By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — The last time I saw him, he was standing in front of Dave Perrigo’s WHY Restaurant across from the library at the point where Main Street, Pierce Avenue and Portage Road converge with Niagara Falls’ cold, hard reality.
The WHY, a wonderful down home, gritty respite from the brutal winds of crippling poverty is a short stroll from the Oakwood Cemetery, a few steps north of the local bus terminal, and a long way from the fancy place across town near the Falls where I had arranged to dine with him “where the elite meet to eat” in hopes of impressing him with my success by treating him to anything on the menu his heart desired. Anything!
He ordered soup and crackers, that was it, nothing else.
Following his lead, I ordered the same thing though neither of us finished before it was finally time to leave more than three hours later; we were too busy reminiscing about the past, lamenting the present, and wondering about the future to actually eat anything. Besides, he made it pretty clear that he was not impressed by fancy restaurants.
I passed right by the WHY almost every morning on my way into my office, and more than a few times I thought I spotted him walking in, or on the way out, sometimes standing outside near the door with a small collection of people around him.
I decided that one day, I’d stop in and catch him there so we could continue our conversation.
We had a lot to talk about; I had known of him for years, though it became quite clear that I did not know him as well as he knew me; in fact, it seemed that he knew more about me than I knew about myself. I wanted to change that, to know more about him and how he had managed to have so much positive influence over things that impact so many people here.
Over breakfast at Dave’s counter, and through dozens of encounters with some of his many friends, I began to unfurrow his amazing stories.
Born nearly 90 years ago in Covington County, Mississippi, the son of farmer and “Animal Doctor” Samuel and mother, Dollie he was one of 11 children, seven boys and four girls; he had no desire to follow in his farmer father’s footsteps.
Too young to fully appreciate the challenges that the Deep South offered African Americans at that time, there is little doubt that those circumstances, and some of the worst river floods in American history had plenty to do with his, and many other’s desire to escape the Delta.
The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States, “over topped the levees causing Mounds Landing to break with more than double the water volume of Niagara Falls.” According to published reports, the Mississippi River broke out of its banks flooding 27,000 square miles inundating the area up to a depth of 30 feet killing 246 people in seven states.
Chronicled by John M. Barry’s ingenious book, “Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood and How It Changed America,” the “unimaginable disaster” was also memorialized in song by Lonnie Johnson’s Broken Levee Blues, and perhaps most famously by the Great Muddy Waters many ballads about the many floods that plagued the Delta.
Fortunately for him, and as it turned out, fortunately for Niagara Falls, he and his lovely wife landed here after working in the Buffalo steel and automobile manufacturing industry during the 1950s when he answered the call to ministry.
By 1958, he had begun his pastorate at the Trinity Baptist Church which was then located at 10th and East Falls Streets. Within a few years, the growing congregation moved to their present location on South Avenue.
A staunch advocate for civil rights and equal protection under the law, the Reverend became very active in the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and CORE, the Congress of Racial Equality, playing a vital role in the desegregation of schools and opening doors for jobs in every level of employment throughout the city.
He also found time to work with a number of community based organizations including the United Way of Niagara and the Niagara Falls Memorial Medical Center as well as the Niagara Falls Human Rights Commission just to name a few in addition to his pastoral duties and his active role in the Great Lakes Baptist Association Congress of Christian Education the Niagara Ministerial Council.
And somehow, in spite of all he was doing, he took time to talk to me; in doing so, he changed my life for the better just as he did for hundreds, if not thousands of others now scattered all over “God’s Green Earth” as he would put it.
Recovering from a bout with the flu a few months ago, he has been having breakfast at home with his wife these days under the watchful caring eyes of Mrs. Shirley Barnes, a long-time friend as well as a faithful and loyal member of Trinity Baptist Church and the care of his family members here from Erie, Pa., where he first settled once he left the South, before he arrived here.
On Nov. 4, the Rev. Glen Raybon, my dear friend will quietly celebrate at home, 55 years with Trinity; I will be celebrating right along with him, wherever I might be.Contact Bill at bill.bradberry @yahoo.com