The African American Presence in the History of Western New York

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The African American Presence in the History of Western New York

ERIE COUNTY

African American roots lie deep in early Erie County. In Buffalo, the first historical record we have of a black presence preceded white settlement. Colonel Thomas Proctor reported in 1791 that the only two non-Indians living there when he arrived were a white trader, Cornelius Winne, and his partner, a black man, Joseph Hodge. Hodge had lived there longer than Winne and in fact had lived among the Indians for a long time. "spoke their language fluently and had an Indian family."(1) Hodge, sometimes called "Black Joe," had escaped from slavery and taken refuge with the Seneca Indians. When the Senecas were forced to move from the Buffalo Creek area to the Cattaraugus Creek Reservation, Hodge had accompanied them.(2) Once the number of white settlers began to increase, Joseph Hodge was able to assist them by serving as an interpreter of the Seneca Indian language. Thus, one of the first African Americans in Erie County was actually a bridge between the Indian and white communities.

In 1828, Buffalo had sixty black residents and when the city was incorporated in 1832, the total African-American population was still close to that figure.(3) But this small size was not insignificant since a leadership group emerged out of it, and in any case, the numbers rose to 675 in 1850 and to 784 by the time of the Civil War. Buffalo had the distinction of being home to the largest concentration of African-Americans in Upstate New York.(4) Although they comprised less than one-half of one percent of the population of Upstate New York in 1850, the community-building propensities of blacks and their political activism gave them great stature. They built their churches, ventured into reform activism, spoke against school segregation and against economic and social discrimination.

The other townships in Erie County did not attract large numbers of black residents and in that regard were similar to the rural townships all over Western New York. For example, in 1850, Buffalo alone had a concentration of 675 black residents. Next in size was the town of Black Rock with 63, Tonawanda with 21, Hamburg and Brandt with 7 African American residents each, and the town of Boston with 3 black residents. Clearly, the focal point of institution building for blacks in Erie County would be in Buffalo.

In 1860, the trend away from residency in the townships outside of Buffalo was even more obvious. The census of that year showed 809 black persons in Buffalo. The township with the second largest African American population was Grand Island, with only 25 black residents. All other townships in Erie County had far fewer residents than this. The concentration of black residents in Buffalo explains why this survey of Erie County focuses on that city. That was where the black population lived.

During the 1830s, two African American religious denominations established churches in Buffalo. The Colored Methodist Society was organized in a frame house on Carroll Street. By 1837, the Methodist Society had become an official member of the African Methodist Episcopal denomination. By 1839, the group occupied a building on Vine Street, and the congregation became officially known as the Vine Street A.M.E. church. A black Baptist congregation was also founded in the early 1830s, about the same time as the Methodist Society. By 1836, the Baptist group occupied a church on Michigan Avenue. In time, the group became officially known as the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church.

These churches were not only spiritual centers, but they nourished the reform movements and served as the social centers for blacks in Buffalo and the rest of Erie County. They were the venues of reading and history clubs, and their minis ters, deacons and female members of the missionary guilds and other auxiliaries, were respected molders of opinion in the African-American community.(5) The Reverend George Weir, Sr. …