By Ken Hamilton
Niagara Gazette — In the early ’80s, Lora Allen and I served together on long-term Chairman Albert Rice’s Niagara Falls Human Rights Commission. Now, after all of those years, Allen has become Niagara County’s first black elections commissioner in a county that is only 7 percent black. It is something in which all Niagara County citizens should take pride.
Pride — not just because Allen has worked hard and has endured the difficulties that most people who become the ‘first of anything’ must endure. It is not just because it had to have been difficult in doing so as a black woman. But, especially because it was a unanimous decision by a 15-member county Legislature that is 93 percent white, representing the various parts of the county. That, in a sense, means that virtually all Niagara County residents supported Allen’s ascension from deputy commissioner to the top spot.
What is the significance of the event, especially during Black History Month?
Well, for those who say that Allen’s promotion should mean no more than those of Lucille Britt, Judy Cirifalco, Nancy Smith and Mary Ann Casamento, the other female elections commissioners, then surprise, I agree with you — there should not be. In fact, there should not be for any commissioner, based upon gender or race, and I’ll be one of the happiest people you’ll know, when that day comes.
But, despite the progress that African Americans, and all-Americans, have made in tearing down the bastions of bigotry and razing the roofs of racism that hides the dark hearts of people of all colors, not all bastions have been broken, not all roofs have been razed and that day has certainly not come.
If you now feel the hairs on the back of your neck standing up, then you’re probably not there yet, either.
It is not easy for someone to have to bear the cross of being the first, but it is necessary so that those who follow may not have to do so. Like all successes, it takes work and dedication; and Allen employed both of those virtues.
I remember both Allen’s and my first day on the Human Rights Commission. Rice looked to the right of the circle of tables and asked each new member to rise, to introduce our self and to tell the other members what we wanted to accomplish during of our term. Because I was sitting directly left of Rice, I was the last to rise.
During a virtuous one-minute stump speech, I said, “I want to work so hard on this mission that the day will come that we will no longer even need a human rights commission.”
The room remained surprisingly quiet, and I sat back down beside Rice. In a very fatherly way, he reached out and firmly squeezed my forearm, gently saying, “Brother Hamilton, we’re always going to need a human rights commission.”
Though my body and mind would work hard during my commission, by the time that Rice had released his grip, I knew that my heart was no longer in what some believed an unattainable mission, though I understood the sifting of his views through the filter of his southern experiences, for I have experienced the same, even here. I would have to find other ways to that end.
And there were other ways. My way to that virtuous end is writing about it. Allen found another one.
Rice died in 1998, God rest his soul. He did get to see former Comptroller H. Carl McCall become the first black New Yorker elected statewide; Arthur Ray, Sr., Bloneva Bond and Robert Bradley elected to the Niagara Falls Board of Education; and Joseph Profit, Cecil Perkins and Renae Kimble elected to the Niagara County Legislature – a body that would one day place Lora Allen as its Democratic Elections Commissioner.
Rice also saw both Andrew Walker and Charles Walker elected as the city’s first black city council member, he died before he could see Byron Brown becoming the first African-American NYS senator elected outside of NYC and Antoine Thompson as his successor. However, Rice saw neither the election of eventual Governor David Paterson, nor Barack Obama as president; nor the elections of school board member Kevin Dobbs, nor council member Robert Anderson or County Legislator Owen Steed.
And as Rice looked about that early 1980s table, just a few seats from where he and I sat, he could see Lora Allen sitting there and serving her term on the Niagara Falls Human Rights Commission. Sadly, he died before he could see her sitting at her desk as a Niagara County Elections Commissioner. But with more people like you and Allen, we all should see a brighter, fairer future, shouldn’t we?Contact Ken Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org.