Professor Michael Boston's epic historical documentary of the continuing saga of our city's African-Americans is a work in progress. He is painstakingly poring through thousands of pages of old newspaper clippings and historical records to draw a critical connection between the present and the past.
What is emerging is a self-portrait of a people filled with energy, talent and hope, who, despite their commitment to the community, still sit on the fringes, locked outside of the mainstream, bearing the brunt of the cost of the city's failures.
Boston says that, before World War II, the majority of black Niagara Fallsians, who were predominantly new arrivals, were clustered around four areas of the southern end of the city: Erie Avenue, Buffalo Avenue, East Falls Street and the 24th Street area around Allen and Mackenna avenues.
Of these four areas, Erie Avenue was the main business district and the entertainment center of the black community.
The Niagara Falls Community Center was located on Erie Avenue. At least one church was located there. Ann Gabriel and Almed Cheatham had tourist homes on the avenue. Jerry Plato owned and operated a boarding house there. Wesley Parker ran a restaurant and boarding house called the Parker House. The Sunset Club, which had New York City-style entertainment for people over the age of 21, was there. Murphy's Grill, which had 20 rooms upstairs, was a popular restaurant. A man by the name of Torran operated a poolroom on the avenue, while Emmett Ashford and his wife managed a beauty parlor and barbershop.
Historic Erie Avenue was completely demolished by an ill-conceived urban renewal project that built the Niagara Falls Convention Center, now the site of the casino.
Except for newspaper accounts and fading pictures that some people still have in their old photo albums, the only record of Erie Avenue is in the memories of men and women who were old enough then and not too old now to appreciate it. And the only way to get to that is to talk to them.
Unfortunately, members of that generation are in their 80s and 90s, and they are scattered all over, but they are out there.
Of course, no people's history can be understood in a vacuum. It should be seen in the context of the whole. In order to understand ourselves, we need to understand from others how they perceive us.
Two of my favorite "reliable sources" are Walt Bulka, who now lives in south Florida, and Earlyese Worrell, who still lives in Niagara Falls. Also high on my list are Ted Williamson and Barbara Smith, the youngest of the group.
Barbara, a teacher who recently retired from the city's public school system, has an incredible collection of pictures, as well as a great memory. She can recall details of stories she heard her parents and others tell about the neighborhood we grew up in around Allen and Mackenna avenues.
Over dinner prepared by his wife, Mary, last week, Walt, who turned 80 years old on Oct. 3, told me that he recalls a neighborhood where "people got along." He says his family had close ties with many of the "colored" families who lived, worked and played together with no problems at all.
Another reliable source, and a good friend of my mother's, is Mary Karwaninski, who also lives in Florida now. She and my mom were at Saint Mary's Hospital delivering babies at the same time. Her daughter Patti and my sister Nonnie were born together and were stroller-mates, riding around the neighborhood in 1950.
Talking about life in those days, Mary says, "Nobody had anything to brag about, so it was not necessary to keep up with the Joneses, because they were in the same boat. When a game could be played with two stones or a tin can, how much simpler could it be? Baseball could be played without cleats and uniforms. All you needed was a few guys or gals to come out and play. My kids were raised, as perhaps you were, without theme bedrooms, matching curtains and matching snowsuits. Speaking of snowsuits, good ones could be had from Goodwill at a good price. We did not have a car until we moved to LaSalle and it was a very used one. I knitted the sweaters the kids wore and made their pajamas and sometimes their dresses and coats. But we had fun times too, just in the backyard. Were we happy? Oh, yes. Unorganized, but a real family. We all sat at the table to eat together and we spent our evenings together, sometimes playing board games."
As I listen to the stories of our history from the people who were there, I cannot help but wonder what happened.
Maybe if we listen more carefully, we might learn what it will take to put it all back together.
|Niagara Falls Reporter||www.niagarafallsreporter.com||October 7 2003|