History of African-Americans in Buffalo, NY
On this page, below:
Anthony Cardinale, African-Americans in Buffalo: An Overview
Mark Goldman, African-Americans and the East Side
See also, on Buffalo Architecture and History website:
Charles Campbell, Mamie Beale Johnson: Buffalo’s 'Hidden Figure'
John Fagant, Frederick Douglass in Buffalo 1843
Mark Goldman, William Wells Brown
John E. Brent in Buffalo, NY
J(esse) Edward Nash House
Hamlin Park style of architecture
Ferry Street Corridor Project
The Freedom Wall
Bethel AME Church
See also, on other websites:
- Peggy Brooks-Bertram and Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, Africans, Darkies and Negroes:Black Faces at the Pan American Exposition of 1901, Buffalo, New York The Buffalonian website (online October 2020)
- Josephine Brown, Biography of an American Bondman, by his Daughter [About Abolitionist and one-time Buffalonian William Wells Brown] Documenting the American South website. Full text online (online October 2020)
- William Evitts, The Niagara Movement Essay. On Barrington220 website (online October 2020)
- Cynthia Van Ness, In Search of Buffalo's First Professional African-American Architect: Some Preliminary Findings (online October 2020)
- Cynthia Van Ness, Buffalo Underground Railroad Sites (online October 2020)
- The Circle Association's African American History of Western New York An ongoing project to study the historical presence of Blacks in Buffalo ... and, in general, western New York State from 1700 to 2000 (online October 2020)
William Wells Brown ... Source: Display in 2002 at Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society
American Hotel, Ferry and Niagara Streets, Buffalo ... Not to be confused with the American Hotel located downtown.
Source of illustration and caption: Display in 2002 at Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society
J. Edward Nash House
Michigan Avenue Baptist Church
Eagle Hotel, Main Street, Williamsville.
Caverns and tunnels once sheltered fugitive slaves underneath the hotel, which was built by Oziel Smith in 1827 as a coach stop on the Batavia to Buffalo route.
Source of illustration and caption: Display in 2002 a Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society
Africa exhibit at the Pan-American Exposition
Source: "Cosmopolitan," Vol. 31, No. 5 (September 1901), p. 486
African-American heritage tourism corridor:
Left: J. Edward Nash House, 36 Nash Street
Center: Michigan Avenue Baptist Church, 511 Michigan Ave.
Right: Colored Musicians Club, 145 Broadway, at the corner of Michigan Avenue.
"Banned from the musicians union and unable to get good gigs in the city, Buffalo's black musicians started their own union, Local 533, in 1918. From that grew the Colored Musicians Club -- a place to play and practice, a place to hang out." - Jay Rey, "History and Hope,"The Buffalo News, Feb. 21, 2003
2019 African American Heritage corridor sign
Former Moonglo Night Club, Michign Ave. at William St.
Dan Montgomery's Restaurant, ca. 1965.
The Little Harlem and Dan Montgomery's, along with Toussaint's, The Vendome,
Club Moonglo, Mandy's and the Ace of Hearts were popular jazz clubs in the 1930s
Source of illustration and caption: Display in 2002 at Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society Museum
Broderick Park plaque
African-Americans in Buffalo - An Overview
"Ethnic Heritage Enriches Buffalo," by Anthony Cardinale, pub. in the October 12, 1980 edition of The Buffalo News
Joseph Hodge, also called "Black Joe," was recorded as the first black settler in 1792. He lived in a bark-covered cabin at the mouth of Little Buffalo Creek, and he kept a barroom and served as an interpreter with the native Americans. He moved to the Cattaraugus Reservation in 1807 and married an Indian woman.
Most blacks on the Niagara Frontier were free men, but eight were listed as slaves in 1808. Captain Pratt had a black servant girl called Tam and a fugitive slave named Jack Ray in 1813. A law in 1817 called for the gradual abolition of slavery in the state.
Fifty-eight blacks lived in Buffalo in 1828, working as servants, barbers, laborers and boat stewards. They settled around Michigan and William streets and in 1831 founded Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church.
Later, the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church became a station for the "underground railroad," a secret system for escorting runaway slaves from the South to freedom in the North and in Canada.
One of the Michigan Avenue pastors, Dr. J. Edward Nash, came to Buffalo in 1892 and was instrumental in founding the local NAACP and the Buffalo Urban League. Born in 1868 in Virginia to a former slave family, he was pastor here for 61 years and in 1954 was presented a Brotherhood Award in human relations by the National Conference of Christians and Jews.
By 1855, there were 704 blacks living in 148 families, making Buffalo the tenth largest concentration of blacks in the North.
Historian Herbert G. Gutman has been struck by "the intimate physical contact between Buffalo's blacks and whites" in those days. "Negroes were not segregated residentially and lived in all but three of 13 wards," he has written." None lived in the most unhealthy section, the heavily Irish First Ward located along the canal."
Blacks worked as cooks, waiters. porters, servants. bellmen, gardeners and barbers, but by 1875 they were beginning to cluster in three wards, and there were fewer blacks in such promising trades as barbering and carpentry.
Blacks today  are the largest ethnic group in Buffalo, numbering perhaps one-third of the city population and no longer confined to the East Side. Many have moved to more affluent neighborhoods in the city and suburbs and are at last sharing in the American dream. Most are from families that migrated here from the South since the 1920s, as America was transformed from a rural to an urban-dominated society.
Blacks, migrants from the rural south, since the labor shortage of World War I, had been moving into Buffalo in increasing numbers: 4,500 in 1920 and 13,500 ten years later. Virtually all of them moved onto the lower East Side, where there had been a small but consistent black community since the late 1820s,
For a while the neighborhood was integrated, Jews and blacks mixed at the public marketplace; at the public school; and at the corner of William and Jefferson Streets, where the Jewish Community Center shared the corner with the union hall of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, But this didn't last long,
As the number of blacks grew -- the local grammar school had 607 black students in 1925 and only 90 in 1920 -- Jews left, The East Side Jewish community was dying. Interrupted by the Depression and then by the Second World War, its death was slow. But by the early 1960s it had vanished completely.
Blacks quickly filled the emptying vacuum, and as their community grew it strengthened. The surrounding white world was hostile. Segregation was accepted in every branch of the city's social, economic, and political life. And yet, there had been no violence. Buffalo, unlike St. Louis and Chicago, did not have race wars in 1919.
Nevertheless, the situation was bad enough, and in response Buffalo's blacks turned inward, building a strong, yet self reliant community of their own. Responding to the needs of the growing population, black-owned enterprises suddenly proliferated. Hotels, nightclubs, funeral parlors, cleaners, drug stores, restaurants, candy stores, saloons, and a Negro baseball team were some of them. Sherman Walker's Funeral Home, the Ruth Patrick Drug Company, the My Cab Company, and the McAvoy Theater were substantial and successful operations.
But success did not come easy. In the middle of the 1920s local banks knuckled under to pressure from white-owned cab companies and refused to extend a loan to My Cab. The effort to run My Cab out of business failed, however, when it was able to secure a loan from a New York City bank.
Self-help groups within the black community also flourished during the twenties. One of the earliest was the Colored Musicians' Union of Buffalo, founded in 1917 by black musicians who had been denied membership in the white musicians' local. In addition, there was a grocery cooperative; several Negro lodges; the Negro Businessmen's League; the American Colored Workmen's League; a chapter of Marcus Garvey's United Negro Improvement Association; the Big Brothers' Association (founded by older, established East Side blacks to help ease the settlement problems of the new southern migrants); and the Michigan Avenue YMCA, built in 1926 by a local black architect named John R. Brent. And while there was no black-owned bank, the community did boast several newspapers: The Buffalo Enterprise, the Buffalo American, the Buffalo Criterion and the Voice. Abandoned by every other ethnic group that had ever lived there, the lower East Side has remained black to this day.
The Scajaquada Expressway Disrupts a Community
What was needed, it was felt, was a highway from east to west within the city. Not only would this provide a direct link between the city and the new eastern suburbs, but it would bring the airport within direct and easy reach of downtown Buffalo. Thus in 1953 state and city planners outlined their proposals for the construction of five highways which would cut through the city along five different east-west axes. Thus, superimposed upon the street system of the city of Buffalo would be a monstrous gridiron consisting of five superhighways whose purpose would be to join the rapidly growing surrounding suburbs with a rapidly declining central city. The price they paid for this plan was enormous; the damage irreparable.
It didn't look that way at first. In elaborately illustrated and documented brochures, these expressways were presented to the public in 1953. The views of these neighborhood. and street-obliterating highways was always from the air, and from a distant, bird's eye view they looked clean and benign. Sprinkled here and there with cars, lined with rows of thickly planted trees, the highways looked small, harmless, and almost bucolic. The reality was far different.
The first link in the system of east-west highways was the Scajaquada Creek Expressway. It began at the thruway on the west side of the city and then made its way east, where it connected with the Kensington Expressway, the second link. The Kensington carried the system directly to the eastern suburbs on one spur and into downtown Buffalo on the other. The Kensington bulldozed through a neighborhood; the Scajaquada through a park. Both areas were expendable.
The neighborhood was known as Humboldt Park, named after the Olmsted-designed park it was near. Like Buffalo's lower East Side during the 1920s, the Humboldt Park area was in a state of transition. Still predominantly Jewish and German, it was quickly becoming black. But for now, at least, it was an integrated, stolid, substantial middle-class community of one- and two-family homes on tree-lined streets, the best black neighborhood in Buffalo and, though not the best, still a desirable Jewish neighborhood.
Yet located as it was directly in the middle of the proposed route to the suburbs in the east, few planners questioned the wisdom of building a major highway through it. After all, there was a parkway already there, and if by converting that into a six-lane grade-level highway (depressed on part of its route) the airport and the suburbs would become suddenly accessible, the price was worth it.
What's more, there was little opposition. The Jewish residents had already begun to abandon the community, and while many of the incoming blacks opposed the plan, they, among whom were many professionals and business people, had not yet acquired the political power that they would have at a later date. The Kensington had far more proponents than opponents, and in the early 1960s construction on it began.
In 1967, the year of Buffalo's ghetto riots, the Kensington Expressway, coursing through the middle of Buffalo's only middle-class black community, was opened to traffic.