If you’re visiting the City of Tonawanda these days, taking a nice ride from, say, Gateway Harbor – the home of Canal Fest and summertime concerts – over to Old Man River for a hot dog and an ice cream, you might not realize the trip includes passage through what was once one of Western New York’s most infamous red light districts.
The area that’s now home to a Tops Market and the police station was once known as “Goose Island,” a small man-made island formed when the Erie Canal cut off a triangle of land from the rest of the city bounded on the other sides by Tonawanda Creek and the Niagara River.
It’s no surprise that Tonawanda’s expansive lumber industry eventually made use of the island, but initially it was developed with residences for more well-to-do Tonawandans.
Tonawanda Mayor Christ S. Warren was born on Goose Island in 1879, when the Tonawandas were the world’s largest freshwater lumber port. As a boy, he helped his grandfather operate a grocery store which catered to the canalers.
“Many a morning I got up at 3 o’clock to drive a team and a covered wagon to the Buffalo market for supplies,” an 81-year-old Warren remembered in a 1960 interview.
But times changed. There were several destructive fires there in the early 1890s. In 1899, speculators bought up much of Goose Island as it was named as a possible site for a series of docks for lumber and grain ships – but those docks were ultimately built on Buffalo’s Squaw Island.
Whether it was a direct result of that crazed land buying gone bust or not, over the next 20 years, Goose Island became known as a “notorious district,” made up of “disorderly houses.”
“Goose Island has had a shady reputation for years,” reported the Buffalo Times, “and had come to be well-known throughout this section of the country because of the escapades credited to many persons visiting it.”
The infamous area was commonly referenced in divorce proceedings of the time. Mrs. Lumley was granted a divorce after her husband was fingered as “one of three boon fellows” joined by “buxom women companions” at a “wild party” on Goose Island in 1925.
It was around the same time that Erie County Sheriff Frank A. Tyler called the conditions on Goose Island “downright immoral,” and threatened that if Tonawanda Police wouldn’t clean up the place, he’d send deputies to “remove this stigma from Erie County.”
After a late night visit to the district Tyler told the Buffalo Courier, “I have positive evidence that women are soliciting openly in the streets.” He went on to quote letters from parents who said their sons and daughters were “ruined” by visits to the district.
Despite “more than 20 houses of ill-repute operating with two to four women attached to each house,” Goose Island hotel owner Philip Perew said he’d been living on the island for years and saw no problems with conditions there.
“Everybody knows what Goose Island is for,” said Perew, who lived on Sweeney Street.
“A survey of Goose Island yesterday by a reporter revealed there are two streets in which nearly every house contains two or three women wearing gaudy dresses and having highly painted faces,” reported the Buffalo Courier. “The women make no secret of their business and laugh at reports of the impending cleanup.”
Aside from the vice, “the free flow of intoxicating liquor” was also a problem there during the height of Prohibition. In some quarters, Goose Island was known as “the wettest spot in New York State.” A Buffalo man was arrested in 1925 driving a truck with 30 barrels of beer on River Road. Often that beer didn’t make it too far– plant operators on “the island” had a difficult time keeping employees sober. As many as 500 people a night were visiting the Goose Island “resorts.”
The drinking and prostitution both were open secrets. That lead to the 1936 arrest and trial of a sheriff’s deputy accused of trying to extort money from Perew and other “Goose Island resort operators.”
Tighter policing through the 1930s saw the decline of the area as a prostitution center, as arrest rosters showed people with nicknames like “Tiger Lilly” and “Tony the Wop.” The filling in of the canal along Niagara Street during that decade also reconnected the island to the rest of the city.
Urban renewal efforts of the 1960s further wiped any remnants of Goose Island off the map. Planners bragged efforts in a 45-acre parcel downtown, where all the wooden frame buildings – many dating back to the 1860s – were to be replaced with modern brick and concrete structures.
“When the project is completed in January 1968,” predicted Urban Renewal Perry A. Wilson, “Tonawanda will be one of the most modern and beautiful cities in Western New York.”
With that work, the old Goose Island – and years of illicit history in the City of Tonawanda – was plowed under.
Though the following was written during one of the earlier crackdowns that didn’t quite last, this 1918 reflection in the Buffalo Times sums up the end of Goose Island well.
“The passing of the island as a ‘red light district’ with painted women thus marks the elimination of a spot that for a long time has been a thorn in the side of respectable residents of Tonawanda.”
After the war, people wanted to leave the worn city behind, in favor of bright, clean, shiny new suburbs. And what better way to get people to the suburbs than 4 and 6 lane divided highways.
The original thought was enthusiastic, but, as later admitted, misguided. Planners said when the population along the Niagara Frontier reaches 1.5 million, 2 million, 3 million… the people spread all over Western New York will want to get Downtown quickly for the best entertainment, for the glitziest shopping, for the finest restaurants, and, of course, to work.
“Suburban traffic,” it was written in the 1946 report The New York State Thruway and Arterial Routes in the Buffalo Urban Area, “must be given high consideration in the logical treatment of any conditions in the city.”
There was very little resistance to this idea to prepare Buffalo for the bold new future. The Parkside neighborhood was at the center of the plan that would turn Buffalo into the 20 minute city it continues to be.
There was a much different aesthetic in the days before six lanes of highway made an abrupt incision in the landscape. Parkside’s southerly border was and is Humboldt Parkway, but the pre-1960 Humboldt Parkway was a far cry from what it is today.
street was designed by Olmsted to connect The Park (Delaware Park) to the
Parade (later Humboldt Park, now Martin Luther King Park) in such a way
that one could travel from one to the other without feeling like they left a
park at all. Once, eight rows of stately
trees stood on the 200-foot wide median between the two sides of the divided
At Delaware Park, Humboldt Parkway ended at Agassiz Circle, with the grand entrance to Park. The Parkway continued with the grace-fully curved, two-lane Scajaquada Parkway. Young people would often pull off the road to “park” under the statue of David, or toboggan in the winter.
Mrs. Martha Lang, who lived on Crescent Avenue for over 50 years, remembered vividly her mother’s home on Humboldt Parkway in the 1940s.
Speaking with the Parkside News in 1990, she called Humboldt’s tree-shaded median “a place for lovers to stroll, kids to play, to sit on your front porch and watch the passing scene.” She lamented its loss, and said the whole character of the area changed when the Scajaquada Expressway took its place.
In 1953, with the north/south 190 already in place, planners released plans for a series of 5 east/west highways to bisect the city and increase the ability for traffic to move in and out of downtown, with no waiting in heavy city traffic.
One of the proposals seemed like a fait accompli. Unlike the others, which cut through neighborhoods, this cut through land described by planners as “vacant.”
Four years later, in 1957, that “vacant” land that was the middle of Delaware Park became home to a high speed thoroughfare. The Scajaquada Creek Expressway opened as a widened, jersey-barriered and guard-railed 50 mile-an-hour version of the sleepy, winding 15 mile-an-hour path which once stood in the same place.
To meet up with the planned Kensington Expressway, The Scaja-quada Ex-pressway was extend-ed past the footprint of the old Scajaquada Parkway, right through the beginning of Humboldt Parkway to about Delevan Avenue. Humboldt Parkway was at grade level with Main Street.
The blasting that took place to sink the roadway to 20 feet below grade, and expose the walls of Onondaga limestone, rattled picture frames off of walls throughout the neighborhood, just as the blasting out of the Beltline did 50 years before, and blasting out of the MetroRail would 30 years later.
Kensington and Scajaquada Expressways were built, Agassiz Circle, once the
stately, grand entrance to Delaware Park, all but disappeared. No longer a parkway divided by grass and
trees, Humboldt Parkway became two parallel one way streets separated by six
lanes of blown out-sunken in asphalted expressway. The city encroachment that
Olmsted designed Parkside to eliminate was here.
But believe or not, it really could have been worse. In his 1983 book High Hopes, Mark Goldman outlines a 1958 proposal for another expressway, thankfully never built, called the Delaware Park Shortway. It would have “taken a large chunk of Delaware Park meadow and built there yet another divided highway, across the park and parallel to the Scajaquada.”
Aside from the new Scajaquada Expressway going through the middle of it, The Delaware Park Meadow went through some other changes as well. The golf course was laid out around the turn of the century, and fully constructed in 1930.
The Park Superintendent’s house, “The Farmstead,” built in 1875, was torn down in 1950 to make way for the current Zoo parking lot. And the stone garden– a quarried-out area behind the Parkside Lodge at Florence, filled with plants and flowers– was filled in to make way for a par 3 golf hole after a child was found dead in the pond at the bottom of the pit.
But it wasn’t just politicians and city planners who changed the Parkside landscape in the 1950s and 60s. Mother Nature, too, landed a body blow to the trees of the neighborhood, when Dutch Elm disease struck.
Over 10,000 trees died of Dutch Elm disease in the City of Buffalo, many hundreds in Parkside. Up until the early 1960s, every street in the neighborhood was covered with a canopy of elm branches. By the mid 1960s, it became clear that the battle to save the trees was a losing one.
In the earliest days of the Parkside Community Association, one of its major concerns was the dying trees. The first item in the April, 1966 newsletter for the group dealt with the trees, and seemed to be grasping at straws.
YOUR ELMS — It is evident that we are losing the fight against Dutch Elm
disease. The chemical Bidrin which offered hope a year ago has not proved
itself and is now not being used.
only safe and effective treatment is the special DDT spray which must be used
before the leaves unfold in the spring. Davey Tree Experts and United Tree
Surgeons are among the firms under “Tree Service” in the yellow pages
which are known to offer this service. Spraying equipment, however, is limited
and there are not many days left which are clear and calm enough to apply the
NOW is the time to order this service if you want to SAVE YOUR ELMS.
But not even the later-found-to-be carcinogenic DDT was enough to stop the spread of the disease. It was well into the ‘80s and ‘90s before a concerted city-initiated effort would begin to replace the hundreds of trees that had fallen to the blight, and changed the character of the neighborhood forever.
Despite the fact that suburban flight had begun, most who grew up in Parkside in the 50s and 60s describe it as a Leave It to Beaver, idyllic place to live and grow up.
“We left our doors unlocked. Break-ins were unheard of. It seemed every other house had kids our age. There were always pickup games in the street…Football, baseball… and even though we used a tennis ball we still broke a few windows. It wouldn’t be unusual to get 20 boys together to play football or tag in someone’s backyard.”
But each of those 20 boys was white. The streets of Parkside were populated almost entirely, with only rare exception, by whites. “It’s not like there were fights in the streets, but when black kids rode their bikes through the neighborhood it was noticed. It was still a pretty lily white neighborhood.”
Most kids knew that it wasn’t smart to travel outside of your own neighborhood by yourself at that time. Long glares from the kids of the strange neighborhood you were visiting was likely the best treatment you could expect. But in Parkside, it was painfully obvious that if you were black and passing through, you didn’t belong.
As a man who later fought vigorously to bring the races together in Parkside and in Buffalo as a whole, Jack Anthony graphically remembers the somewhat unusual sight of black children as he grew up in Parkside in the 1940s.
“Sometimes we’d see black kids in the park, on their ‘nigger bikes.’ That’s what we called them. Some of the black kids had these bikes with a couple of horns, a couple of headlights, all jazzed up. We never thought white kids would do that. And we hated those kids, and we hated those bikes,” remembered Anthony.
Racial differences and problems weren’t the only under bubbling current. Ethnic and religious bigotry was also more widely socially acceptable. Anthony recalls his high school experience, just north of the Parkside neighborhood.
When I was a freshman at Bennett (early 1950s), we had race riots. It was Jewish kids and non-Jewish kids… There were no blacks there then, so it was, as we used to say then, white kids being up Jewish kids, and vice versa. Isn’t that sick?
One of the ministers from Central (Presbyterian Church at Main and Jewett), a rabbi, and a priest all came to an assembly talking to us all about being better citizens. I can remember a bunch of friends leaving a “Hi-Y” High School YMCA meeting and head up to Hertel to find a bunch of “kikes” to beat up.
That was the mentality. But by the end of my four years at Bennett, relations between the Jewish kids and non-Jewish kids had greatly improved. One of my best friends, a Jewish kid, got beaten up pretty badly. I often wondered whether it was my other friend and his crew who may have done it.
But by the early 1960’s, the situation was changing.
“Urban Renewal” projects, like the building of the Kensington Expressway, were destroying the neighborhoods inhabited by middle-class upwardly mobile black families. Displaced, many were attempting to make Parkside and other predominantly white middle-class neighborhoods their home.
Some unscrupulous businessman played on the fears of whites that their neighborhood was “going black.” The result in many Buffalo neighborhoods, including Parkside, was red-lining and blockbusting.
Redlining is an effort on the part of people in the banking and insurance industries to increase the price of, or deny services based on geographic location.
Blockbusting was a scheme involving real estate agents putting families under pressure to sell their homes “before the neighborhood goes bad.” Both were an effort to destroy neighborhoods by buying cheap, selling high, and playing on the fears of people living in a changing city and changing society while reaping profits.
In 1963, four black families lived in Parkside. At least one real estate agent began calling their neighbors, speaking vaguely of perspective buyers, and the fact that they should sell while they can. Panic reigned, and several people, affiliated with a neighboring church, pooled resources to buy a house from underneath a black family looking to move into the area.
In May 1963, a community meeting was held at St. Mark Church to discuss all manner of topics affecting the neighborhood. After a long discussion of a proposed North Buffalo Ice Rink, lifelong Parkside resident Jack Anthony asked the group’s thoughts on black families moving into the area. Discussion was immediately cut off, and the topic deemed “too controversial.”
Flabbergasted, Anthony and Richard Griffin organized a community meeting to discuss race in Parkside. At the time, the neighborhood was very diverse in almost every way: A mix of all ages, religions, educational backgrounds, and economic conditions. Anthony and Griffin agreed that while it hadn’t yet, racial diversity should also come to Parkside in a way that it didn’t around the rest of the city.
The Parkside Community Association (PCA) was formed, and on July 1, 1963, an 8 page outline of what the group stood for was distributed around the neighborhood. An excerpt from that original PCA Newsletter follows:
feel there is a real need for this to maintain and improve our wonderful
area…. (At our first meeting), a very frank and fruitful discussion occurred.
It was agreed that no useful purpose would be served by an extended argument
over the integration of this particular part of the city. Integration present
and future is a fact. Four Negro families presently own or occupy homes. More
persons of a minority race will no doubt purchase homes in the near future.
This is their right as it should be any person’s right to reside where he
chooses. No one is opposed to anyone residing in our community because of his
race or religion.
What the group wants for this neighborhood is to make it the best possible place to live — to raise our families, to obtain an education, to grow intellectually, spiritually, and physically. We want good neighbors regardless of color. We want all to stay and continue to live where we live. We want to attract persons of all ages, religions, races, education, economic abilities, etc to move our fine community.
We want to preserve the area’s residential character. We are proud of our public and parochial schools and of our well kept houses, trees, lawns, shrubs, and yards. We like to live in the City of Buffalo among its fine families and with the urban conveniences we enjoy. We think that no area offers as much housing for a reasonable price as the property which we are fortunate to own. We desire not only to preserve these values but to improve our particular community so that it is a model of responsible urban life.
While interested in more than just open housing, the PCA had to move quickly to counter-act the unscrupulous real estate agents and others looking to profit from the fears of others.
Scare tactics were used to try to get people to sell, rumors of neighbors selling their homes spread had spread like wildfire. The PCA stepped up to stop the illegal division of single family homes into multiple units, which helped stem sales. They also drummed out real estate agents and others using unethical practices for their own gain at the cost of the neighborhood.
The likable and outgoing personalities of Griffin and Anthony helped them bring neighbors aboard and their activity in St. Mark and Central Presbyterian churches respectively helped bring those institutions and the clergy at those two institutions, in line with the process.
Jack Anthony has, over the years, related this story with the original language in tact to underline the types of people he would come against.
Pastor Dr. James Carroll listened to one angry congregant at Central Presbyterian. “The first time a nigger comes into this church and sits down next to me, I’m leaving.” Rev. Carroll was quick to reply, very calmly, “Let me shake your hand now then, because I’m not coming out of the pulpit to say goodbye to you when that happens.”
It was under conditions such as these that the Mesiahs were among those first four black families to own a home in Parkside. Frank Mesiah, later to become an original PCA Board Member, and President of the Buffalo Chapter of the NAACP, was interviewed by Ruth Lampe for an article that appeared in the September 1988 issue of The Parkside News.
In 1961…(The Mesiahs) forced to leave their Humboldt-Delevan home because of the construction of the Kensington Expressway…. When Frank told a real estate agent in a telephone conversation that he was a policeman and teacher, he immediately assumed he was white and made an appointment to show him homes in North Buffalo.
But when he appeared at the office, the agent went into a panic and, after much double talk, he ended up never showing Frank any homes. Finally, a black realtor helped them find a new home on Crescent Avenue…
recalls experiencing some hostility from some residents and tells of a few
parents who wouldn’t let the Mesiah daughters play at their houses. But he also
remembers that those people’s children would sneak down to play at the
Mesiah’s. He can also laugh now, remembering people offering him shoveling jobs
while he was shoveling snow outside of his new home, or people asking is wife,
“Is the lady of the house in?”, when she answered the door.
also admits he felt somewhat suspicious when “all of the sudden this
neighborhood organization comes up to ‘preserve the neighborhood’.” But
after meeting with Dick Griffin and Jack Anthony, he was convinced of their
sincerity and developed confidence in them. He came to understand they were
reacting to talk that predominantly black areas didn’t get proper garbage
pick-up, different things were allowed to happen to the houses, and absentee
landlords increased. “PCA wanted to be sure that things like that didn’t
Mesiah himself would spearhead efforts to eradicate blockbusting from the neighborhood. The November, 1967 Parkside Newsletter read, “Mr. Mesiah reported on a contact with Genesee Realty Co. with respect to a certain notice sent. The representative of the Genesee Realty said that they would desist from sending these in our community. The 1965 PCA Report to members included this piece of information:
Real Estate: Three of the officers of the Association recently met with a real estate agent whose company was alleged to have called two residents of a street in our area where a house has been purchased by a Negro.
The agent was most cooperative in questioning his staff, and although he was convinced that no salesman in his office made the calls, he assured us that none will ever be made from his office under such conditions.
If any resident is ever contacted by a real estate salesman who urges sale because of non-white neighbors, get the agent’s name and address. Contact Jack Anthony or Dick Griffin with this information so that appropriate legal action may be initiated by the Association against such a salesman, in this way we will continue to let it be known that our area is not available for blockbusting.
But of course, not everyone felt this way. One resident remembers, “Parkside was a white neighborhood, and there were plenty of people who wanted to keep it that way. While it may have not been a plank in the PCA, one of the reasons for the growth of the group was the hope that it would help keep Parkside white. Now that may have been a misunderstanding, but that’s how many people thought.”
“It was a common thing to hear in the neighborhood; when someone was selling, ‘You’re selling to the whites, right?’ and when white people moved in, ‘Glad you moved in.’ It wasn’t screaming racism, but it was understood that we should want to keep the area white.
Right in the front of many people’s minds is what happened in the Central Park Plaza area (just across Main Street.) It was once a nice, working class neighborhood, then, seemingly over night, ‘it went, you know…'”
But, all and all, an even-handed approach made Parkside a continued desirable area for people of all races; not an accomplishment that most city neighborhoods could boast of, even as time wore on.
Many leaders of the WNY African-American community, either by deed or office, have made Parkside home over the ensuing years. Frank Mesiah and his family have lived on Crescent since 1961. Longtime Deputy Speaker of the New York State Assembly Arthur O. Eve, Jr. raised his five children on Jewett Parkway.
Two racial trailblazers in the world of athletics have also called Parkside home. Willie Evans, the UB Football star halfback, who was denied the right to play in the 1958 Tangerine Bowl because of his race, lived in Parkside for over 30 years. Jim Thorpe, the first black man to ever lead a PGA Major when he took the lead of the 1981 US Open, lived on Parkside Avenue for most of the 1980s, and could often be seen hitting golf balls in Delaware Park.
School Integration: Parkside School #54
the desire and goal of many in the neighborhood that families with the means to
buy a home in Parkside, regardless of their race, should be allowed to live
freely and be a welcome part of the community. But home life was only one part
of the clash between the races in Buffalo in the 1960s and 70s.
“White flight” was caused in many areas of the city when the racial balance at public schools in the neighborhood changed in a matter of a year or two. Once again, this situation presented itself in Parkside at School 54, which has stood on Main Street since 1895.
Just as the Parkside Community Association fought blockbusting, it also worked to make schools racially balanced. When the association was formed, 2 of its original 5 goals dealt directly with maintaining and building upon the success of the school. 54 was already enjoying a rebirth of sorts. As the PCA was founded in 1963, plans were already in the works for a new school to be built. A PCA newsletter from January, 1964, includes a building update, and an update on the group’s early lobbying efforts.
Demolition work has been completed at the new site
of School 54… The Board of Education (has abandoned) the voluntary student
transfer plan because it was not in the best interests of maintaining racial
balance at the school.
The new (current) school would open in 1965, built on the property that was once Hagner’s Dairy. The former building stood to the left of the current one; the site where School 54 stood from 1895-1964 now serves as the school’s parking lot.
In 1958, Matthew Duggan became principal at School 54, still housed in the old building. Mr. Duggan’s leadership through some rough times, and the strong participation of parents and the community, helped keep School 54 a “showcase school” while many of the city’s other schools deteriorated through the 1960s and beyond.
But making sure that new building remained one of the city’s finest schools was no small task. Many Parksiders, both parents, and PCA members, lobbied City Hall and Albany to gain better funding for the school, and to help maintain racial balance at the school.
A 1962 survey of Buffalo schools by the NAACP sets the scene. 17 Buffalo Public schools are listed as “Negro schools,” with at least 60% of its pupils black. 14 of those 17 had at least 90% black students. There were 47 “White schools,” with 19 having 100% white enrollment, and 28 more having 95%-99% white pupils.
Only 16 schools were listed as “integrated,” and 11 of those schools had an African-American enrollment of less than 20%. Parkside’s School 54 was one of only 5 schools in the city where blacks and whites approached even numbers. In 1958, 11% of students were black. 39% of students were black in 1960. By 1964, the number had grown to 54%.
came about through a number of different factors. The school was a part of an
early desegregation trial, where parents in one east side neighborhood were
given the option of having their children bussed to the more academically solid
School 54, rather than walking to their own neighborhood elementary school.
Many parents chose this option, and the number of African-American children
attending school in Parkside grew.
In a vacuum, the experiment might have been a success. But just as some families succumbed to the blockbusting attempts by scrupulous real estate salesmen, some saw the increased black enrollment at 54 as a threat to their children’s education and placed their kids in the neighborhood Catholic parochial school at St. Mark’s at Woodward and Amherst. In 1953, there were 40 1st graders at St Mark’s. A decade later, in 1964, the number had more than doubled to 88.
There was hope, however, in the construction of the new school. The dilapidated, outdated classic 1890s school house had been a worn-out collection of hodge-podge additions and classrooms literally created from closets for years. The bright new plant promised a pleasant atmosphere for learning, and plus a wonderful school yard and playground.
In May, 1965, letter to parents of school aged kids; the Parkside Community Association outlined the hope for a new school with a sense of hope and optimism. Schools Committee Chairman Saul Touster wrote, “It is our expectation… That there will be a migration of students from… St. Marks into School 54, especially in the lower grades.”
The tone was decidedly different in a letter Touster wrote to State Education Commissioner James Allen from the Community Association a month earlier:
(T)his school, instead of being considered a
positively integrated school, must now be considered a school whose racial imbalance
threatens to make it a de facto segregated school. The inclusion of an optional
area for the school’s district has had the effect of concentrating upon School
54 the pressure for integrated education for the negro community. It is in no
one’s interest that a school be pressured until it “topples over.” If
balance cannot be maintained here at a school where community reception of
integration has been so positive and community interest continues to be so
willing, then the larger problems will become hopeless of solution.
While there were parallels to be drawn between housing integration in the Parkside Neighborhood, and the school integration in School 54, there were, however, some key differences as well.
Michael Riester, who’d grow up to be a historian, social worker, and President of the Parkside Community Association, was in the mid 1960s, a kid on West Oakwood Place and a pupil at School 54. “It was a neighborhood school. The majority of the kids were from the neighborhood, from both sides of Main Street, and both white and black.”
But when Riester was in 5th grade, in 1966, things changed. There was a fire at School 17, on Delevan Avenue near Main Street. 130 mostly poor, and all black students were “temporarily transferred” to 54. The addition of these children pushed the ratio of black students to almost 80%, a statistic that the PCA knew only added fuel to the fire that blockbusters were trying to create.
“It seemingly happened overnight,” Riester recalls.”(School 54) went from a neighborhood school, to a school that integrated kids from very different economic situations and cultural situations. You had poor black kids coming from the Fruit Belt, coming to 54 with kids from the neighborhood who were privileged. It was violent, a very difficult time. The tension in the school and in the classroom was racially charged. These kids were very angry. Now, I understand why they were angry; why they were frustrated. I’m not sure I did then.”
It was in this atmosphere that some long established Parkside families moved to the suburbs, and many who didn’t move, considered options other than Buffalo Public Schools for the education of their children. Among that second group: The Riesters.
“There was a boy who was a few years ahead of me, who lived on Crescent, who was stabbed at the corner of West Oakwood and Main, so badly he was hospitalized. My mother seriously thought about pulling me out and putting me in a parochial school. I remember her saying we could get you into St Joes or Holy Spirit. But I wound up staying at 54 until 7th grade.”
“It was a foreign environment for me, certainly, and for many kids who lived in the neighborhood. It increased our fear of the unknown; the violence that we experienced, that I experienced, did not help me understand what the black experience was, and it was very frightening.”
back, Riester knows. “These kids had nothing, and they were being thrown
in with these wealthy white kids, who didn’t know what it was like to show up
at school hungry. The teachers must have understood, but were overwhelmed.
“When school was let
out you would have fights. It was primarily, from what I remember, was black
against white. I was beat up at least twice. What was ironic, it happened two
blocks away from my home. I lived two blocks from school and couldn’t make it
home some days. It increased the fear of Main Street.
“It was a strange time. For the hour after school let out, you knew you were going to get beaten up if you didn’t run home. But then, within two hours, your neighborhood returned. I don’t even know if our parents really realized the extent of what was going on in school and right afterwards.
“I don’t think anyone would challenge the statement that integration at School 54 wasn’t a well thought-out process for any of the kids, for white kids and black kids.”
One of the early concrete victories of the Association came after years of work by folks like PCA Board members Saul Touster, Richard Griffin, Jim Barry, and Jack Anthony. In 1967, the State Education department awarded a $100,000 grant for 54 to develop a “superior program at the school to encourage families not to move out of the district.” Those funds were used to cut class size, hire additional staff, provide enrichment and remediation programs, and pay for a preschool program for 4 year olds.
These programs were enough to make many Parkside families consider School 54 for their children. After a decade-high of 85 kindergarteners at St Mark’s School in 1965, only 65 kindergarteners signed up for the 1968-69 school year.
But with the late 1960s questions of race and integration were no longer just the fodder of letters and public meetings. The frustrations of the African-American community were boiling over onto the streets, shocking and worrying some of the most ardent supporters of racial harmony and equality in Parkside.
Again, Mike Riester shares his memories. “I can remember sitting with other neighbors on my porch listening to gunfire, because the (infamous June/July, 1967) riots had come up as far as Jefferson and Delevan, only a few blocks to the south and east. Across from the Health Sciences Building at Canisius, there was a gun store, and the rioters had taken over the gun store. I can remember hearing the shotguns. The blasts. That was really frightening.
“My grandmother was at Sisters Hospital during the time. My father walked up to the hospital to visit her (from our home on West Oakwood Place near Crescent Avenue), and I can remember my mother being worried that he’d be attacked. That’s the fear. That’s how charged those times were.
“When Martin Luther King was assassinated (in 1968), we were let out of school early because they feared violence. I remember being told, ‘Run home. Now Michael, run home.’ That’s the environment we were in.”
The world was changing, too. Riester recalls that Main Street was becoming a place you didn’t want to go, and it was also about the time a child was abducted from his Jewett Parkway yard, and later found dead in Delaware Park. “I can remember my parents telling me, ‘You’re not to go to the park anymore.’ We couldn’t go to the park unless we were in a large group. We couldn’t go to the zoo anymore, even though it was free. It was the overall loss of innocence. It was like Camelot came crashing down. And it was happening all over the country, and it hit Parkside, too.
“That’s not to say we weren’t kids. We played outside all day and all night, until the street lights came on. But we were instilled with a little fear of some things. But it was a very normal childhood. There were black kids, and Asian kids, and white kids, but we all were neighborhood kids, and that was the important thing.
“All things told, I think Parkside handled integration very well. I remember when the first black family moved on my street, West Oakwood. Dr. Champion and his family. I became friends with the kids right off the bat.
“We obviously knew there was a difference in the color of our skin, but there I was in their home as often as they played on my porch. I don’t remember any racial thoughts among us kids; I’m sure we worked it out in our own children’s way. I remember adults saying things, but because integration was a gradual process in Parkside, it was easier. Many of the families who moved to Parkside in the 60s, both black and white, are still here.”
“What was key was many of the families who moved into Parkside, the black families, were really no different from the white families socially and economically, culturally. I never remember any fights or violence happening in the neighborhood. It happened at school, but not in the neighborhood.”
In 1976, Federal Judge John T. Curtin accused city leaders of “creating, maintaining, permitting, condoning, and perpetuating racially segregated schools in the City of Buffalo,” and therefore ordered desegregation. School 54 was, as far as federal guidelines were concerned at this point, a segregated school with nearly 70% black enrollment.
A headline in the Buffalo Evening News at the time said Struggle for Stability At School 54 Watched As a Cameo of Hope. Many Parkside residents, lead by PTA (and later PCA) President Ruth Lampe, fought vehemently to keep the school integrated. Ruth and her husband David sent their two boys to the school.
Lampe spent many hours fighting rumors and misconceptions about 54 and Buffalo Public Schools in general. Many of her Parkside neighbors recall Lampe’s “won’t take no for an answer” tactics in insuring that they send their children to the neighborhood public school, and not one of the area parochial schools.
Meetings and open discussions on the issues facing 54 were lead by Board of Education Member Florence Baugh, Delaware Common Councilman Harlan Swift, and the co-Chairmen of the Citizens’ Council on Human Relations, Frank Mesiah and Norman Goldfarb.
Mirroring the strong PTA of the 1920s, a similar group in the 70s and 80s pushed forward an agenda that helped keep School 54 at the top of the class. Parkside residents Shirley Blickensderfer, Elva Radice, Marquerita Bell, Eileen Wagner, Chet Brodnicki, Jo Faber, Nancy Keech, Pat Schuder, Lori Lynch and numerous others were among those making sure the school received the parental, financial, political support it needed.
The story of School 54 could have easily been different without the legion of people interested in a strong school, and the strong in-school leadership of Principal Matthew Duggan and Sal Criscione (and their reciprocating concern for the neighborhood of which the school was a part). It is the school, in so many ways, that helped keep Parkside from slipping into the problems facing so man other fine city neighborhoods.
In 1980, School 54 became an Early Childhood Learning Center Magnet School, teaching grades Pre-K through 2. The school currently bears the name “Dr. George E. Blackman School of Excellence Early Childhood Center #54,” named in honor of the one-time Buffalo School Board President who spoke up fiercely for the type of teaching done at the school, whose current mission statement reads:
To create a
school environment in which all children can learn. Our mission is to deliver
instruction which is developmental, challenging, and success oriented.
As of 2009, the school is slated for massive renovation in Phase 4 of the Buffalo Schools on-going $1 billion reconstruction project.
This page is an excerpt from
The Complete History of Parkside
by Steve Cichon