On the Founding of the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, 1974

By Williams, Lillian S. | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, July 2011 | Go to article overview

On the Founding of the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, 1974


Williams, Lillian S., Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Monroe Fordham, Ralph Watkins and I enrolled in graduate school at the University at Buffalo (UB) in the late 1960s. Interestingly, each of us had begun our professional careers as high school history teachers and we had been involved in projects designed to diversify the curriculum and to offer multi-cultural perspectives. We were well aware of the late Dr. John Hope Franklin's books From Slavery to Freedom and, Land of the Free, his textbook for high school students, as well as his other writings which had informed much of our early work in curriculum development. (1) It was an exciting time to return to college, for institutions of higher learning were experiencing a transformation. The modern Civil Rights and Black Power Movements, the United States involvement in Viet Nam, and concerns about poverty took center stage in academic debates. (2)

UB had the reputation of being the Berkeley of the East--a reference to the progressive reform movements initiated by students at the University of California at Berkeley. Students and their faculty supporters began to question the administrative structure of the University and the relevance of academic programs and curricula. They were influenced by the writings of renowned faculty members, like Edgar Friedenberg (School of Education) and Gabriel Kolko (Department of History). (3) Student demands and the advocacy of community organizations for relevant curricula resulted in the offering of classes in African American history at the University at Buffalo and later the establishment of the Black Studies program. These phenomena also were occurring in colleges and universities across the nation.

This was the context in which the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier (AAHANF) was founded. It was the brainchild of Monroe Fordham. When he approached me about the viability of establishing an African American Historical Association in Buffalo, I was excited about the prospect, for the Association would provide a forum in which to engage the community, as well as the academy in collecting, critiquing and disseminating scholarship on African Americans. Frank Messiah, labor leader and longtime Buffalo NAACP president and state vice president, educator Dr. Shirley Harrington and Buffalo and Erie County librarian Melvin Watkins soon came on board and brought their unique talents and networks. We comprised the original Board of Directors and sometime in November 1974 we met in my apartment at 24 Glendale Place in Buffalo to sign the incorporation papers. (4) I suggested that we add "Niagara Frontier" to the name of the organization to reflect the region's important shared history.

Each of us was committed to effecting change in the community where we lived. We knew we had to buttress our rationale for doing so with solid, scholarly research. The Association would be a vehicle for us to do so and to encourage others to engage in such research. There also was another compelling personal reason for us to pursue the establishment of an historical association. As graduate students at the University at Buffalo we were exploring dissertation topics and wanted to conduct research on various aspects of the history of blacks in Buffalo. Our mentors discouraged us from undertaking such a project because, they contended, there was no extant body of primary sources to support the research. Intuitively, we knew that this was an inaccurate assessment, for we believed that local repositories simply had not collected the papers oi African Americans and that they still remained in private possession. We sought to institutionalize our beliefs by collecting and protecting these local resources. Monroe informed me that he envisioned establishing an archives and microfilm project as part of the mission of the AAHANF and I heartily endorsed the plan. It placed us in the peculiar position of creating an archive so that we could conduct research on the topics we desired. …

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