Back to the Archives

by Doug Carpenter

When you stop to think about where Buffalo and Western New York fit into the “big picture,” we’re a pretty remarkable place. Remarkable in the sense of how many significant forces and events – both current and historic… national and international – that have helped shape us as a nation and define us as a people have had their roots right here where we live.

As a key Great Lakes port city, Buffalo was a major catalyst in our nation’s early economic growth. We even hosted the World’s Fair of its day, the Pan American Exposition, in 1901. It was, of course, also part of Buffalo’s destiny that that same event would witness the assassination of one President, William McKinley, and the inauguration of another, Theodore Roosevelt.

To this day, history book passages like those continue to be joined by new stories, ranging from the environmental policy-altering events at Love Canal to the domestic security consciousness raising that accompanied the emergence of the alleged terrorist cell in Lackawanna. These unquestionably were, as former CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite used to call them, “events that alter and illuminate our time.” And we were indeed there, just as those whose deeds would profoundly influence all our futures were here.

A hundred years ago, both our community and the world were different, particularly in terms of the way we regarded each other racially. That things are different today is due in large part to events that transpired right here in Western New York.

The contemporary celebration of Black History Month began in 1976, growing out of Negro History Week, which was started in 1926 by Carter G. Woodson, the son of former slaves. The decision to hold the event in February was inspired by the fact that the month contains the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.

In still another remarkable local connection, Douglass, arguably the most influential African-American leader of the 19th century, lived and worked for most of his public career in upstate New York, leaving Rochester after the Civil War to advocate for African Americans in Washington, D.C.

Each February for nearly 30 years, we have taken time to turn our attention to recognize and reflect on the achievements of African Americans in American history. Here in Western New York, however, a single month will not be quite enough to do justice to all that we have to celebrate on that count.

The year was 1905. Following the Civil War, post-reconstruction America had entered a new century but had not yet found a path toward an racially inclusive national identity. And despite much cultural positioning on both sides of the color line, no public voice had yet emerged to frankly and forcefully address the inequitable social, political and economic conditions that still beset so much of the country.

As times of great challenge do, however, it was a moment that called for people of great courage to rise and rally their resources for their cause. And where did these people of color and conscience come together to set an agenda for action that would advance the interests of African Americans? It wasn’t Washington, or Philadelphia, or even Boston. It was right here on the Niagara Frontier. And so was born what came to be known as the Niagara Movement.

Organized by W.E.B. Du Bois with the support and encouragement of other African American activists of the day, the opportunity to participate in creating a new force for change attracted 29 well-educated black professional men from 13 states and the District of Columbia to a series of mid-July meetings held in both Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ontario, Canada. And although no women attended the event officially, female delegates were active in future conferences.

Perhaps the most important consequence of the first meeting of the Niagara Movement was the creation of its Declaration of Principles. It would be an historic document, one that sought to clearly articulate the priorities that would need to be addressed if 20th century America was to be a place of social justice and true opportunity.

The formation of the Niagara Movement helped set in motion forces that would lead to many of the most significant social changes in American history and, consequently, the world as well. Constitutional amendments and other statutes that insured the right to vote and banned discrimination are just part of the civil rights movement’s legacy.

These same privileges would ultimately become the fiercely-sought and hard-won reward not only of our nation’s women, young adults, senior citizens and disabled individuals but of disenfranchised people around the globe, inspired by Americans’ example to demand better treatment from their own governments.

The Niagara Movement called for basic civil rights, making the impassioned point that those who would seek justice “should protest emphatically and continually against the curtailment of their political rights.” And although other organizations would later succeed the Movement in leading the struggle, this simple statement of principle would continue to provide strength and inspiration.

Western New York continues to take special pride in the contributions it has made to the cause of equality through the Niagara Movement as well as the like-minded organizations for which it paved the way. Among these was the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which was started in 1909 by members of the Niagara Movement and others committed the racial equality.

As President of the NAACP’s Buffalo Branch, Frank Messiah has long been both an active participant in Western New York’s on-going efforts to create opportunity and equality and an astute observer of the community’s successes and failures. The results, he believes, have been mixed but still of significant value to the community as a whole.

The 1976 court-ordered desegregation of Buffalo’s schools, he says, “revolutionized the whole education system in Buffalo.” Prior to those local landmark decisions, he notes, there was a completely different climate in not only the schools but area Police and Fire Departments, as well.

Buffalo’s involvement in the initiative of changing the law, he adds, has had far-reaching effects on the operations of governments throughout Western New York. “You now have blacks and women as Deputy Commissioners in Buffalo’s Police and Fire Departments,” as well as other women and minorities now occupying positions of authority they would never have achieved had the struggle for civil rights not served as a catalyst for social change.

Still, he says that missed opportunities for change continue to plague the city, which he pointedly observes would benefit dramatically from the long-overdue expansion of the decision-making process to truly reflect the diversity of its population.

“No one ethnic group has all the answers to everything. What you find when you have women, people of color and people of other backgrounds involved in the solving of problems,” he explains, “is that you have a much greater chance of the problem actually being solved than if the power is concentrated in the hands of one small group.”

However strong they may be, the merits of the case for diversity will, of course, be decided not just by school enrollment profiles and governmental promotion lists but by the community’s success in pulling itself out of the longterm period of economic and social adversity that now consumes Buffalo’s current decisionmakers.

And if where we’ve come from holds any lessons that might help us determine the direction we take from here, it will take as many bright minds and strong hearts as we can muster working together to figure out how to put the knowledge to good use.

A lot of people of all ages and backgrounds who genuinely care about what happens to Western New York have been giving its problems – past, present and future – much serious thought. They’re all undoubtedly looking for clues to what we’ve done wrong and ideas for what we’re not doing now that we should be to make things better.

State Sen. Byron Brown’s view of the difficult challenges at hand has been shaped by more than 16 years of government service, during which time he’s shown a willingness to try new things. A former Buffalo Common Council member, he became the first African-American elected to the State Senate outside of New York City in 2000.

He now represents a ethnically-diverse district that encompasses both urban and suburban communities. He believes that the conditions adversely affecting the region impact everyone’s quality of life, making it more crucial than ever that all of us, regardless of our color, work together for change.

“I truly believe that, as a community, we need to make diversity and respect for each other a core value. We really have to feel that we are all in this together. Because when we support each other and lift each other up,” he says, “all of us will grow.” Brown notes that this simple truth derives directly from one of the most universal experiences of the struggle for racial equality.

“For the civil rights movement to be successful,” he believes, “it couldn’t have been done by black people alone. You needed to have the support of lots of different kinds of people, who all understood that ‘If my basic human rights are being threatened, then at some point yours can be threatened, too.’”

Uniting a city like Buffalo – or any big group of people, for that matter – involves overcoming many lifetimes-worth of preconceived notions about “other” people. Taken to the all-too-frequently visited level of imposing these equally-too-frequently negative expectations on those around us, these preferences quickly become prejudices. Have we gotten any better at changing people’s minds… and the behaviors that invariably follow their thoughts? Brown thinks the answer lies in understanding human nature.

“Discrimination is based on a lack of information, a lack of education and a lack of exposure.” And since people innately fear what they don’t understand, he adds, “we need to show people that, as human beings, we all pretty much want the same thing…” the chance to earn a decent living, to own a nice home, to raise our children in a safe, healthy community.

One of the best ways to improve our chances of fulfilling dreams like these, he suggests, is to embrace a more positive vision for ourselves and our community. To change our expectations. “One of the things that my parents taught me was never to look for discrimination, and to treat everyone the way you would want to treated yourself.” It would be hard to find a simpler definition of civil rights.

In this light, celebrating black history… and the progress that society has experienced as the result of the courage shown by so many of the people who made it… becomes an opportunity for all of us to adopt a more positive vision. It’s one of the reasons that people like Melonya Johnson has invested so much time and effort in organizing Western New York’s continuing tribute to black history and culture.

Multicultural Community Relations Manager with the Buffalo-Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau, Johnson says that the Niagara Movement’s centennial has infused this year’s Black History Month events with considerable additional energy. What would normally be an intensive month-long celebration has expanded to extend right through the rest of the year.

“As always,” she explains, “the biggest challenge of Black History Month is providing people with a way to study a history that’s always changing.” Introducing the chance to celebrate an historic event like the founding of the Niagara Movement, she adds, makes this year’s planning job bigger but ultimately even more rewarding. Johnson says that she’s approaching the challenge as not one opportunity but two.

“Our goal at the Convention and Visitors Bureau is, of course, to attract people from outside the region to the great events here in Western New York. But the local aspect of this very big event also presents us with the opportunity to encourage area residents to discover the rewards of being a tourist in their own backyard.”

There most certainly are plenty of offerings to pique Western New Yorkers’ appetites for things cultural and historical. And letting no other appetite go unexploited, the schedule of events is also set to include a visit by the national touring Harlem Book Fair, timed to coincide with this year’s Taste of Buffalo in July. For Johnson, it’s “Downtown synergy” at its best. For an extended listing of currently scheduled events, see the accompanying sidebar.

With a better understanding of both black history and the many watershed events to which Western New York is directly connected, Johnson hopes that all who make time to enjoy the coming year’s exciting celebration will come away with “a greater sense of awe” for the remarkable role our community has played in shaping not just the culture of a people but the destiny of a nation.

© 2005 Doug Carpenter