BLACK HISTORY IN BUFFALO IN THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
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.
BUFFALO BLACK HISTORY: A CHANGE IS GONNA COME
The second half of the 20th Century brought dramatic change to Buffalo’s black community. This was a reflection of Buffalo’s economic decline and policies impacting the city during the civil right movement era.
Buffalo’s industries were amongst the largest in the United States. The city was the 3rd largest steel producer, the 2nd largest railroad center, and the largest in flour milling. Steel and iron plants employed 30,000 workers alone.
Buffalo’s black population continued to expanded significantly during the second wave of the Great Migration. Many came to work at Buffalo’s manufacturing factories, such as Bethlehem Steel, Republic Steel, and Ford Motor Company.
BUFFALO & THE GREAT MIGRATION
Buffalo’s black residential areas expanded from Michigan Street to other neighborhoods of the East Side. A major black economic corridor emerged on Jefferson Ave, anchored by War Memorial Stadium, with beloved institutions such as Scottie’s Steakhouse, Get & Split, Wings N’ Things, and Burgerland.
Growing racial tension emerged between Polish and German residents and the newly arrived African American population. In 1956, a racial incident at Crystal Beach resulted in 9 arrests and 6 hospitalizations. It also led to a termination of the amusement park’s boat service.
BUFFALO BLACK POPULATION 1940-2010
No Data Found
Source: U.S. Census Reports
BUFFALO RIOTS & THE CIVIL RIGHTS MOVEMENT
This tension and racism, combined with the construction of highways, led to Buffalo’s sprawling suburbs. Between 1950 and 1960 over 80,000 white Buffalonians – close to twenty percent of the population – moved out of the city.
In 1967, during the height of the civil rights movement, race riots broke out on Jefferson Avenue and other parts of the city. This is examined in Doug Ruffin’s 67:Buffalo Uprising documentary (Ruffin’s Black History Channel provided many of the clips found below).
Many individuals and groups furthered civil rights in Buffalo. Policymakers such as Arthur Eve and George Arthur fought for affirmative action, housing, and school equity initiatives. More radical groups such as BUILD, SNCC, the Black Panther Party, Revolutionary Action Movement, and the National Committee to Combat Fascism sought revolutionary change.
BUFFALO JAZZ HISTORY, FUNK & THE ARTS
The arts flourished during the civil rights era. Venues such as the Apollo Theater, Langston Hughes Center, and African American Cultural Center became important cultural spaces. Meanwhile, Buffalo’s artists of note during this time include Lucile Clifton, Ishmael Reed, Rick James, Aretha Franklin, and Grover Washington.
By 2000, Buffalo’s industries would be mostly gone. The impacts would be felt especially hard in Buffalo’s East Side. Still, Buffalo’s black community continued to fight for change. These are a few key moments in the timeline of Buffalo black history, 1950-2000.
KENSINGSTON EXPRESSWAY IS BUILT
Buffalo city planners, inspired by the ideas of Robert Moses, build a highway with the intention of connecting the city to the suburbs. It has the opposite effect.
Wide, park-like streets designed by Frederick Olmsted are replaced with a giant freeway. This makes white flight attractive and accessible, leading to the growth of the suburbs. It also radically changes the nature of the East Side, leading to divided neighborhoods and disinvestment.
JOHN YOUNG SERVES BUFFALO’S ORIGINAL WINGS
Pioneering restauranteur John Young makes his mark opening Wings N’ Things, the first chicken wing shop in Buffalo, NY. Young’s restaurant is visited by celebrities including Cookie Gilchrist, Rick James, and Joe Tex.
Young becomes known for serving wings whole and for his secret mumbo sauce, described as “lip smacking and liver quivering”. Late in life Young noted, “It hurts me so bad that other people take the credit”.
DORIS RECORDS OPENS
Mack Luchey meets his wife Doris Banks at Audrey and Del’s, the city’s first African-American record store. They soon start their own store and marry in 1962. Over the years, Doris Records is visited by traveling stars including Mary J. Blige, Lil’ Kim, Ice Cube and Kool Moe Dee. The shop is still in operation as the city’s oldest record shop.
ARTHUR HARDWICK MEETS SHIRLEY CHISOLM
Arthur Hardwick and Shirley Chisholm, both state legislators, meet in Albany. Hardwick becomes the first African American to represent Western New York in the State Assembly. Chisholm is the first Black woman elected to the US Congress.
In 1972, Chisholm becomes the first African-American candidate to run for President of the United States. Throughout her life in politics, she works to improve opportunities for blacks, supporting education, health care, and social services.
BUFFALO CHALLENGER IS FOUNDED
The Buffalo Challenger is founded by Arthur Eve, Calvin Kimbrough, and John Moore. In the early days, it is assembled out of people’s homes.
In 1979, Al-Nisa Banks starts as a volunteer, and soon moves up to become editor, and eventually owner. The paper continues its legacy of providing a platform to address issues impacting the black community.
DYKE & THE BLAZERS FORM
In 1960, Arlester “Dyke” Christian starts playing bass in a Buffalo band, Carl LaRue and his Crew. He soon forms Dyke & The Blazers, playing in local clubs, and authoring a hit song “Funky Broadway”, about Broadway Street in Buffalo.
Some historians have called “Funky Broadway” the first funk song, a sound attributed to James Brown. The song was the first to use the word “funky” in its title, and was banned by radio stations.
Dyke died tragically in a shooting, believed to be linked to a drug deal. His music is later sampled by Tupac Shakur and Stetsasonic.
ARTHUR O. EVE IS ELECTED
With little political background, Arthur Eve is elected to the State Assembly. He serves 36 years, working for affirmative action, education, and health care.
In 1978, Eve is elected the first African American to win the Democratic Party nomination for Mayor of Buffalo. He loses to Jimmy Griffin, who runs on promoting racial fears.
RACE RIOTS & MARTIN SOSTRE
Riots break out along Niagara Street and spread to Jefferson Avenue with protesters demanding civil rights. More than 40 people are hurt, 14 with gunshot wounds. In the following days, stores and cars are vandalized, and more than 400 riot police deployed.
Most businesses on Jefferson close, with exception of Martin Sostre’s Afro Asian Bookstore. Sostre hosts community meetings, coming under scrutiny of the Buffalo police. His shop is raided, and an all-white jury sentence him to 41 years in prison. Sostre is found with a $10 bag of heroin, which he claims was planted by a police informant.
During Sostre’s time in jail he becomes a champion for prisoner’s rights and wins several landmark cases. In Sostre v Otis he wins the right for prisoners to have freedom of religion, while in Sostre v Rockefeller he effectively bans cruel and unusual punishment of inmates. He is granted clemency from Governor Hugh Carey in 1976.
BUILD IS FOUNDED
With help from radical organizer Saul Alinsky, BUILD brings grassroots power to Buffalo’s black community. The organization gets its start with the publication of “Black Paper No. 1”, which concludes more parental involvement in the schools is needed for black children to succeed.
In 1969, BUILD establishes a school teaching a black-centric curriculum. It is the first public school to run a free breakfast program and features a high degree of parental involvement. The school is still in operation today.
LUCILLE CLIFTON PUBLISHES HER FIRST BOOK
Clifton authors several collections of poetry, a memoir, and more than sixteen books for children, written expressly for an African-American audience. Her honors include an Emmy Award, a Lannan Literary Award, and two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. Her work is remembered for addressing political topics including race, power, sexuality, pride, and freedom.
ATTICA STATE PRISON UPRISING
More than 1,200 largely-black inmates of Attica State Prison stage a rebellion two weeks after the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin State Prison. 42 staff are taken hostage and, after 4 days, Governor Rockefeller sends in 400 state police, resulting in 39 deaths and numerous injuries.
The subsequent trial takes place in Buffalo, with many demonstrations outside the Courthouse, at Niagara Square. Based upon prisoners’ demands for better living conditions and political rights, the uprising becomes one of the best-known and most significant flashpoints of the Prisoners’ Rights Movement.
GROVER WASHINGTON JR RELEASES FIRST ALBUM
Buffalo saxophonist Grover Washington releases his first major album “Inner City Blues” in 1972. He wins a Grammy Award for his 1980 album “Winelight” and another for his collaboration with singer Bill Withers on the song “Just the Two of Us”, in 1981.
Although he lived in Philadelphia, Grover’s roots remained in his hometown, “Buffalo provided a warm, creative atmosphere for me and my family. That’s what I learned in Buffalo and I’ll never forget it.”
JUNETEENTH CELEBRATION FOUNDED
Started in 1976 by BUILD, Juneteenth is founded as a culturally-relevant alternative to the country’s Bicentennial Celebration. The festival celebrates black culture and emancipation from slavery.
The original Buffalo festival is held on Jefferson Avenue to promote black-owned businesses. The festival is soon moved to MLK Park, where it is held today. Juneteenth Buffalo ranks as the third largest in the world, and features hundreds of events, vendors, and festivities.
ARTHUR VS. NYQUIST DECISION
In the 1970s, community leaders come together to challenge inequities in Buffalo schools – among them Arthur Eve and George Arthur. They bring a charge against the Buffalo Board of Education that blacks lacked equal opportunity.
Judge John Curtin, a Buffalo native and federal judge, is called to arbitrate in the case. Curtin rules in favor of the activists, leading to the creation of magnet schools and mandatory bussing.
MLK PARK IS RENAMED
The Parade, also known as Humboldt Park, is renamed in memory of Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. The renaming is delayed by one year due to racism within the city council.
In 1983, an eight foot bronze bust of Dr. King is placed in the park. Its sculptor, John Wilson, intended the work as an interpretation rather than a life-like representation.
UJIMA THEATER IS FOUNDED
Lorna Hill establishes a theater space with an emphasis on modern performance. The theater serves as a vehicle for African American performers, theater crafts people, and administrators. Hill is a playwright and poet who is best known for the play Yalla Bitch that was performed as part of the first International Women Playwrights Conference. The theater is still in operation today.
RICK JAMES RECORDS SUPERFREAK
Born in Buffalo in 1948, James Johnson, Jr., gets his start in music at an early age. As a boy, his mother sneaks him into bars to see John Coltrane and Etta James, and he wins the talent show at Bennett High School.
After enlisting in the Navy at the age of 15, he decides it isn’t for him and goes AWOL, seeking asylum in Canada. In Toronto, Johnson forms a band, the Mynah Birds, in 1964. Due to Johnson’s fugitive status, he changes his name to “Ricky James”.
After playing backup in several bands, James starts his solo career in 1973. “Come Get It!” and “Street Songs” go platinum, but it is “Super Freak” that makes Rick James a household name.
Heavy drug use, legal trouble, and prison time follow him throughout his life. James leaves an indelible impact on Buffalo music, and the rap and R&B world for generations to come.
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.