The five community leaders who were honored over the weekend during a banquet in St. George’s Hall on Nottingham Terrace were not necessarily in need of plaudits.
Between them, they have over the years scored a passel of commendations acknowledging their tireless dedication to youth, mainly from Buffalo’s East Side communities.
However, for the former denizens of what used to be called the Neighborhood House Association in the city’s Fruit Belt community, it was necessary to say thanks nearly a half-century after the fact.
“We’re just so excited,” said Ebbie Lott-Cooper, as she and family members finalized their plans a few days before the Saturday night banquet.
A few months ago, they organized a committee they call “It Takes a Village” to begin coalescing old friends from the Fruit Belt community and to begin selling tickets to the event.
Beginning in the 1950s, the Lotts were among hundreds of community children who benefitted from after-school programs at the Neighborhood House Association at 50 Orange St., which is now known as the Buffalo Federation of Neighborhood Centers. Their beloved mentors at Neighborhood House then were the five men honored Saturday: John A. Johnson, former teacher and director of the state Division for Youth; retired schoolteacher Ronald Peoples; Carl W. Johnson, former Parent Community Advisory Committee chairman for the Buffalo School Board; community leader William House; and the late General G. Bass, a Buffalo Public Schools teacher who brought the sport of tennis to Buffalo’s inner city.
“They always had activities and things for us to do, and all of us went,” said Annette Lott, Ebbie Lott-Cooper’s sister.
“It was after school, on the weekends. They used to have dances and things on the weekends. The gym was always open for the guys,” Annette Lott added.
Of most importance were the valuable life lessons each of the men imparted to their young charges, particularly opening them up to the world of higher education at a time when many young African-Americans did not perceive it as a viable option. Kenneth Lott, brother of Ebbie and Annette, recalled how their mentors helped them arrange a tour of historically black colleges and universities.
“We visited Morehouse, Howard University and Clark University. And this event, what it did is inspired some of the people who went [on the tour] to actually attend those colleges,” said Kenneth Lott.
Kenneth Ferguson, who attended Neighborhood House with the Lotts in the 1960s, recalled that “Big John” Johnson made a vivid impression on the youngsters.
“I think what I remember is our being able to run amok if ‘Big John’ wasn’t there,” said Ferguson.
“He was big. He was a lineman. He used to play for the New York Titans before they became the Jets. So you kind of toed the line with him,” Ferguson added.
Attendance at Neighborhood House and exposure to the mentors honored Saturday didn’t end with his generation, either. Ferguson’s daughter with Ebbie Lott-Cooper also fondly recalled her experiences.
“I went to the Neighborhood House in ’68 and ’69. My parents were teenagers. Yes, I was born in ’66, so I was there at 2 and 3 [years old], as well as my brother, who was born in ’70,” said Sharlene Ferguson.
“And we actually all went to School 37, too,” said her father, Kenneth Ferguson. “What’s the name of it now?”
“Futures Academy,” they all replied in unison.