Friday, July 4, 2014

Griot Stroll

On Saturday, June 28, 2014 Tradition Keepers: Black Storytellers of Western New York presented a Griot Stroll with several members telling stories about Buffalo's Black History.  I told my mother's story, Evelyn O. Brown, relating to the historical area where we were telling.  Taking the liberty of a storyteller, this is the story I told:

Evelyn O. Brown

          On this stroll you will hear about the famous and the prominent features of the African American influence on this area. I am not famous and I am not prominent. My name is Evelyn Brown and I am one of the first generations of my family born in the north. I was born in Buffalo during the 1930s. Both my parents were born in Mississippi and several members of their families came to northern states during the Great Migration -- this was a period when African Americans moved from the South to the North for better opportunities for them and their children . The were following the great American dream just as European immigrants did went they made it to Ellis Island.

          This area had been home to African Americans since the early 1800s. I was a toddler when the Jessie Clipper Monument was established by the Common Council in 1935. It’s right over there on the corner William Street and Michigan Avenue. Private Clipper was the first Negro soldier from Buffalo to die in World War I. The monument stands in memory of the valiant service of Negroes in all wars . . . take a moment to visit it.
          The Buffalo I grew up in was a segregated city. I grew up in this area in the 1930s and 1940s and I remember when it was a thriving community. And more than that, it was a neighborhood. Children would walk to school together and then back home again at the end of the day. After we did our homework, had dinner, and did our chores, we got to play outside for a while. The boys would play games like stick-ball or marbles. The girls would play games like hopscotch or jump rope. We would play to sing-song rhymes like “Ring-Around the Rosie” and “Miss Mary Mack”.

          Right along this area and down William Street there were drug stores, restaurants, candy stores, cleaners, hotels, nightclubs, funeral parlors. We didn’t have to leave the community for anything. We certainly need to go downtown; of course most of the stores downtown didn’t want Negroes in them anyway unless we were the cleaning staff. That’s pretty much how I ended up working at the Michigan Avenue YMCA. I had a secretarial diploma from high school. My typing, shorthand and general clerical skills were very good -- I was at the top of my class; but Negroes weren’t hired to work the front offices of the white businesses and companies.

           Did you know that the Michigan Avenue YMCA was designed by a Black man? His name was John Brent. The Y had an important place in our community -- it was a gathering place, a communal place. It had a cafeteria, gym, swimming pool, barber shop, tailor shop, library; and classrooms, locker rooms, dormitory rooms, and billiard tables. I started going to the Y in high school. Several of my friends and I were members of a girls Hi-Y club. One of my fondest memories was a powerful little woman named Mary Chapelle, who taught us deportment classes -- that is, how to be a lady. There were also similar classes for boys and young men on how to be a responsible members of the community.

          The media did not report our news -- for that we relied on Ebony and Jet magazines. For local news and events we had the Buffalo Star and later the Merriweather family published The Criterion.

          So as I said in the beginning, I am not prominent in Buffalos’ Black history and I’m not famous. The Michigan corridor IS important to Buffalo’s Black history and it was important in my life.  I met my husband, Willis B. Williams, at the Michigan Avenue Y and we dated along the Michigan Avenue corridor.  We were married almost 60 years until he made his transition in 2011.

          My name is Sandra Williams Bush and this is the story of my mother, Evelyn O. Brown.

When I got home later I had two messages from a dna cousin on my mom's side; a branch that she doesn't really know about.  The Stamps family from Mississippi.  Ancestors calling my name . . .

Sandra Williams Bush
Tradition Keepers: Black Storytellers of WNY

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