Activism in the African-American community in Buffalo began in the early 1800s. The demand for equal education for black children was a constant cry. The African Vine Street School was considered to be inferior to other schools in the district. Black students were not allowed to go to the city’s only high school. There also were white abolitionists in Buffalo who spoke out against slavery and later joined the fight for the education of black students. But the black leadership was strong and consistent. It included such men as:
George Weir Jr., a grocer and one of the few African-American merchants in the city. He was a frequent correspondent with Frederick Douglass. Abner Francis, who settled in Buffalo in 1835, was one of the wealthiest African-Americans in the city. His clothing and dry cleaning business was very successful. He was a leading member of the Anti-Slavery Society and he used his influence to encourage blacks to protest poor education. Peyton Harris, who came to Buffalo in 1832 from Virginia, was also a successful businessman and very much involved in the struggle for education.
Black public meetings were held regularly across the city. An article in the Phylon Quarterly written by Arthur O. White in 1969 stated: “Black integrationists made their children sit in local schools in defiance of segregation orders, but the school officials humiliated them by refusing to give them books and instruction. Sometimes school officials used force to drive black students from the district schools. Blacks withstood these tactics in order to force the hand of city leaders, who continually voted for segregation. Some blacks accepted these verdicts and took their children out of the district schools.”
One man who did not back down was Henry Moxley. He filed a petition with the Buffalo Common Council to protest the actions of Superintendent John S. Fosdick, who physically expelled black children by kicking and beating them. Moxley retained the services of a prominent white lawyer named Albert J. Stevens to test the laws of the city. Stevens agreed to represent Moxley without a fee. Damages of $1,000 were sought in the case. The city responded by directing its attorney to defend Fosdick. It argued that Fosdick was acting in accordance with the law. The actions of the superintendent were upheld, and Moxley’s petition was denied. The court concluded that the black students had violated the city charter by forcing their way into district schools. The next step was an appeal.
The case was heard on Jan. 10, 1868, before State Supreme Court Justice Charles Daniels, a Republican member of the court since 1863. He ruled in favor of Fosdick and fined Moxley. After the decision, some members of the black community wanted to discontinue the suit, fearing it was not safe to go on. However, Moxley stated that he would “carry it through from court to court, if necessary.” He told his lawyer to continue with the case.
They went before the State Supreme Court again on May 4, 1868. Stevens argued that the Civil Rights Act passed by Congress in April 1866 intended to give blacks the same rights as whites. The judge rejected the use of the Civil Rights Act in this case, and Moxley was defeated a second time. The debate in the Council raged on, but it responded with only a few improvements in the black school.
It was later proposed that a charter review committee be established. After much debate, it was finally decided to end segregation. Even after the movement toward integration, the African school continued, but there was a problem of low attendance and the Council finally closed it. Twenty-three years later, the first professionally trained black teacher was hired in Buffalo. Her name was Ida Dora Fairbush.
Fairbush was 26 years old when she passed the Buffalo Teachers’ exam in 1895. She was a graduate of the Xenia Normal School in Ohio. She had taught almost two years at Wilberforce College in exchange for tuition. In 1896, the Buffalo Board of Education appointed her to the Annex at School 6, where she remained until her retirement 41 years later. Surprisingly, Fairbush did not teach black students; she taught the children of Italian immigrants. In a book called “The Teacher’s Voice,” edited by Richard J. Altenbaugh, the following words appear: “She was so talented that the white people kept her for their children.”
Eva M. Doyle has been a columnist for 35 years for the Buffalo Criterion newspaper, where this article originally appeared. It is the third of four parts.