Buffalo in the ’80s: Minnie Gillette, grassroots community pioneer

By Steve Cichon

The Buffalo News called Minnie Gillette “a feisty political figure who strayed from party lines in the interest of her constituents.”

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Concerned with the plight of those in her Fruit Belt community, she fought for what was best for the entire Western New York community as a whole.

“I want to find out the barriers we need to overcome to admit inner-city youth to county employment programs,” Gillette said shortly before being elected as Erie County’s first African-American legislator in 1977, representing mostly the city’s Ellicott District. “We need to develop a meaningful plan to attract all youth back to the city.”

“She was a peacemaker who had a talent for resolving differences,” said fellow Erie County lawmaker Joan Bozer, who also called her “hard-working, compassionate, very savvy and hard-working person who was always trying to bring people together.”

Gillette’s work with food pantries, block clubs, the mentally handicapped, and employment programs left an indelible mark on the families and communities she served, but her biggest regional victory came in saving Buffalo’s old downtown post office. She and fellow County Legislator Joan Bozer led the efforts to covert the historical building into ECC’s downtown campus.

“She cajoled, stirred and strong-armed her colleagues into turning this building into the fine college it is now,” County Executive Dennis Gorski remembered. “She served her community well and with dedication.”

Within weeks of her death from cancer at the age of 62, the auditorium at the ECC City Campus was renamed in her honor.

Len Lenihan, who served with Gillette in the Legislature and later served as County Democratic Chairman and now as Elections Commissioner, said Gillette was not a traditional politician, and long after her time in elected office was over, she “continued her work as a tireless advocate for the homeless, the poor and the needy.”

“Her principal concern was serving her constituents, which she did extremely well,” said Lenihan. “She rarely got involved in partisan politics.”

A lifelong Democrat, her forays into “partisan politics” often got her in trouble with the party brass. She said Republicans offered her a greater voice for her ideas and her community, so she caucused with them while serving in the Legislature.

She was also fired as an elections inspector after supporting Buffalo Mayor James D. Griffin instead of the endorsed Democrat in a 1991 race. Officials claimed the two weren’t connected, but Gillette did get her inspector job back.

In remembering Gillette, News reporter Rose Ciotta wrote, “The people who knew Minnie Gillette say she has left a rich legacy. The record books will say she was the first African-American woman elected to the Erie County Legislature. But the books that count will say Minnie Gillette epitomized grassroots power. It’s impossible to think that anyone can ever do it like she did.

“Those who eulogized her said she was her community’s ‘Ghetto Queen’ because she showed them how to be welcomed at the tables of the powerful while never forgetting her own roots.”

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Steve Cichon

Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News. He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.