By Bill Bradberry
Niagara Gazette — It’s just too dang cold and nasty to do much more than curl up with a good read; “Try Me”, as James Brown once crooned directly into the heads and hearts of anyone within listening distance:
A lanky, young “high yella colored boy” growing up in the working class, bitter cold winter, and sweltering summer, non-air-conditioned factory neighborhoods that used to ring the world-famous Niagara Falls, I always wondered how we black folks got here and why in the world we stayed.
Why, “In God’s name” would my dad, an intelligent, good natured man who got along with everyone, light enough in skin color, to “pass for white” choose in 1928, on purpose, with nobody forcing him to do so, leave Ray Charles’ moonlit Georgia pines and the warm bathing sunshine of Palm Beach for this bitter, cold-ass, but incredibly beautiful, God blessed and seemingly forsaken Niagara Falls?
I was young, but not too young to notice the difference between Florida’s weather, and THIS!
Why did my family live right on the Canadian border where the skies were permanently dark with factory smoke, where the gray, winter snow painted a dreary, frigid background against the grinding, screeching, pounding, banging belching of those sanctified factories?
Oh, yeah, and by the way, Dad, I wondered; why were there so many black men working in the most dangerous of those most dangerous of dangerous places?
I was old enough to ask questions, but too young to understand the honest answers; my parents did not want their children to know.
Neither did the Polish parents want their children to know, nor did the Irish, the Italians, nor the Jews; clumped together near the railroad tracks want their kids to know the whole, stinking truth; they kept their secrets to themselves, making it my job to unravel their contortions.
Why were so many of the families in the black neighborhoods from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Florida?
Why did my mother’s mother look like an Indian, or Native American, as we say now, and why did some of my cousins act and drink like they were portrayed on television and in the movies?
What was my parent’s fascination with The Reservation where so many of their Tuscaroran friends still lived like they did in the good old days with little electricity, running water or other basic public services that we took for granted?
My grandmother used to talk about Harriet Tubman like she knew her. She did! My mom told me Cab Calloway used to visit her parent’s house when she was a little girl. He did!
My dad told me his grandparents were slaves. They were, well, at least one of them was, though they were all enslaved by the sharecropper system that dominated agriculture and the American economy in those days.
There are thousands of stories yet unknown by those most likely to benefit from them; they need to be known, told and preserved for our future and for our children’s’ sake. The mistakes and misfortunes of a history forgotten or ignored are bound to be repeated.
The Civil Rights Movements and the infamous Urban Renewal (aka Negro Removal) Programs of the 1960s had the effect of virtually and entirely eradicating whole communities. As we marched toward integration, we left many of our roots behind.
Having been born on the northern edge of the Underground Railroad near the brink of the cataracts, the descendent of Native Americans, Europeans, and fugitive slaves, did not strike me as anything unusual 50 years ago.
I was not aware, then, of my place or the role I, or any single person could play in the development of the whole dadgum United States of America, if not, the entire world.
But, some things are clearer now.
Time and distance both have the ironic tendency to render that which is obvious, more obvious. So now that I am back where my journey began (in America), I can see things much more clearly, in perspective; I can better understand my own strange black history.
Slowly, like the careful, deliberate peeling of a small tender onion, I have begun the sometimes tearful, often painful, but more often joyful process of unfolding of events that began 400 years before I was born in the immaculately clean maternity ward of Mount St. Mary’s Hospital at the corner of Ferry Avenue and Sixth Street.
The Third Order of Saint Francis arrived in Niagara Falls just two years after W.E.B. DuBois convened the first meeting of the Niagara Movement. The meeting of “militant Black intellectuals” would result in the founding of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and would later serve as the most powerful force for the world-wide liberation of black folk.
Thankfully, the good Sisters of St. Francis had worked extremely hard to see through the construction of their hospital, which on November 1914 opened its doors to serve “regardless of creed or color,” said the Right Reverend Charles H. Colton, bishop of Buffalo, and sure enough, 33 years later, in 1947, I and a few million other Baby Boomers were born in hospitals and homes across the nation; isn’t it time to learn their stories, ALL of them?
The rest, as they say, is history, full of stories, none to be forgotten without peril.Contact Bill Bradberry at firstname.lastname@example.org