This post is part of our online roundtable on “Black Buffalo.”
The overt violence of the white supremacist gunman who brutally murdered ten Black Buffalonians in May has exposed a more hidden violence that has impacted African American East Siders for generations. The massacre was as horrific a form of white supremacist violence as one could imagine. African American citizens were gunned down by a racist targeting the only full-service grocery store in Buffalo’s East side. In response, there has been an outpouring of support for the affected community from politicians and ordinary citizens donating time, money, and impassioned pleas for peace. This response might reinforce Buffalo’s image as “the city of good neighbors.” The visibility of this horrific act, however, underscores a long legacy of hidden violence against Black Buffalonians. This legacy of white violence is rarely acknowledged but has long-term and deeply pernicious influences. And it undermines Buffalo’s status as a city that values “good neighbors.”
In my book, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America, I document one such incident of violence in mid-twentieth century Buffalo that has been largely forgotten. On Memorial Day 1956 at the Crystal Beach amusement park, across Lake Erie from the city, there were racial clashes between young Black teenagers, many of them recent arrivals to the city, and white ethnics who resented their presence. Although the park was never segregated by law in the decades since its opening in 1888, few African Americans visited prior to the increase of Black southern migration in the 1950s. But on that fateful day, African American teenagers from Buffalo’s East Side crowded onto the Canadiana, a lavish steamboat that ferried customers to the park. The trouble started as the crowds poured into the park. A group of white servicemen taunted Black teenagers with racial epithets. One young African American man pushed a soldier into the lake. From that initial incident fighting persisted throughout the long day, with Black parkgoers increasingly targeted. Young white men badly injured a young African American boy and attacked an African American couple with a young child. The battles continued on the boat ride back to Buffalo, where teenagers threatened each other and brawled on the deck. Police arrested several Black teenagers when the boat finally docked. There were some minor injuries, however, the “riot” had led to no deaths or property damage. It did lead to escalating fear among the white community about the dangers posed by Black teenagers in their city.
As a result of the clashes, Crystal Beach Park discontinued the Canadiana, restricting access to the park to those who could arrive by car. And the incident received wide press coverage. White southern newspapers, in particular, used the riot as evidence of how integration would inevitably lead to chaos, much to Buffalonians dismay. The mainstream media and the white power structure blamed recent African American migrants for the melee. Ignored were the racial epithets and beatings suffered by Black teenagers seeking recreation at the start of Buffalo’s summer in 1956.
Buffalonians deceptively prided themselves on the fact that prior to 1956, the city had not experienced major racial uprisings, unlike other Great Lakes cities such as Detroit and Chicago. Thus, the label “city of good neighbors.” But the primary reason for this relative racial peace was that the African American community was small through the 1940s. Buffalo was not on the train lines that shuttled African American migrants from southern enclaves to industrial cities in the Midwest. The second Great Migration, once the city had become accessible through bus transportation, changed that pattern dramatically. During the 1950s the Black population nearly doubled. As this migration accelerated, the city was going through a rapid and dramatic structural transformation, literally torn apart by urban renewal, which would ensure its future as one of the most segregated cities in the nation.
Buffalo’s East Side neighborhood was not always a Black enclave. Prior to the 1950s there were significant numbers of German, Polish, and Italian families scattered throughout. However, in the wake of World War II those families took advantage of Federal Housing Association loans—which discriminated against African Americans—to move to Buffalo’s inner-ring suburbs. As a result, between 1950 and 1960 the number of Black residents increased by 94 percent, but the total population of the city fell. Two major public housing developments, the Ellicott and Talbert malls, displaced large numbers of African American families and new highways walled off the East Side, destroying small businesses as well as homes and apartments. The result was a deeply segregated and impoverished community with dilapidated housing and a lack of basic infrastructure, such as decent sidewalks and green space.
The invisibility of white violence was also reflected in the housing, health, and employment discrimination in the city. This history is documented in a recent report, The Harder We Run: The State of Black Buffalo. This report, authored by Henry Louis Taylor Jr. and his colleagues, documents the persistence of unemployment, underdevelopment, substandard housing, and poor health outcomes on Buffalo’s East Side. Particularly damning is the authors’ report on the deliberate razing of houses that are then taken off the marketplace and not made available for redevelopment. This government run “land bank” means that East Side blocks are checkered with empty vacant lots, which the city fails to maintain. And East Side residents suffer from significant health disparities as well. Surrounded by highways with few trees or greenspaces, the air is filled with particulates, leading to high asthma rates. Community members have little access to fresh and healthy food on the East Side, making the closure of the Tops supermarket in the wake of the massacre even more devastating.
The infrastructure issues in Buffalo’s East Side created other forms of violence. The lack of reliable public transportation led to the death of a young mother, Cynthia Higgins, in 1995. Higgins worked in the suburban Walden Galleria mall, but the mall’s owners refused to allow inner-city buses to drop workers off on mall property. While navigating across a seven-lane road to get to her job, Wiggins was crushed by a truck and died soon after. Walden Galleria’s owners, much like Crystal Beach operators, viewed the presence of Black youth as potentially dangerous and likely to drive off white customers. This belief led directly to the death of Wiggins and the policing of Black youth in the region’s largest mall, including curfews and a strong police presence, that continues today.
Another East side death highlights the hidden violence of infrastructure. In 2016 a young mother, Shannon Anderson, was walking with her baby daughter in a stroller along the East Side’s Moselle Street. The sidewalk on the street was in severe disrepair. Unable to navigate her stroller along the broken sidewalk, Anderson stepped onto the street. An SUV careened into mother and daughter, killing the seven-month-old baby. Despite this horrific death the sidewalks remain dilapidated, and few have the curb ramps and pedestrian crossing that allow those with disabilities, strollers, or other mobile devices to navigate their communities.
These structural issues along with the city’s negligence for Buffalo’s East Side played a role in why an outside gunman targeted the local Tops Market where the vast majority of shoppers are African American. The overt and horrific violence that he meted out has helped to unveil the reality of hidden violence in the city. And it has led to a questioning of what neighborhoods the “city of good neighbors” encompasses. As the East Side community slowly heals and organizations like the African Heritage Food Co-op receive much needed funds, the need for holistic and realistic responses to violence is clear. Unruly teenagers were never the problem—underdevelopment, housing and employment discrimination, food deserts, lack of green space, and city land banking created the conditions for violence, hidden and overt.permission.