please read Part 1.  Today’s post is about Delmar Mitchell Drive.  Delmar Mitchell was the first African American elected to citywide office in Buffalo.  Parts 3 and 4 will be coming in the next week.

182x250-8c80b44abf53355884ecd0e80497c5f1Delmar Mitchell was born to Lee and Tobitha Mitchell in February 1918 in Providence, Kentucky.  He was raised in Glen Cove, Illinois, outside of Chicago.  He attended DuSable High School, the University of Illinois  in Champaign and DePaul University.  He served in the US Army during WWII, rising to the rank of captain and serving in both the Pacific and European fronts.  He earned a Purple Heart for his service.  He later worked for the US Department of Justice, in the Intelligence Section.

Mr. Mitchell moved to Buffalo in 1949.  He worked in the hotel business for 8 years, operating Mitchell’s Corner hotel and bar.  Mitchell’s Corner was located at 527 Genesee Street, at Camp Street (near Jefferson).  The building no longer exists.

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Campaign Ad for Mr. Mitchell in the Buffalo Criterion, 1963

He was first elected in 1957, when he was elected to represent the old 13th Ward in the Erie County Legislature.  He was named Masten District Councilman in 1961 after the death of Cora P. Maloney, the first African-American woman on the Council.   He was re-elected twice in the Masten District before winning election as Council Member at Large in 1965, the first African American to hold citywide office.  He became Council Majority Leader in 1970 and Council President in 1974, a position he held until 1983.  He was considered to be a skilled councilmen as well as a gifted consensus builder.  He was also known to take people into the back conference room of his Council Office, a room he called the woodshed.  At his last Council meeting in 1983, he is reported to have said “Lay your petty differences aside. Buffalo is greater than any individual. You tell me your dreams, and I’ll tell you mine.”

He was a supporter of many of the City’s efforts during the 1970s and 1980s.  He helped to bring about the Metro Rail, the Buffalo Hilton (later the Adam’s Mark, now the Buffalo Grand) and the Buffalo Convention Center.  He was also an important part of establishing an elected Board of Education for the city and the City’s school desegregation plan.  He was credited with ensuring that the Board would have a representative number of blacks on the School Board, and that the school board would be free of politics.

He was honored often throughout his career.  He was the Buffalo News Citizen of the Year in 1974.  He was awarded the Medgar Evers Civil Rights Award in 1983 by the NAACP.  He received an honorary degree from Canisius College in 1971.  He was honored by the 100 Black Men of Buffalo Club in 1994.

Mr. Mitchell was well respected by many of his fellow councilmen, and served as a mentor for many as they served both with him and after his retirement.  The Hamlin Park Community and Taxpayers Association installed a bust of Mr. Mitchell in the Delavan-College train station in 1994.    In 2018, the Common Council passed a resolution, sponsored by all nine councilmen, to name the new facility at 612 Northland in the Northland Corridor Redevelopment Project as the “Delmar Mitchell Entrepreneurial Center”.  The resolution states:  “Delmar Mitchell was a trailblazing leader for his community whose legacy can inspire people in Buffalo to emulate his enterprising spirit, commitment to community service, and zeal for personal professional development.”

Mr. Mitchell retired to Hinsdale/Olean, New York.  It’s reported that he joked with his friends that he was moving there to integrate the countryside.  He had four sons – Delmar Jr, Joseph, Gregory and Darryl.  Mr.  Mitchell died on December 16, 1996 at the age of 77.  He is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery.  After his death, the Buffalo News reported, “He was a man seeking racial harmony in a community that didn’t always want it. Perhaps if he could have taken Buffalo area citizens one-by-one to the back-back office for a talk about dreams, it might have worked out better.”

So, think of Mr. Mitchell as we continue to work to build a better community today.  Stay tune for parts 3 and 4 of this series coming next week.  To learn about other streets, check out the street index.

Sources:

  • McNeil, Harold.  “Delmar Mitchell, First Black To Win Citywide Office, Dies.  Buffalo News.  December 16, 1996.
  • “Delmar Mitchell”  Uncrowned Community Builders.  https://www.uncrownedcommunitybuilders.com/person/delmar-mitchell.  Accessed June 2020.
  • Buffao Common Council Minutes.  Oct. 4, 2018.  Agenda Item 18-1661
  • Tyler, Steven.  Desegregation in Boston and Buffalo:  the Influence of Local Leaders.  State University of New York Press, Albany:  1998.
  • Gates, George. “Remembering Delmar Mitchell:  Too Bad He Couldn’t Have Taken All of Buffalo to his Back-Back Room for a Dose of His Famous Persuasion and a Lesson that ‘Epidermis’ Doesn’t Matter”.  Buffalo News.  December 21, 1996.

 

 

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Note from Angela:  Given what is happening right now in Buffalo and across the country, it doesn’t feel right to write about another “important” white man. I realize my platform isn’t as large as some, but I know I must use my voice to lift those who are suffering and fighting for justice. I know that most of you are here for the history and not the politics, but for the next two months, I am going to only write about streets named after African-Americans.  I am remiss for not doing this sooner.  Our black brothers and sisters have been here since the beginnings of Buffalo, and they deserve more recognition. For more information and resources, please check out the Greater Buffalo Racial Equity Roundtable website. If you are looking for a list of Black Owned Businesses to support, you can find that at this link.

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Ellicott Mall Property outlined in red. Minnie Gillette Drive shown in yellow.

The first series I’ll be writing about will be a series of four streets in the Ellicott Neighborhood – Minnie Gillette Drive, Delmar Mitchell Drive, Ora Wrighter Drive, and King Peterson Drive.  These four streets were created as part of the same project in the 1990s.  Today, Part 1 will be on Minnie Gillette Drive.  Stay tuned for Parts 2 through 4 which will posted over the next two weeks. 

The Ellicott Neighborhood is a neighborhood on the near East Side of Buffalo.  Up through the first half of the 20th Century, the neighborhood was a diverse neighborhood consisting of Italians and Jews, along with most of Buffalo’s African American residents.  My Italian grandfather was born (on the kitchen table) in this neighborhood in 1928 at the corner of Hickory and Division Streets.  The following map shows the area as it looked in 1950. 

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1950 Map of Ellicott Neighborhood

 

In 1958, much of the Ellicott Neighborhood was completely cleared and demolished in the name of “Urban Renewal”.  In this portion of the neighborhood, the Ellicott Mall public housing project was built.  The Ellicott Mall was run by Buffalo Municipal Housing Authority and consisted of eight residential towers that contained 590 apartments.  The JFK Community Center and associated park/playing fields were constructed east of the Ellicott Mall.  Here is an aerial photo of the area in 1966.

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1966 Aerial Photo of Ellicott Neighborhood

By the mid-1960s, the project had begun to deteriorate and the apartments closed in 1981.  There is still an active group of Ellicott Mall residents who lived in the neighborhood and still meet up for Ellicott Mall Reunions to celebrate the bonds of those who lived in the neighborhood.  During the 1990s, the City began planning to redevelop the area.  Norstar, along with First Shiloh Baptist Church, created a mix of housing that is now known as the Ellicott Town Center.  Here is what the area looked like in 1995.

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Aerial Photo of Ellicott Neighborhood from 1995

The project consisted of demolition of four of the towers and replacement with new housing, and renovation of the remaining towers.  The Ellicott Town Center consists of 281 apartments, 48 private townhomes and 24 senior garden apartments.  The project was completed in 1997.  Minnie Gillette Drive is one of the new streets that runs through the Ellicott Town Center. 

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Painting of Minnie Gillette on the Freedom Wall Source: Albright Knox

Minnie Gillette was born in Alabama in 1930, but was raised in Buffalo.  She attended Buffalo State College, where she received a Bachelor of Science in Nutrition. She worked at Columbus Hospital on Niagara Street as a dietary supervisor.

Mrs. Gillette was elected to the Erie County Legislature in 1977. She was the first African American woman elected to the Legislature. Her candidacy was backed by the Democratic, Republican and Conservative parties. Her obituary called her “a feisty political figure who strayed from party lines in the interest of her constituents”. She didn’t get involved in partisan politics, instead focused on serving her community.

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Minnie Gillette and Joan Bozer meeting with contractors as they convert the post office building into ECC. Source: Buffalo News

Mrs. Gillette worked with Legislator Joan Bozer to convert the former Post Office Building into the Erie Community College City Campus.  According to the Buffalo News, in 1969, in a letter from Erie County Democratic Chairman Peter Crotty, the building was called “a mongrel structure of no authentic period, dungeon-like in its aspect, repellent to the visitor and lacking in the convenience suitable for habitation”.  The building was considered “a monstrous pile of death-like stone”. 

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“A monstrous pile of death stone”? ECC City Campus

At the time, people did not always appreciate old buildings, and the idea of having an entire city block to redevelop was enticing to those who thought new was better.  Legislators Bozer and Gillette helped change that attitude, save the building, and bring ECC into the City.  At the time, ECC was only located at what is now their North Campus, in Amherst/Williamsville.  

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Buffalo Library’s Ram Van.  Source

Mrs. Gillette helped to establish the “Ram Van”, which was a traveling lending library. She also fought to ensure that minority contractors got a fair share of county contracts.  While in the Legislature, She was named the Buffalo News Outstanding Citizen for 1979. She received the University at Buffalo’s Outstanding Women of Western New York Government Award in 1980.

Mrs. Gillette served two terms as a legislator. After she left, she continued her work advocating for the homeless, the poor and the needy. She was appointed as the first director of the County’s Victim/Witness Assistance Program. She worked at a food pantry in the Towne Gardens Housing Project. She won a Martin Luther King Award in 1990 from the Erie County Chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Mrs. Gillete was very involved with many organizations. She served on the board of the William-Emslie YMCA and helped to establish the senior citizens center there. She was a chairwoman of the Seventh (Ellicott) District Planning Board, on the Advisory Board of the Equal Opportunity Center on Washington Street, president of the Association of Retarded Children and president of the New York State Community Action Agency. She was active in the Community Action Organization, the Western New York Health System Agency, the Paramount Chapter 57 of the Order of the Eastern Star, the Jesse E. Nash Health Center and the Buffalo Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Mrs. Gillette died on January 7, 1992. She had been ill with cancer for a year before she died, but she continued to work on community projects up until about two weeks before she died. Mrs. Gillete had three children – Hasinah Ramadhan, Loretta Gillette, and Calvin Gillette.  Mrs. Gillette is featured on the Freedom Wall at Michigan and Ferry.  In addition to the street, the auditorium at ECC City Campus is named for her.

Stay tuned for the next streets in this series, which will be posted over the course of the next two weeks.  Part Two, about Delmar Mitchell, can be read at this link.  If you haven’t subscribed to the blog, you can do so on the upper right hand side of the screen when on a desktop computer.  You can also like the page on facebook at facebook.com/buffalostreets to follow along there.  To check out other streets that have been written about, check out the street index here.  If you grew up in or currently live in the Ellicott Neighborhood, please reach out – either by leaving a comment here or emailing me at buffalostreets@gmail.com –  I’d love to hear your stories. 

Sources:  

  • Allen, Carl and Dave Ernst.  “Minnie Gillette Dies at 62:  First Black Woman Legislator”.  Buffalo News.  January 7, 1992.
  • Kirst, Sean.  “In demolition-happy 1970s, the fight to save the old Post Office”.  Buffalo News.  November 30, 2018.
  • Sapong, Emma.  “Resurrected public housing project to be celebrated Sunday”.  Buffalo News.  July 9, 2014.
  • Kraus, Neil.  Race, Neighborhoods and Community Power:  Buffalo Politics 1934-1997.  State University of New York Press, Albany:  1997. 

 

 

 

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