LOCKPORT – The great-granddaughter of Aaron A. Mossell, whose efforts are credited with desegregating Lockport public schools 78 years before the U.S. Supreme Court made that the law of the land, is disappointed with the Board of Education’s rejection of a proposal to rename North Park Junior High School in his honor.
Instead, the board seemed open to recommendations that Mossell’s story should be added to the district’s history curriculum.
Also, a committee of residents and staffers suggested that a brick wall should be built outside North Park with inscriptions detailing the story of Mossell, who was a brick merchant. There also was a suggestion that a bus loop to be constructed as part of a project at the school should be named for Mossell.
The recommendations have been referred to the board’s Facilities Committee.
“I’m disheartened and disappointed that the school won’t be renamed for my great-grandfather,” said Rae Alexander-Minter of the Bronx.
School Board President John A. Linderman said, “The committee felt the North Park name is pretty ingrained in the community.”
According to a report at a meeting last month, the committee felt that even though schools often are named for people, as time passes their accomplishments are forgotten, and residents scratch their heads when asked who that person was.
“Quite a few people don’t have the background about who they were named after,” said James Snyder, North Park assistance principal, who served on the committee that considered the Mossell proposal.
Also, Lockport has closed three elementary schools in recent years, all named for people who won’t be memorialized anymore, said Susan Tomaszewski of the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services, who acted as facilitator for the committee.
“I don’t know what the politics are,” Alexander-Minter said. “I think (the decision) is a great loss for everyone, not just people of color.”
“There’s a lot of tradition at North Park,” Tomaszewski said. “What was most important to the committee was education and spirit.”
She said the seven-member committee sought consensus and reached a unanimous recommendation.
Besides Snyder, its members included board member Marietta Schrader; former board member Allan Jack; residents David Knight and LaShonda McKenzie; North Park parent Julie Brounscheidel; and North Park student Brianna Gelnett. The committee met five times between September and December.
“It was a difficult decision,” Schrader said. “I think we came up with a fair and equitable recommendation.”
“Once it’s in the curriculum, all the kids will be exposed to it, hopefully,” Jack said.
Other than Lockport High School, North Park, which opened on Passaic Avenue in 1940, is the only school in the district not named for a person. It’s not even named for a park, since Lockport has no “North Park.” The name was chosen by public opinion, after several people were suggested at the time.
The proposal to change the name to honor Mossell originated with the late Michael J. Pullano, a former North Park and Lockport High School teacher who died of melanoma in 2011.
Before his death, he enlisted support from several prominent citizens to promote the idea, including David R. Kinyon, Town of Lockport economic development director, and Marion Hannigan, wife of former Niagara County Judge Charles J. Hannigan.
“The intention of our committee was to make sure the Board of Education had information about the merits of the proposal,” Kinyon said. “We appreciate them considering our proposal.”
According to historical research by the History Center of Niagara and the Niagara County Historian’s Office, Mossell was born a free black in Baltimore in 1824. His grandfather had been brought from West Africa as a slave, but his son, Mossell’s father, bought the family’s freedom from their slave master.
After learning to make bricks in Baltimore, Mossell moved to Hamilton, Ont., in 1853. In 1866, the year after the Civil War ended, Mossell moved back to the U.S., settling in Lockport and opening a brick factory.
He earned a contract with the Lockport schools to supply the bricks to construct a school on High Street, across the street from his home. That school later became John Pound Elementary School.
However, Mossell was not allowed to send his children there. Lockport had a separate school for black children on South Street.
Mossell protested, demanding admission to the regular school for his three children. In 1871, the Board of Education voted him down, but Mossell kept fighting, and in 1876, the board changed its mind, closing the black school and expanding a white school on Washburn Street, which no longer stands, to make room for the black children.
Mossell lived in Lockport until 1905 or 1906, when he moved back to his hometown of Baltimore, and he died in Maryland in 1910.
He was inducted into the Historic Lockport Walk of Fame in 2002, but that site on Main Street, which consisted of inscribed pavers around a fountain, no longer exists.
Besides the curriculum addition regarding Mossell, which Schrader said would be “very, very important,” the committee said a new bus loop already approved by voters as part of a district capital project should be called “Aaron Mossell Circle.”
Schrader was at pains to insist it’s not a driveway.
“This is more than a driveway. Isn’t this a circle right up to the front (of the school)?” she said at the Jan. 22 meeting.
The brick wall is envisioned as having seating cut into it for North Park students, as well as an inset granite marker that would be inscribed, “In Memory of Aaron Mossell I, a Community Leader and Pioneer for School Desegregation in Lockport, NY.”
Also, some bricks in the wall would have other inscriptions, such as “Equality in Education;” “First Successful Black Businessman in Lockport;” “Bricks from Mr. Mossell’s Company Were Used in the Building of Other Lockport Schools”; and “The Lockport City School District Desegregated in 1876, 80 Years Prior to the United States.”