Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

The Life of William E. West Sr

Academic journal article Afro-Americans in New York Life and History

The Life of William E. West Sr

Article excerpt

This reflective essay explores moments in the life of William E. West Sr., my father, drawing on reminiscences from my youth as well as unpublished writings that he prepared for art exhibits and presentations on his creative works. Like other artists, West focused his reflections on the qualities of art he valued, often excluding biographical information that would have added depth and dimension to his character and creative journeys. I have tried to capture these characteristics of William E. West Sr. in the following essay. I have also included two documents that speak to West Sr.'s creativity and historical imagination, a brief statement on Black history and excerpts of World War II diary. These may be found at the conclusion of my essay. My goal is to contextualize my father's writings, highlight his creative contributions, and inspire others to study his legacy and the cultural history of Buffalo.

Family Origins

William E. West Sr. once wrote that Black History was the "record of the religious faith, physical strength, and ability [to] rise above the indignities and brutalities imposed by an oppressor of 400 years." (2) His personal story embodied Black history. West Sr. was born to Samuel and Lauretta Henry in 1922. West Sr. was the fourth generation of his family to walk the shores of Lake Erie on Southern Ontario and Western New York; his family has lived on the Niagara Frontier for 175 years. His great grandfather Lafayette Henry was a run-away slave who settled in Bertie County (Ridgeway), Ontario, Canada in 1840 at the age of 16. He changed his name to William Henry to hide his identity from slave hunters. Henry was married to Susanna, who was an Indian maiden and had two children Isaiah and Jenny. In 1854, Town of Bertie Township census records listed William Henry and his family among its residents. (3) Henry's son Isaiah, who was born in 1853 in Ridgeway, was William E. West's grandfather. Isaiah had six children, Lauretta, Mary Jane, Jesse, Josephine, Florence and Charles. The Henry family lived in the section of Ridgeway known as "Little Africa". There was only one other black family who lived in the Ridgeway area at the time known as the Simms. Isaiah's daughters, Lauretta and Florence Henry, returned to the United States before 1900. These young women worked as maids for white Buffalo families.

Although Samuel and Lauretta Henry were his birth parents, Mary Jane West raised William E. West Sr. Mary Jane could not have children of her own. She nevertheless maintained a very close and loving relationship with her sisters, who promised that whichever one of them got pregnant first would give Mary the child to adopt. Lauretta Henry was the first of the sisters to conceive, giving birth to twins, but she neglected to tell her husband of the promise. Samuel worked for the railroad as a porter and was able to provide a middle-class life for his family, so there was no reason to give away one of his children. He was resistant to the idea of giving his child to Mary Jane; however, when West Sr.'s twin Esau died the day after birth, Samuel changed his mind. He thought the death of Esau was a bad omen and consented to the adoption.

West Sr. proved a precocious student and athlete throughout his years in elementary and secondary school. West Sr. attended School #8, where he studied with approximately fifty black students. Photos of West Sr. drawing horses appeared in the Buffalo Public School #8 yearbooks in 1935 and 1937 and offer evidence that his artistic creativity began in youth. (4) The yearbooks also reveal that West Sr. was an accomplished middle school student, publishing his notes and drawing, and winning the Safety Poster contest. (5) He also learned how to play the cello and played in the school band. West Sr. took several art courses in high school which included Representation I and II, drawing, oil and water coloring painting. While at Fosdick Masten, West Sr. became a cross-country track athlete, which earned him two All High medals and letters. …

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