Strangers in the Land of Paradise, the Creation of an African-American Community in Buffalo, New Rork, 1900-1940

By Shelton, Brenda | Afro-Americans in New York Life and History, January 31, 2000 | Go to article overview

Strangers in the Land of Paradise, the Creation of an African-American Community in Buffalo, New Rork, 1900-1940


Shelton, Brenda, Afro-Americans in New York Life and History


Strangers in the Land of Paradise, The Creation of an African-American Community, Buffalo, New York, 1900-1940,

What Lillian Williams has done here needs to be done for other cities, and for the other ethnic and racial groups who migrated to them in the early 1900s. It is a story worth telling, and in the case of Buffalo blacks, Williams has done it well.

Buffalo had been home to a small number of blacks before 1900, and while they had always experienced prejudice, they had managed to live quietly, even cordially, with their white neighbors. The arrival of thousands of southern blacks during and after the First World War threatened this stable community. Thus the newcomers encountered hostility not only from whites in Buffalo but from blacks as well. Williams shows how, with the help of a strong family structure and active community organizations, they managed to prosper and, in her words, carve a niche for themselves.

Blacks coming to the city in that period needed a job and a place to live. What Williams calls an "intricate kinship and friendship network" helped to provide both. That network had encouraged many of them to come in the first place, and when they arrived they often moved in with families or friends they knew. While extended and augmented families had been rare earlier in the century, they now became more numerous, as did families taking in boarders, providing evidence of this arrangement. And Williams points to employment records that suggest these families also helped the migrants to find work.

Prosperity during the war and the early twenties meant that most black males could find employment, but the options were limited. Few jobs opened up for them in the rapidly growing industrial sector where most employers refused to hire them unless they used them as strikebreakers, and where unions opposed them. The railroads employed many blacks, and others turned to the service area, which became increasingly important as the black population grew and needed dentists, morticians and entertainers. When the economic situation deteriorated in the late twenties and thirties, unemployment grew and more women went to work. They had always been restricted almost completely to jobs as domestics, and many now found themselves laboring in the houses of whites. …

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