Buffalo in the ’20s: YMCA branch was heart of black community

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Between the world wars, there was no greater unifier of Buffalo’s growing black population than the Michigan Avenue YMCA.

As late as 1920, unique circumstances made gathering as a community in a single space difficult. Overt racism made many civic gathering places, and most private ones, off limits. In other marginalized and immigrant communities within Buffalo, a place of worship also acted as a place of assembly for non-religious activities – but unlike the Irish, Polish, Italian and Jewish populations, there wasn’t necessarily a unifying current among the many different churches of the larger African-American community.

The organization of a YMCA branch specifically for Buffalo’s black men and boys started in 1924. By 1927, $225,000 had been raised and plans were drawn up for the building by John Edmonston Brent. He was one of the founding members of the branch, as well as Buffalo’s first black architect. Brent would go on to work for the City of Buffalo, where his design work remains on display, most notably along the gates and fences of the Buffalo Zoo.

On April 15, 1928, the new building was dedicated in “devotion to the uplift and advancement” of the 10,000 members of the black community it served.

Aside from the 20-by-60-foot swimming pool and gymnasium, the building boasted a barber shop in the basement, a lounge for men fronting Michigan Avenue, and a lounge for boys on the side of the building. The second floor was filled with classrooms, club rooms, a cafeteria and a women’s area. The third and fourth floors were dormitories with room for 70 men.

More than just a club, the Michigan Avenue YMCA became the heart of the community. Famous speakers, performers and human rights activists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Count Basie and a young Jim Brown all visited the building.

William “Pops” Jackson (left) began running a YMCA program for Buffalo’s black population in 1923. He oversaw the building of the Michigan Avenue building. When he retired in 1947, he was widely acclaimed as the driving force behind the YMCA and much of the good happening in Buffalo’s black community. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Perhaps more importantly, the building was home to fostering ideas and a sense of purpose from within the black community out to the rest of Western New York.

Following the appointment of the Rev. D Ormond Walker, pastor of Bethel AME Church, to Buffalo’s War Council in 1944, Michigan Avenue YMCA chapter president A.J. Smitherman felt that the YMCA had helping bring people together. He spoke about it at a Y gathering that included the fire commissioner, the Democratic Party chairman and the president of Western Savings Bank.

“It is gratifying that our people and other groups may mingle at ease on terms of human brotherhood and friendship. That’s the kind of unity and brotherhood the world is seeking and it is Buffalo’s answer to those bigots who would raise the red flag of race hatred.”

The Michigan Avenue YMCA building was torn down in 1977; the site remains a vacant lot just south of Sycamore.

Buffalo in the ’60s: Bills players stand up to racism

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

The 1965 American Football League All-Star game was scheduled for 52 years ago this week in New Orleans, but it never happened.

Dave Dixon, who had been trying to bring the AFL to New Orleans, organized the game with promises that there wouldn’t be any problems in the still-segregated city. Players were promised testimonial dinners and golf tournaments, and even told to bring their families. But trouble began as players landed at the airport.

Cabs lined up for the White All-Stars, but the 22 black players weren’t so lucky. A porter called black cabbies from downtown for several players, but there were a few who were picked up by white cabbies — only to be driven out to the boonies before being ordered out of the cab. Bills fullback Cookie Gilchrist was warned by a friendly white cabbie, “Be careful in this town.”

Ten members of the AFL Champion Bills were on the East All-Star team, and Bills Head Coach Lou Saban was East coach. Four of the 10 Bills were black: Cookie Gilchrist, Elbert Dubenion, Butch Byrd and Ernie Warlick.

Bills quarterback Jack Kemp and linebacker Mike Stratton were also among the all-stars, and were joined by their teammate Warlick in the French Quarter. In several different places, Kemp and Stratton — both white — were allowed in, but Warlick was told with hostility that he wasn’t welcome.

In his book “The Birth of the New NFL,” Larry Felser tells the story that Warlick packed his bags after an incident the following morning.

“Warlick was able to order breakfast in the dining room of the hotel, ‘but I lost my appetite when an older woman said loud enough for me to hear, that she didn’t want to eat in the same room with monkeys.’ “

There were many other black players who had similar or worse experiences. Many didn’t want to spent the rest of the week there and play in such an environment.

There were several meetings of players over the coming days. The black players voted at one meeting to skip practice. Then there was a meeting with the game organizers and the NAACP, where Gilchrist did much of the talking.

At a larger meeting, with many players of both races, Bills tight end Warlick was nominated spokesman of the black players. It wasn’t unanimous, but the black players voted to not play.

Immediately after the meeting, Warlick told reporters that the fact that they’d been promised there wouldn’t be any segregation made it that much harder to deal with. Players were told that the better night spots, restaurants and hotels would greet all the players equally with open arms.

“Actually, this came as a complete surprise to us,” Warlick said of the way he and his teammates had been treated. “We were led to believe that we could relax and enjoy ourselves in New Orleans just like other citizens. Maybe if we had been alerted to the fact that we wouldn’t have the run of the town, we could have avoided this unpleasant situation.

“If they had told us this before, we’d have looked specifically for those cabs and sought out our entertainment in those places,” Warlick continued. “But they led us to believe everything was going to be OK. And it wasn’t.”

Kemp was the backup quarterback for the East All-Stars, had just won the AFL Championship with the Bills, and was also the president of the league’s players’ union. He and San Diego Chargers offensive lineman Ron Mix were among the white players at that final meeting. The two agreed to lead white players to stand by their teammates — but not all white players embraced the move. Patriots linebacker (and later Hall of Famer) Nick Buoniconti called the walkout a “raw deal” which “hurt the league a great deal.”

Later a Buffalo congressman, HUD Secretary and vice presidential candidate in 1996, Kemp was also influential in the negotiations to move the game to Houston, where it was played days later.

Immediately following the vote to not play, Gilchrist found a Mexican cabbie to take him to the airport, but snow in the northeast had flights delayed. News of a player revolt came on a TV in the terminal, and “Suddenly, people are all looking at me,” Gilchrist told Murray Olderman of the Jamestown Post-Journal.  “I can sense the hostility. For the first time in my life I’m scared. I’ve been brainwashed about the South.”

He finally got on a flight for New York and was comforted that he was among friends when someone asked him for an autograph.

“We weren’t out to correct anybody,’’ then-Bills cornerback Butch Byrd told the Sporting News in 2015.

“We were just thinking, ‘They’re showing us no respect. This is just pure hatred. We have to get out of here,’ ” said Byrd. “We weren’t thinking about making history, so to speak. We just knew we were treated badly, and we wanted to leave.’’

“The stand the AFL and its players took against the city of New Orleans was unprecedented,” wrote Pro Football Hall of Fame researcher Jon Kendle in a piece for the Hall of Fame’s website.  “The boycott was clearly a milestone event that went beyond the world of sports and was more of a reflection of American society at the time. It helped shine a spotlight on Congress’s ability to enforce the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and proved that if America was to desegregate, the culture needed to change its mindset and adopt a more progressive view of the human race as quickly as possible.”

Buffalo in the 1880s: Bisons’ 2B is baseball’s earliest black star

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

Bisons-1887FrankGrant
Buffalo Stories archives

He is often heralded as the best player the Bisons had in the 1800s, which is no small feat, as he was being matched against four Hall of Fame players. But even after his enshrinement in the Hall of Fame in 2006, 120 years after he first joined the Bisons, few know the name Frank Grant.

A 1915 story in the Buffalo Courier reads, “He played for years for The Buffalos, gained the sobriquet ‘The colored Dunlap,’ and was regarded the equal of any second baseman in the country.” The Dunlap referenced was Fred Dunlap, baseball’s highest paid player of the 1880s, and the game’s best (white) second baseman of his time.

Many believed it was Grant’s prowess on the field that effectively barred African-Americans from major league baseball for the first half of the twentieth century.

When Jackie Robinson’s desegregation of baseball was making headlines in the late ’40s, one man wrote a letter to the editor with his memories of the sport’s first crack at integration.

“As a boy, I attended games at the original park at Richmond and Summer,” wrote Ed Rother. “This was in 1886-88. Our Colored second baseman, Frank Grant, had everything our present day Jackie Robinson had, and was the idol of Buffalo fandom.”

The Bisons’ manager, John Chapman, always referred to Grant as “a Spaniard,” fearful of fan and player reaction to the truth.

His style was described by The News as “full of vim and abandon.” Grant played second base without a glove — only his bare hands — but he had to create his own special wooden shin pads from the numbers of opposing base runners who seemed to find a way to run into second (and the second baseman) spikes first. In 1888, his last year with the Bisons, his teammates refused to sit for a team portrait with him. The next season, he was playing with barnstorming teams and was an early star in the Negro Leagues.

One of very few known photos of Frank Grant comes from the Bisons' 1887 team photo. The following year, his teammates refused to sit with him for the portrait. (Buffalo Stories archives)

One of very few known photos of Frank Grant comes from the Bisons’ 1887 team photo. The following year, his teammates refused to sit with him for the portrait. (Buffalo Stories archives)

Grant visited area ball diamonds at least twice after his Bisons days. In 1894, Grant and the Cuban Giants — a barnstorming black team — played Buffalo’s amateur Oakdales at the Bisons’ home field, Olympic Park. Two years later, Grant and the Giants took on the Niagara University varsity squad.

There are historians and baseball enthusiasts who take up the case for Grant as the “greatest ever Bison,” and there is a case to be made, but the man who gets more of those than Grant is the Bisons’ second African-American player: Luke Easter. Easter broke the modern-era color barrier for the Herd after a long career in the Negro Leagues, the big leagues with Cleveland starting in 1949, and then with Rochester and Buffalo in the International League.

What it looked like Wednesday: The Apollo Theatre, 1941

By Steve Cichon
steve@buffalostories.com
@stevebuffalo

With much fanfare, the Apollo — featuring cornice carved ceilings, an art nouveau lobby, a rich red rug, and soft, velvet-covered seats opened to the public in April, 1941.

Buffalo News archives

The Basil family operated it like all its theaters, as a neighborhood moviehouse, with special attention to what kids might want to spend their Saturday afternoons watching.

Through most of the theater’s heyday, its Jefferson Avenue address put it at the center of the commercial hub of Buffalo’s black community. Since the mid-’90s, the theater has served as a central location upon which to bring hope to the surrounding community.

The Apollo closed as a theater in the early ’70s and then operated as a church before being seized by the city in the ’80s. By 1995, it had been boarded up and mostly abandoned.

Masten District Councilmember Byron Brown helped lead discussions inside City Hall to make the theater’s renovation part of a plan to bring new life to Jefferson Avenue.

In 1998, plans were unveiled for $3 million worth of city funded renovations to turn the landmark into a telecommunications hub for the city. Aside from city television facilities, the building also became home to a small business resource center.