CONNECTING OUR BLACK HISTORY TO THE PRESENT
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 BLACK HISTORY TO BLACK LIVES MATTER
By the turn of the 20th Century, Buffalo’s economic decline had taken its toll. Buffalo’s former industrial economy had largely turned to low-paying service jobs. Those hardest hit were people of color.
Buffalo’s white population fled to the suburbs, leaving vast areas of the East Side with population loss. The city is currently ranked as one of the most segregated cities, with 85% of its black population residing east of Main Street.
Disinvestment is visibly apparent. Neighborhoods west of Main Street, where the population is majority white, are affluent. Neighborhoods east of Main Street have seen continued decline.
SEGREGATION IN ERIE COUNTY
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Percentage of populations: Erie County vs City of Buffalo
A LEGACY OF REDLINING & DISCRIMINATION
As the Partnership For The Public Good points out in their report, A City Divided: A Brief History of Segregation in Buffalo, it was not by accident. Buffalo’s current inequities are the result of decades of discriminatory policies.
Despite Buffalo’s revitalization, the city remains entrenched in its historical mistakes. For those living in East Buffalo, quality of life is significantly diminished. Graduation rates and life expectancy is lower, public transportation more difficult, and there is less access to health food. Meanwhile, pollution and law enforcement is higher.
GRADUATION RATES IN BUFFALO
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Policies have tried to change these negative outcomes. Numerous community based organizations have arisen to help tackle issues related to systemic racism. Comer v. Cisneros (1989), resulted in the formation of Housing Opportunities Made Equal (HOME), a nonprofit that monitors housing discrimination.
GENTRIFICATION IN BUFFALO
A more recent issue has become gentrification, a word not commonly associated with Buffalo. As city living has seen increased demand, housing values in downtown, the waterfront, and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus have risen sharply.
Buffalo stands at a crossroads. Like many American cities, it is trying to find a way to build a better future for its black population, but, for now, the struggle continues. These are a few key moments in the timeline of Buffalo black history, 2000-present.
BRYON BROWN ELECTED MAYOR
Democrat Byron Brown wins a four-way mayoral race, becoming the first black man elected as Mayor of Buffalo. He runs on the promise of bringing economic change to the city of Buffalo, and enacts policies promoting development, including the Seneca Casino and development of the Buffalo waterfront.
Brown’s leadership is questioned by some progressives and preservationists. Many criticize his track record on housing demolition and support of police.
MERRIWEATHER LIBRARY OPENS
Born in Buffalo in 1929, Robert Coles begins his architecture career in Boston as a designer, architect, and custom design manager. He returns to Buffalo in 1960 to realize his thesis project while at MIT: creating a plan for the JFK Community Center.
In 1963, Coles opens his own firm, which he manages until late in life. His other buildings of note include his award-winning home at 321 Humboldt Parkway and the Merriweather Library, which marries the circular design of traditional African villages with modernism.
Coles actively speaks out against the University at Buffalo’s expansion to Amherst instead of downtown, and protests the construction of the Scajaquada and Kensington Expressways. He breaks racial and design barriers, was a champion for more minority representation in the design field, and is actively involved in advancing civil rights.
Buffalo rapper Westside Gunn founds the supergroup that put the city again on the musical map. The hip hop collective and independent record label feature their hometown prominently in their music and videos. The group perfects its street rap sound, echoing the boom bap of previous supergroups like Wu Tang.
The group gives back to Buffalo and many of their songs reflect social issues. In 2019, Buffalo holds its first annual Westside Gunn Day, and in 2020, Conway the Machine gives out more than 100 turkey dinners on Thanksgiving to families in need. In 2021, the group releases Conflicted, a full length film.
BROEDERICK PARK RENOVATED
Lillion Batchelor’s Buffalo Quarters Historical Society makes significant changes to Broederick Park, the former site of Black Rock Ferry. The group puts in $4 million worth of improvements, including landscape design, a reflective garden, and historical signage. The improvements acknowledge the site’s significance in the underground railroad.
AFRICAN HERITAGE FOOD CO-OP FOUNDED
Activist Alexander Wright establishes a food co-op to addressing the lack of access to healthy food options on Buffalo’s East Side.
It soon turns into a full fledged operation, sourcing produce from local farms and making fresh fruit and veggies available and affordable to those who need it.
Wright establishes a storefront in Buffalo and Niagara Falls and purchases farmland. He sees the co-op changing the landscape of the lower East Side by building a business that nurtures the surrounding community and is nurtured by that community.
FRUIT BELT LAND TRUST ORGANIZES
Amid growing cries of rising rents, activists take action in fighting the forces of gentrification. Led by Open Buffalo and India Walton, a nurse at Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, the group begins organizing community residents.
They beat developers at their own game by buying up the neighborhood’s vacant lots. The intention is not to resell them, but to hold them in a land trust that leases them out at rates existing residents can afford.
Walton soon launches her bid for Mayor of Buffalo, challenging Byron Brown in 2021.
THE FREEDOM WALL IS PAINTED
A large mural featuring portraits of 28 black activists is commissioned by the Albright-Knox.
The project is not without controversy when the Albright-Knox’s curator announces Chuck Tingley, an Asian American, will paint it. When residents object to the project’s exclusion of artists from the black community, three African-American artists, John Baker, Julia Douglas, and Edreys Wajed, are added.
The project serves as a connection point between the Bethel AME church to the Michigan Street Corridor.
CARIOL’S LAW IS PASSED
Buffalo Common Council passes a law mandating police officers to intercede when they believe excessive force is being used. The bill comes as a result of the determination of Cariol Horne, who is fired when she intervenes in an arrest with one of her fellow officers. She is terminated just a year short of serving the necessary 20 years to qualify for a full police pension.
EAST SIDE AVENUES RECEIVES FUNDING
As part of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion plan, $65 million is dedicated to the revitalization of Buffalo’s East Side through capital investments. East Side Avenues provides capacity building, funding and organizational support.
The program targets five streets: Bailey, Fillmore, Jefferson and Michigan Avenues. The funding intends to help neighborhoods that have been most negatively impacted by years of disinvestment.
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.