LOCKPORT – The Lockport Board of Education is expected to appoint a committee Wednesday to consider whether to rename North Park Junior High School in honor of the African-American man credited with desegregating Lockport public schools 78 years before that became the law of the land.
Aaron A. Mossell, a businessman whose brick factory supplied the building materials for one of Lockport’s schools right across the street from his home on High Street, was dismayed in 1871 when his children were denied the right to attend classes there.
Within five years, the Lockport School Board had voted to close the “separate but equal” school for black children on South Street, and its students were admitted to the previously all-white public schools.
“The folks at the [Niagara County] Historical Society will tell you that North Park School was built on the site of Mr. Mossell’s [second] brick factory,” said David R. Kinyon, Town of Lockport economic development director and a member of a committee pushing to rename North Park, the only school in Lockport other than the high school that is not named for a person.
“Everything they say they stand for at the Lockport schools, this person exemplifies,” said Flora M. Hawkins, the first African-American elected official in Lockport history. Before her recent marriage, the former alderwoman was known as Flora McKenzie.
“For me, a person that pursued this kind of thing when they were unheard of, that’s an outstanding accomplishment,” Hawkins said. “I think it’s an outstanding opportunity for Lockport.”
Superintendent Michelle Bradley said the Board of Education is expected to adopt a policy on school name changes Wednesday. It would call for a committee of five to seven people to consider whether to rename North Park, which has been called that since it opened as an elementary school in 1940 on Passaic Avenue.
Asked whether she thinks the School Board will rename the school for Mossell, Bradley said, “The policy they adopted indicates their openness to it.”
Recognition for Mossell has come before. In 2002, he was honored with an inscribed brick on the Historic Lockport Walk of Fame at Fountain Park on Main Street.
The fountain is defunct, and so is the Walk of Fame program, but Mossell’s ground-level monument remains there.
The idea of honoring him by naming a school for him originated with the late Michael J. Pullano, a social studies and special-education teacher who worked first at North Park and then at the high school.
Pullano died of melanoma Oct. 24, 2011, at age 61, a couple of years after first floating the notion of honoring his old school with Mossell’s name.
“It was kind of a deathbed wish for him, although low-key,” said Marion Hannigan, one of the people chosen by Pullano to promote the idea.
“Our history with African-American people is not that admirable,” said Hannigan, the wife of former Niagara County Judge Charles J. Hannigan. She said renaming the school for Mossell would be “praiseworthy.”
Deputy Niagara County Historian Craig Bacon said nine people were considered for the honor of having the school named for them when it opened, but the name “North Park” was suggested by area residents and prevailed.
Research by the History Center of Niagara and the County Historian’s Office shows Aaron A. Mossell was born a free black in Baltimore on March 7, 1824.
Mossell’s grandfather had been brought to America from West Africa in a slave ship, but his son, Mossell’s father, was able to buy his freedom and that of his wife from his master, according to a family history by Nathan Mossell, Aaron Mossell’s son, which is in the county historian’s archives.
As a young man in Baltimore, Aaron Mossell learned to make bricks. In 1853, according to Nathan’s account, Aaron quit his job and announced that he was moving to Canada because there were no educational facilities for black children in Maryland, a slave-holding state.
Mossell sold his Baltimore property and used the proceeds to move his family and set up a brickyard in Hamilton, Ont. He was illiterate but took night school classes to learn to read and write.
Because of bad legal advice regarding the real estate laws in Canada, Mossell lost all his property, and in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, Mossell returned to the United States.
According to Nathan, his father earned money for the move by selling a horse to the U.S. Army.
He moved to Lockport. “At that time, Lockport was known as a friendly place for blacks,” Hawkins said.
Mossell opened a brick factory and soon moved into a house on High Street. He obtained a contract to sell several hundred thousand bricks to the Lockport School Board for use in constructing a school on High Street, right across the street from his home. Later, it was named John Pound Elementary School.
Nathan said his father instructed him and two of his siblings not to attend the “colored school” on South Street. However, the teacher at the new High Street school refused to instruct them.
His older brother, Charles, protested the treatment, but according to a history of Lockport schools prepared by the district in 1947, the board on Oct. 6, 1871, voted down a motion to admit the black children.
However, by 1876 the board has changed its views, according to the district history. A white school on Washburn Street was expanded to make room for the black students, and the South Street school was abandoned.
Melissa Dunlap, executive director of the History Center, said its remnants were incorporated in African Methodist Episcopal Church.
“A couple of walls are extant, but the rest of it’s gone,” she said.
Mossell remained in Lockport until 1905 or 1906, when the city directory says he “removed to Baltimore.”
He died in Maryland on Dec. 11, 1910. His first wife is buried in Cold Spring Cemetery in Lockport.