Origins of the Michigan Street Baptist Church, Buffalo, New York

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Origins of the Michigan Street Baptist Church, Buffalo, New York

The 1828 Directory for the Village of Buffalo listed 59 "Names of Coloured" heads of families. In 1832, when the City of Buffalo was incorporated, the city directory listed the names of 68 colored heads of families.(2) The pre-Civil War African American population of Buffalo was centered in the fourth ward--east of Main Street, north of South Division Street, and south of North Street.(3) Michigan Street ran through the heart of the residential area where African Americans lived. Although most of the City's African American population lived in the fourth ward, that area was not an all-black area. In fact, the vast majority of the residents of the fourth ward were white.

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century Buffalo's free Black residents began to form a closely knit society concentrated in the Michigan-William Street area on the eastern fringe of the downtown commercial district. Hardly a recognized ethnic element at this time, the Negro population of the entire city numbered around 350 when the Michigan Street Baptist Church was built in 1845. Some Blacks who were domestic servants lived scattered throughout the city, but the majority listed in the 1840 census lived within two wards east of the central business district. A sociological study made by Niles Carpenter in 1927 shows that Buffalo's relatively small and cohesive Negro population continued to live and expand in the same area of the city at the end of the first quarter of the twentieth century.(4)

Early records of the region indicate that African Americans were present in the Buffalo area by the 1790s.(5) Buffalo's location was a factor in attracting African Americans. Located in the far western, and at that time a fairly remote, part of the state, Buffalo was also just across the border from Canada. Those factors made the region very attractive to fugitive slaves as well as free people of color who wanted a quick escape route from bounty hunters. African Americans helped to rebuild the city after it was destroyed by the British in the War of 1812. Blacks were present when the village was incorporated in 1822.

The city directory of 1838 noted the existence of a "colored Baptist and [a] colored Methodist society." That was the first time a Buffalo city directory noted the presence of an African American religious body. However, other primary sources note the existence of organized black religious activity in Buffalo by the early 1830s.(6) In all probability, some level of informal organized and independent religious activity was present even earlier, especially in light of the fact that Buffalo had a documented sizable African American community back as early as the 1820s. In addition, some blacks worshiped in white churches. Religion was very important to northern free black communities and by the late 1790s, northern free blacks had begun to establish their own churches and other community agencies.(7) While passing through western New York in 1837, Charles B. Ray, a traveling agent for the Colored American weekly newspaper filed a written report describing Buffalo's African American community.

The Colored community of Buffalo are, in many respects, above any community of our people I have visited during my western tour.... They have among them two religious societies, one benevolent, and three literary [societies]. The males spend their winter evenings in debating moral and political questions. Their school is for the present discontinued for want of a teacher. Their children are in attendance at the white private schools.(8)

The congregation that became known as the Michigan Street Baptist church was formally organized between 1832 and 1837. A historical sketch of the church written around 1908 by the Rev. Dr. J. Edward Nash, the church's pastor, states that "During the ministry of Elisha Tucker, Pastor of the Washington Street Baptist Church, a council was called to organize a colored Baptist Church, to be constituted of members from the Washington Street Church. …