BUFFALO BLACK HISTORY IN THE 1900S
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.
FROM THE NIAGARA MOVEMENT TO THE GREAT MIGRATION
At the turn of the Century, Buffalo’s black population was sparse and intermixed. But as the 1900s progressed, a more highly concentrated neighborhood emerged with black owned businesses, including nightclubs, drug stores, restaurants, and churches along Michigan Street.
Buffalo’s black population expanded with the onset of World War I. Many Southern blacks moved to Buffalo to pursue better paying jobs in our wartime industries, such as Bell Aircraft and Bethlehem Steel. This became known as the first wave of the Great Migration.
Buffalo was an appealing destination. The city was the second busiest rail hub, second only to Chicago. The interconnectivity between rail and waterways provided new opportunity for black families.
BUFFALO BLACK POPULATION
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REDLINING & RACISM IN BUFFALO
Racism was pervasive. Beginning in the 1930s, banks employed racist housing practices, including redlining. This meant blacks had difficulty obtaining loans for housing outside of a small area.
Redlining created in a highly segregated city, one in which race tensions sometimes flared. It also created a cycle of poverty, with black families struggling to make ends meet.
BUFFALO JAZZ HISTORY
Still, Buffalo’s black community persevered and organized. Building on its activist past, Buffalo became a central part for the formation of the modern civil rights movement, including the foundation of the Niagara Movement.
The arts flourished in an entertainment district known as the “jazz triangle”, consisting of Club Moonglo, Vendome, and Colored Musicians Club. The city became a regular stop for traveling musicians, with a growing number of venues including the McAvoy Theater, Little Harlem, Zanzibar, and Dan Montgomery’s.
By the end of World War II, Buffalo’s black community was making strides towards upward mobility. These are a few key moments in the timeline of Buffalo black history, 1900-1950.
PAN AMERICAN EXPOSITION PROTESTS & NEGRO EXHIBITION
The World’s Fair becomes a critical moment in the history of civil rights, thanks to Mary Talbert and the Phyllis Wheatley Society. They organize protests over offensive displays, including the Darkest Africa and the Old Plantation, which featured racist depictions.
Talbert, James Ross, and W. E. B. Du Bois work to present the Negro Exhibition at the fair. The show is the first time an exhibition of African American literary and photo works is assembled.
Most remember the Pan Am for the assassination of President McKinley. The situation could have been worse if it were not for Jim Parker, a black waiter, who wrestled the assassin to the ground. Initially hailed a hero, his story is later whitewashed in newspaper accounts and trial testimony.
NIAGARA MOVEMENT FOUNDED IN BUFFALO
Du Bois approaches Mary and William Talbert about hosting a conference on the state of the black movement. Activists from around the country gather in Buffalo and Fort Erie to create a manifesto demanding their basic human rights.
The Niagara Movement stands in stark contrast to Booker T Washington’s “separate but equal” philosophy. A few years later, in 1909, many present at the Niagara Movement convention found a new organization founded on their principles: the NAACP.
LITTLE HARLEM OPENS
Ann Montgomery starts an ice cream parlor on Michigan Street, expands with a billiard hall, and finally opens the Little Harlem Hotel. The hotel’s music club hosts legendary jazz musicians including Cab Calloway and Ella Fitzgerald. The club becomes one of the first places lesbians and gays could go, and it hosts the city’s first drag shows.
BROADWAY AUDITORIUM OPENS
Buffalo’s armory is converted into the city’s first sports and entertainment complex. The venue hosts boxing tournaments, lacrosse matches, 6-day bike races, hockey, and political rallies. It is an anchor in the Michigan Street neighborhood and attracts diverse audiences from around the city. The building currently houses the city’s snow plows.
COLORED MUSICIANS CLUB FOUNDED
Racism in the musician’s union and local hotels gives rise to Local 533, a collective voice for black musicians. They establish a storefront on Broadway for union meetings, with an after hours jazz club on the second floor.
The club remains to this day. The first floor is a museum, while the second floor is used for music lessons and jazz shows.
COLORED YMCA OPENS
More than just a club, the Michigan St YMCA becomes the heart of the Michigan St community. The building houses a cafeteria, gymnasium, swimming pool, barber shop, tailor shop, library; and classrooms, locker rooms, and dormitory rooms for 70 people. It is designed by John Brent, Buffalo’s first black architect.
In the early 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan is active in Buffalo, but conflict emerges when recently elected Mayor Francis Schwab promises to repeal prohibition. Edward Obertean, a police spy, exposes a list of more than 2,000 members and backlash ensues. He is murdered at the hands of national klan leaders.
WAR MEMORIAL STADIUM OPENS
With funding from the Works Progress Administration (WPA), War Memorial Stadium in built. A new black business district emerges on Jefferson Avenue in the surrounding blocks. “The Old Rock Pile” becomes home to the Buffalo Bills, Buffalo Bisons, and site of the film, The Natural.
WILLERT COURT BUILT
With funding from the WPA, Buffalo invests in public housing. Willert Court, designed by Frederick C. Backus, is one of the first public housing programs created specifically for African Americans. It becomes an important center for black life in Buffalo, as the community extends into the East Side. The building is currently abandoned and in danger of demolition.
EVA NOLES GRADUATES
Eva Noles is the first African American woman to become a registered nurse in Buffalo. She graduates at the top of her class and is hired by Roswell Park Cancer Research Institute. She founds Nurses Week, and is heavily involved in community activism.
LEELAND JONES ATTENDS UNIVERSITY AT BUFFALO
Leeland Jones, Jr. becomes the first African American on the University of Buffalo football team. He faces discrimination while travelling, having to stay at separate hotels from white players. In 1949, Jones is elected county supervisor, the first black to hold political office in Buffalo. He organizes the March of Mothers, a protest of school inequality, and enacts policies supporting the black community.
ARETHA FRANKLIN MOVES TO BUFFALO
Reverend C.L. Franklin moves to Buffalo to serve as pastor of the Friendship Baptist Church. His daughter, Aretha, begins her career singing at the church, before moving to Detroit and becoming an icon in the Civil Rights movement.
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.