“Green Book” opened in movie theaters across the country over the weekend. It’s the story of a world-class black pianist on tour in the racially segregated South in the early ’60s.
The film’s title refers to a mid-20th century annual travel guide, compiled by Victor Green, that acted as a GPS and Yelp for African-American motorists who might have difficulty finding amenities that would be available to them as they traveled across the country.
Just as water fountains and lunch counters were segregated, so, too, were lodging and gas pumps.
“The white traveler has had no difficulty in getting accommodations, but with the Negro it has been different,” said the forward of the 1957 guide. “He, before the advent of a Negro travel guide, had to depend on word of mouth, and many times accommodations were not available.”
The New York Public Library has digitized about two dozen editions of “The Negro Motorist Green-Book,” which are available on its digital collections website.
Here are pages describing accommodations that were safe for black travelers in Buffalo from 1949 and 1955.
By the end of the 1960s, the book was no longer in print. One of the final editions of the book from 1966-67 goes state by state to outline laws that add to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and what a person’s recourse is if that law was violated.
To a large degree, that landmark legislation was the fulfillment of the hopes of the publishers of “The Green-Book,” as outlined in the 1949 edition.
“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”
Starting in 1948, Buffalo television for its first 18 years was a de facto — and in some cases, policy-driven — segregated medium.
During World War II and the years immediately following the war, Buffalo’s black population grew quickly both in real numbers and as a percentage of the overall population.
Eventually, there were a small handful of radio shows that catered to African-American tastes and interests, in much the same way Buffalo’s Polish and Italian populations had their own radio shows.
In 1968, Courier-Express Radio & TV reporter Jack Allen wrote about the need for the training and development of media talent from local minority communities, pointing to Buffalo’s first media star of Western New York’s African-American community as an example of a success story.
Jimmy Lyons was born and raised in Buffalo and starting working in theaters and nightclubs as an entertainer at age 16. He went to West Virginia State College and UB, and he served as a lieutenant in the Army in Italy during World War II. In 1955, he joined WXRA Radio, then in Kenmore, with a rhythm and blues show called “The Lyons Den.” He moved to WWOL and then WUFO when that station signed on as “The Voice of the Negro Community” in 1961.
Allen called Lyons “a man of principle and talent who has the respect of the broadcasters who worked with him in this area” and “a respected native of Buffalo with a fine background of accomplishment, an intelligent viewpoint and capable broadcasting techniques, and a man who has long had his finger upon the pulse of the Negro community.”
But that was radio. There wasn’t a regularly scheduled black presenter or entertainer on television until Ernie Warlick joined the staff at WGR-TV Ch. 2 in 1966. At first, he was the station’s weekend sportscaster. A few months later, he became the station’s nightly 11 p.m. sports anchor.
Warlick was a fan favorite during his years as a tight end for the Buffalo Bills. On the field, he’s remembered as a target for a Jack Kemp touchdown pass in the 1965 AFL Championship Game.
Off the field, he was known as a gentle giant with a warm smile. His calm demeanor made him the obvious choice as the spokesman for the black players who voted to boycott the 1965 AFL All-Star game in New Orleans after they experienced racism in the city.
Being able to talk to the reporters in such a tension-filled situation, but also talking football with his customers at the two “Henry’s Hamburgers” stands he owned in Buffalo, gave Warlick the experience needed to be hired by WGR Radio for daily segments after his playing career had ended.
With those radio spots going well, Warlick began hosting “The Quarterback Club” on Channel 2, and eventually he anchored sports during the station’s newscasts and breaking Buffalo’s TV color barrier.
Shortly after Warlick joined the sports staff at Channel 2, Irv Weinstein hired John Winston for Eyewitness News at Channel 7.
Winston had spent years as a writer in medical research before joining the reporting staff at WKBW-TV, where he was Buffalo’s first black television news reporter.
He won several awards for his in-depth reporting on issues facing Buffalo’s African-American community in the years immediately following the 1967 protests of the oppression and living conditions of many in Buffalo’s black neighborhoods.
Winston left Channel 7 in 1977 to join the communications staff at the NFTA.
When Chuck Lampkin first came to work at WBEN-TV in 1970, he was best known to many Buffalonians as a jazz drummer who’d accompanied such stars as Dizzy Gillespie on the road.
At Channel 4, he was in a rotation of news anchors, becoming the first black man to regularly anchor local TV newscasts in Western New York.
Before the term was in common usage, Lampkin was also the station’s consumer reporter. He’d take a cameraman — such as Mike Mombrea or Bill Cantwell — to the shop or office that had ripped off a viewer, and he’d usually get the problem resolved.
Lampkin was in the anchor seat several times during one of the definitive events in Buffalo history, the Blizzard of ’77.
Sheela Allen was a television pioneer on two separate tracks — not only was she among the first women to work as a general assignment reporter, she was among the first African-Americans, as well. She was Buffalo’s first female African-American television news personality when she got to WBEN-TV Ch. 4 in 1972.
At Channel 2, June Bacon-Bercey was a science reporter for WGR-TV Channel 2, when she was drafted to take over evening weather anchor duties. Bacon-Bercey, who’d later receive her doctorate in meteorology, was both the first woman and the first African-American to earn the American Meteorological Society seal, crediting her worthiness as a broadcaster and as a scientist.
While African-Americans remain underrepresented as far as a population percentage in local television broadcasts, the black journalists who have worked in Buffalo often go on to more high-profile work.
Les Trent, who was an anchor and reporter at WGRZ-TV in the 1980s, is now a correspondent for Inside Edition.
Pam Oliver, who has been a network NFL and NBA sideline reporter for 25 years, was a reporter at Channel 4.
Jericka Duncan, who was also a reporter at Channel 4, is now regularly seen on the CBS Evening News, as a correspondent on the newscast anchored by Tonawanda native Jeff Glor.
For the first two weekends of August, the sounds of jazz fill Martin Luther King Jr. Park during the annual Pine Grill Reunion.
This year’s reunion is the 29th annual, and at just under 30 years, the reunion has been going on longer than the club was open.
A small joint near the corner of Jefferson and East Ferry, the Pine Grill was bursting with musical energy during the heyday of Buffalo’s jazz scene. Some of the biggest acts in music played the Pine Grill in the ’50s and ’60s.
In his autobiography, R&B legend Teddy Pendergrass wrote that he knew that going into the Pine Grill meant he didn’t have to put on a tux and a smile.
“For the crowd at Buffalo’s Pine Grill, it was the Temptations’ ‘Get Ready’ and gettin’ down ‘n’ funky, undoing your tie, and letting them see you sweat,” he wrote in the 1998 book.
When a big out-of-town act finished its gig at some bigger place, they often wound up having a drink and enjoying the music and the vibe in the intimate and gutty-feeling Pine Grill.
The music doesn’t pour out onto the street at the corner of Jefferson and Ferry anymore. In fact, spot where the Pine Grill stood has been a parking lot for the drug store next door for at least 30 years now.
But the memories are in the people and the music, and the people and the music return this weekend at MLK Park.
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.
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.”
Although “the Buffalo chicken wing” didn’t appear until the 1960s, Britain’s Queen Victoria was offering Buffalonians lessons on how to properly eat the delicacies 70 years earlier on the pages of The Buffalo Evening News.
With the help of Photoshop, an image of Queen Victoria and a plate of chicken wings. (Buffalo Stories illustration)
Here’s a spoiler alert— it sounds like the monarch whose name has become synonymous with prudishness and priggishness wouldn’t feel out of place with a table of Buffalonians devouring a bucket at Duff’s or Gabriel’s Gate.
Buffalo Stories archives
The story was told in The News that, in 1892, a plain country woman was with her 3-year-old having lunch with the Queen and Princess Beatrice.
“The queen, in the course of the lunch, took up a chicken wing with her fingers. While she was enjoying the sweetness of the meat next to the bone the little child looked up and quickly said:
“Every one was horrified. The mother felt as if she would like to sink out of existence. The queen went on for an instant with the morsel which she was holding in her fingers and then said:
“’You are right my dear. An English lady would not take a chicken wing in her fingers, but you must bear in mind that I am a German woman.’
“And she calmly finished the wing. The rest breathed a low sigh of relief and the mother and the child were, on taking their leave, invited to come again.”
Could Queen Victoria have been anymore Buffalonian?
With almost complete certitude, Queen Victoria’s wings were different than the one’s we munch on in Buffalo today. Our wings are split at the wing joint into flats and clubs. (Even if you call them something different, you know what I mean.) Her Royal Highness was likely gnawing on a still-intact wing, since serving split wings was the unquestionable culinary contribution of the Anchor Bar, starting around 1964.
That connected wing was almost certainly roasted with little additional seasoning, unlike our fried wings of today. While Teressa Bellissimo and the Anchor Bar certainly get the kudos for Buffalo’s first split wing, they might have to share the title of Buffalo’s first spicy wing with John Young, who served unsplit wings covered in his spicy Mambo sauce at his “Wings & Things” restaurant on Jefferson Avenue starting in the mid-’60s.
While credit for who first served a Buffalo-style chicken wing might be up for debate, these instructions on how to eat them seem indisputable.
The next time one of the more Victorian of your friends questions the manners of slamming down some wings, you can point to Queen Victoria’s notion that while proper English ladies might not use their fingers, Germans and Buffalonians do so with relish and the kind of grace becoming the Queen of England.
The Buffalo News called Minnie Gillette “a feisty political figure who strayed from party lines in the interest of her constituents.”
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.”
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)
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.
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.
As Buffalo gathered to mourn the death of Martin Luther King Jr., two men who remained community leaders for parts of five decades conferred as they marched in memory.
Buffalo News archives
George K. Arthur (far right) and Arthur O. Eve (second from right) were among those in Western New York working to ensure that the April 1968 assassination of the civil rights leader wouldn’t reopen the wounds of Queen City race relations, which had barely begun to heal.
King visited Buffalo five months before he was slain in part to help promote healing following racially charged protests and rioting in Buffalo during the summer of 1967. He told an audience at UB that “we are moving toward the day when we will judge a man by his character and ability instead of by the color of his skin.”
Buffalonians of all races gathered on the plaza in front of the downtown library at Lafayette Square to remember Dr. King. Among the speakers was freshman Assemblyman Arthur O. Eve, who implored, “If you know of anyone planning violence, stop them.
“We can overcome by using our brains, talents, and abilities, and by uniting together, black and white, to achieve equal justice for all.”
“He knew his method was the right method,” Eve said of King’s strict adherence to nonviolence, “but if we do not continue his fight and struggle, his death will have been in vain.”
Barely a year on the job in Albany when this photo was taken, Eve served another 34 years in the Assembly. He was deputy speaker from 1977 to 2002.
George K. Arthur was on Erie County’s board of supervisors, was Ellicott District councilman, and was president of the Common Council from 1984 to 1996. He later served as secretary of Buffalo’s financial control board.