EARLY BLACK HISTORY IN BUFFALO, NY
Since our inception, Buffalo Bike Tours has sought to amplify Buffalo’s lesser known histories. This February, in light of Black History Month and our commitment to the Black Lives Matter movement, we present a series of 4 articles on our city’s black history of resistance and resilience. More importantly, please read to the end to find ways to support current black-owned business in Buffalo.
Want to learn more? Buffalo Bike Tours can provide private tours themed around black history. We are also developing tours for younger audiences. For school field trips on Buffalo black history by bike, bus, or foot, see our field trips page or email us for more information on hosting your class.
BLACK HISTORY: BEGINNINGS OF A COMMUNITY
Prior to the war of 1812, Buffalo was a pioneer town with a population of just under 1,500. Buffalo’s first black citizens lived alongside early settlers and largely resided in the Fourth Ward.
Buffalo’s black population faced many adversities but experienced more freedom than many other parts of the country. New York State was one of the more liberal states and enacted policies, such as abolishing slavery in 1827. Still, life in Buffalo was far from perfect for black families in the 1800s.
BUFFALO & THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Due to its proximity to the Canadian border, Buffalo soon became a key part of the underground railroad: it was the last stop before reaching freedom. The city became known to conductors around the country as a network of “stations” were established. See the interactive map below for key sites of resistance (courtesy of the Buffalo Underground Railroad blog).
Read more about this map: http://www.buffaloresearch.com/ugrr.html
This became even more critical in 1850, when President Millard Fillmore (from Buffalo), passed the Fugitive Slave Act, imposing hefty fines and jail time on those assisting freedom seekers.
Buffalo’s defiance of the Fugitive Slave Act reflected currents happening around our region. In Rochester, Austin Steward was a business owner, abolitionist author, and underground railroad conductor. In 1847, Martin R. Delany and Frederick Douglass also moved to Rochester, where they published North Star, which became the leading newspaper of the abolitionist movement.
POPULATION DEMOGRAPHICS - BUFFALO, NY
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In 1825, with the opening of the Erie Canal, Buffalo became a boom town. As European immigrants from around the world sought opportunity in Western New York’s industries, the city’s population ballooned. Buffalo’s black population remained small however and tightly knit, concentrated along Michigan Street. As the Circle Association writes:
In 1855 the seven hundred-odd black people living in Buffalo have two churches and a separate, segregated public school for their children. And while many black men worked as common laborers and most black women as domestics, there is a considerable large number of skilled workmen in the city’s East Side black community. Indeed, the job descriptions of many of them that are noted in the censuses of the mid-nineteenth century read like a handbook of trades.
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As the 20th Century approached, Buffalo was fast becoming an economic powerhouse, and Buffalo’s black community was finding its voice. These are a few key moments in the timeline of Buffalo black history pioneers, 1790-1900.
JOSEPH HODGE LIVES IN BUFFALO
”Black Joe” Hodge, thought to be an escaped slave, lives in Buffalo with the Seneca Indians. He is the first non-Native person to live in WNY and operates a trading post. Fluent in both Native and English languages, he is an interpreter and is known for serving alcohol out of his home (making him Buffalo’s first bartender).
UNION BLOCK ESTABLISHED AT CANALSIDE
A number of black owned businesses establish at a 3-story building known as the Union Block at Canalside. The area is well known as a magnet for vice, with as many as 60% of buildings serving as brothels.
One of the more colorful establishments is Dug’s Dive, operated by William Douglas, an escaped slave from Tennessee. Located below sea level, the bar is a literal “dive” one could not stand upright in. Douglas reportedly assists freedom seekers on the underground railroad.
BETHEL AME FOUNDED
The “Colored Methodist Society” of Buffalo is founded, otherwise known as the Vine Street Church. Its first pastor, Rev. George Weir, serves for 10 years and remains active in improving the economic, social, and political conditions of his people for several decades.
While the street and building are no longer extant, the congregation is still active.
WILLIAM WELLS BROWN MOVES TO BUFFALO
After escaping slavery and working on steam ships in Cleveland, William Wells Brown moves to Buffalo. He helps more than 70 blacks escape on boats he navigates across the Niagara River at Black Rock Ferry.
He becomes the first African American to publish a book, Clotell; or, The President’s Daughter, and travels the world speaking on abolitionism. His homesite is Shilo Baptist Church today.
MICHIGAN STREET BAPTIST CHURCH FOUNDED
Elisha Tucker establishes a second Baptist Church in Buffalo to serve primary a black congregation. In 1838, several of the church’s leaders pass a resolution opposing slavery and the church becomes a regular stopping ground for black thought leaders, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T Washington, and W. E. B. Du Bois.
In 1842, the church established its home at 511 Michigan. The building is rumored to have been an underground railroad station. It is still in operation today.
PEG LEG HARRISON MEETS EDWIN CHRISTY
Leader of the Vine Street Church choir, “Peg Leg” Harrison befriends Edwin “Ned” Christy. They begin practicing together as Christy’s Minstrels and revolutionize theater with their bawdy performances, including the hit song, “Buffalo Gals,” about prostitution in Buffalo’s Canal district.
While steeped in racist stereotypes, minstrel shows allow early black entertainers an outlet to challenge perceptions and audiences, and pursue new careers.
NATIONAL CONVENTION OF COLORED MEN
Vine Street AME Church hosts a national convention with the purpose of discussing how to end slavery. Speakers include Samuel H. Davis, George Weir, Frederick Douglass, and Henry Highland Garnet.
Garnet calls for Southern slaves to refuse to work and resist their oppressors by any means necessary. The gatherings exceed the church’s capacity and are moved outdoors, where 5,000 attend.
FUGITIVE SLAVE ACT RIOT
Newspapers detail a dramatic, failed attempt by bounty hunters to arrest Christopher Webb, a waiter at the Gothic Hall Saloon. When their warrant is discovered illegitimate, a group of Buffalonians, including the Deputy Sheriff, chase the bounty hunters out of town.
FREE SOIL PARTY FOUNDED IN BUFFALO
Buffalo hosts a major convention for a new political party: The Free Soil Party. It is founded on an abolitionist platform, summarized by a large banner that reads, “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, Free Men”. 40,000 attend speeches at Lafayette Square. Poet Walt Whitman is in attendance.
HENRY MOXLEY VS. THE BUFFALO SCHOOL BOARD
Henry Moxley, pastor of Bethel AME Church, leads an effort at school integration. When the City Council ignores their case, 18 black families enroll their children in other East Side schools.
DANIEL DAVIS TRIED IN BUFFALO
George H. Moore, a bounty hunter from Kentucky, attempts to arrest Daniel Davis, a cook aboard the steamship, the Buckeye State. Davis resists arrest, tries to escape, and is struck on the head with a stick.
He is later tried at the Spaulding Building. Commissioner H.K. Smith rules Davis be returned but the decision is overturned on a technical interpretation of the law.
1891 DOCK WORKER RIOT
During the 1800s, blacks are regularly employed to break up union organizing efforts on Buffalo’s waterfront. As a fight breaks out between laborers and scabs, a mob coalesces. Hundreds of Irish dock workers attack blacks at random. One black is shot, at least two are murdered, and dozens are beaten.
Rioters turn their attention to the black owned businesses on the Union Block, where a mob surrounds the building. Police rescue a large number of black men at Dug’s Dive, who are taken to jail for their own protection.
MARY TALBERT MOVES TO BUFFALO
Mary Talbert moves with her husband William, from Oberlin, OH to Buffalo. She becomes a leading voice in the women’s suffrage and abolitionists movements.
She is a co-founder of the Niagara Movement and is instrumental in anti-lynching legislation. She is the first black woman to earn a Ph.D. from University at Buffalo.
REV. JESSE NASH MOVES TO BUFFALO
After studying at a Virginia seminary, Rev. Jesse Nash moves to Buffalo at the age of 24 to be pastor of the Michigan Street Baptist Church.
Nash co-founds the Buffalo Urban League and Colored YMCA in Buffalo and serves his congregation for 61 years. His house is a museum and education center today.
SUPPORT BUFFALO AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY & BLACK OWNED BUSINESS
Curious to learn more about African American history in Buffalo? Click on the map and explore how to support current black owned business in Buffalo. We’ll be regularly updating this article, so if you think we missed something, be sure to let us know in the comments below!
BLACK HISTORY BUFFALO TOURS
Buffalo Bike Tours offers private tours of Buffalo black history. We promise that our tours will provide a new side of Buffalo you’ve never known – even if you’re from here!
Our Wing Ride dives into Buffalo’s black history while exploring the history of chicken wings (along with samples). Meanwhile, our History Ride highlights the city’s connection to the underground railroad and history of Michigan Street Corridor.
FIELD TRIPS & SCHOOL TOURS
Are you a teacher looking to take a Buffalo field trip your students will remember? Empower your students to see the city on one of our school tours, by foot, bike, or bus. Prepare them to see themselves as leaders for positive change! (Grades: 4-12 + University)
Our field trips are designed to meet NYS Social Studies Common Core standards and provide students with a deeper understanding of our history. Give your students relevant experiences and engage them with critical, meaningful issues.