Wait, what? How are PBS’s Sanditon series, now in its 3rd and final season, and Black history in Buffalo connected? In the episode that aired last night, Arthur Parker invites American soprano Elizabeth Greenhorn to perform in Sanditon, a fictional fishing village turned resort town, for the King, who ends up giving his regrets. She decides to go on stage anyway, and we learn that she is African-American.
This character is based on real-life American soprano Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, who was born into slavery in Mississippi around 1820 and began her career in 1851. When you’re writing fiction like Sanditon, which is set around 1815, you may use artistic license.
Greenfield made her stage debut in Buffalo at Townsend Hall, corner of Main & Swan, on October 22, 1851. At this time, she was nicknamed The Black Swan, a name that followed her for the rest of her musical career.
Buffalo Daily Republic, October 18, 1851, Page 3
Her repertoire consisted of opera and classical composers, defying the expectations of white audiences of the day, who assumed that such music was beyond the capacity of Black performers.
After her debut, Greenfield performed in Rochester, Lockport, Utica, Albany, Troy, Boston, Columbus, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Toronto, Syracuse, Brattleboro, and other North American cities. In 1853, she went on tour in Europe and on May 10, 1854, sang for Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace. She was the first African-American to perform before British royalty.
After calling Buffalo home at the beginning of her career, Greenfield settled in Philadelphia, where she operated a music studio and died in 1876.
Map of racial distribution on the Niagara Frontier, 2010, based on U.S. Census figures. Each dot is 25 people. Blue = Black; Red = White.I do not have a more current version of this map.Courtesy of Wikiwand.com.
Which is it? Below are some segregation rankings, with screen captures and links back to each article. I decided to compile them because of encountering some very victim-blamey rhetoric that sounded like Buffalo wouldn’t have been targeted if it wasn’t so segregated. As if we deserved to be punished for our sins.
Please note that I am not a demographer or statistician. I am not qualified to judge the methodology behind these rankings or declare which one is correct. For one thing, some appear to be counting the population strictly within the city limits of Buffalo, while others count the population in the larger Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area. Some rely on outdated 2010 census figures; some rely on 2020 figures.
These rankings are presented in the hopes that someone who does have demographic and statistical expertise will be inspired to offer some knowledgeable analysis. And to urge everyone to cite their sources when making claims about segregation in Buffalo. Did I miss a ranking that differs from the ones below? Let me know.
Following these disparate findings, keep scrolling for some observations about what is missing from them.
Brown University’s American Communities Project has census figures from 1980 to 2020 in tables that you can refine and sort. The column on the right has the 2020 ranking. Using their Black/white dissimilarity (segregation) index for the 200 largest cities in the US, their 2020 figures put Buffalo at 159th least segregated or 41st most segregated. Least dissimilar/least segregated cities are at the top of the list, so I counted up from the bottom (most dissimilar/most segregated). I am not sure that I filtered or sorted these figures correctly, so please let me know if I made an error.
The shooter allegedly targeted Tops on Jefferson Avenue in Buffalo after Googling the Blackest zip codes in New York State and finding 14208. I thought I would Google the whitest zip codes in New York State and the US. Here is what I found.
Did Anyone Notice Anything Odd About These Two Sets of Figures?
When you search for Most Segregated Cities, you get a few sets of city names and rankings, as shown above.
When you search for Whitest Cities, you get an entirely different set of city names. Hialeah and Laredo are apparently the whitest cities in America but do not appear on any Most Segregated rankings.
Why is is that the American cities, towns, and suburbs who have most successfully blocked, repelled, or chased out people of color; Black, Hispanic, or Asian, do not appear on any Most Segregated lists? Apparently, all you need to do to satisfy demographers that your virtually all-white community is not segregated is to make sure that your tiny number of Black or brown households are in different census tracts or zip codes.
Meanwhile, Buffalo, which is 47.1% white, 35.2% Black, and 12.2% Hispanic, is stigmatized as segregated. We are a city that, in spite of our failures and inequities, has a better record of striving for equality, justice, and multicultural democracy than any all-white community.
If we agree that place is a factor in this shooting, then segregation in Conklin, not Buffalo, is responsible. Conklin, not Buffalo, is where everyone should start their May 14 essays and examinations of racism and white supremacy. Our whitest cities and towns are long overdue for some moral scrutiny.
The widely-accepted story of W.E.B. DuBois’ venue choice for the inaugural meeting of the Niagara Movement cites racial discrimination as the cause. Recent research by local scholars, however, suggests that this was not the case after all. Read more about it:
In the New York State census of 1925, John E. Brent reported his age as 33, making his year of birth around 1892. According to a biographical profile of him in the Buffalo American, which does not reveal his age, Brent was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He entered Tuskegee Institute in 1904, graduating with an architecture degree in 1907. After two years as a schoolteacher in Washington, he entered the School of Architecture at Drexel Institute and graduated in 1912 at the ripe age of 20. Brent then moved to Buffalo, NY. Further research is needed to confirm this apparent precocity.
The unsigned article in Buffalo American goes on to list the architectural firms which employed Brent between 1912 and 1926: Max G. Beierl; H. Osgood Holland; Waterbury & Mann; Julius E. Schultz; North Shelgren & Swift; Oakley & Schallmore. While in the employ of Holland, Brent worked on the Hutchinson High School plans. While in the employ of Waterbury & Mann, he worked on plans for the Wanakah Country Club.
In 1926, John E. Brent became the second African-American to design a “colored” YMCA, Buffalo’s Michigan Avenue YMCA. It opened in April 1928 and became the cultural center of Buffalo’s African-American community. It cost $200,000 to build, half of which was donated by Buffalonian George Matthews. It boasted a cafeteria, gymnasium, swimming pool, barber shop, tailor shop, library; and classrooms, locker rooms, dormitory rooms, and billiard tables. It was demolished in April 1977.
Lillian Serece Williams wrote extensively about the significance of the Michigan Avenue YMCA in Buffalo’s African American community in her book, Strangers in the Land of Paradise (1999).
Eva Noles, in Talking Proud: Buffalo’s Blacks (1986), attributes another building to Brent: Dr. Myron McGuire’s dentist office. Post-war city directories for Buffalo show a Dr. Myron McGuire at 482 Jefferson Avenue. This address is now the site of recently-built infill housing.
Upon winning the commission for the Michigan Avenue YMCA, Brent opened his own practice, and may have been self-employed from 1926 into the 1950s, when Buffalo City Directories list him as an architect with the Buffalo Parks Department.
Brent remained involved with the Michigan Ave. YMCA, serving as a board member and fundraiser. He was also a founding member of the Buffalo chapter of the NAACP, serving as its first president. Later he served on the Local Council of the State Commission Against Discrimination.
Brent lived at 219 Glenwood Avenue with his wife Neeton, and was active in St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, earning the Bishop’s Medal for meritorious service. He died on October 27, 1962, and is buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Section 37, Lot 94.
Buffalo City Directories. Buffalo, NY: [various publishers], 1926-1965.
Biography and Genealogy Master Index. Detroit, MI: Gale [various years].
“John E. Brent, Second Negro Architect of the United States to Have Charge of Building ‘Y’ for Colored Men.” Buffalo American, May 4, 1926: page unknown. Preserved in Local Biographies scrapbook,” v.4, p. 165, Grosvenor Room in the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library (BECPL).
Locke, Henry. “Blacks Should Mourn Michigan Ave. ‘Y’ Loss. Buffalo Courier-Express, April 17, 1977: F-9.
“Michigan Ave. ‘Y’ Has Vital Role in City.” Buffalo Courier-Express, July 19, 1953: 20-A.
Young Men’s Christian Association. Annual Report. Buffalo, NY: Young Men’s Christian Association, 1920-1930.
Local History File, a card file to periodicals & newspapers in Buffalo, compiled 1930 to present
BECPL Prominent Black Buffalonians File [card file compiled 1980s]
New York State Population Census, 1925, Ward 17, City of Buffalo, Erie County, New York State