Photographs of clothing, drawings, writing, and citations hung in mute testimony to young murder victims and the families who remember them. Clothes symbolized the lives behind the numbers, in an effort to reduce Buffalo's killings by displaying homicide victims' life histories.
Showing what victims left behind reinforced that these crimes were "unconstitutional, inhuman, painful, ungodly, uncivilized, barbaric and a public disgrace," said Sam Pittee-Polkah Toe, founder of Buffalo's Africana Research Museum.
While the clothing and personal possessions have since been returned to the grieving families, that display has grown into the museum's Neighborhood Education, Economic and Cultural Development (NEED) program, an African-centered education project that helps prevent the use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco among Buffalo's at-risk inner-city children.
Another facet is the museum's African American Role Model Exhibit, showcasing the life histories of prominent local African-Americans who have made positive contributions, to help build self-esteem in children.
While highlighting the efforts of historical African-American heroes and heroines is fine, Pittee-Polkah Toe says Buffalo kids need to learn the stories of contemporary men and women who came from their own streets, who struggled and found success.
Winding up Black History Month discussions at Buffalo State College, a contemporary African-American role model exhibit and seminar will be presented by the Africana from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.
Pittee-Polkah Toe will also speak at an international symposium open to the public: "Race and Ethnicity: Struggle for Identity in America," to be held at 6 p.m. March 15 on the University at Buffalo's Amherst Campus.
A former research director of the Liberian National Archives Center, Pittee-Polkah Toe said the principal goal of the crime exhibit was "to respond to Buffalo's increasing homicide numbers by educating all segments of our community about the effects of crime," seeking "to build a safer society."
"To address crime, we have to confront it, and rehabilitate through role models," he said.
"Like other museums, we were simply responding to the social problems of today," said Pittee-Polkah Toe, a U.S. National Archives Center-trained archivist with a doctorate in international education.
The Africana Research Museum, with its various displays, will be moving from its 3071 Bailey Ave. address to a new home on Fillmore Avenue. Renovations have begun and the Fillmore site is expected to be open to the public this summer.
A formerly vacant building is being converted into the museum's new home, with plans to add three stories and turn it into a center for the study of African culture.
The family of the late Wasyl Sharvan donated the two-story building at 699-701 Fillmore to the museum, part of the New York International African Institute.
The Africana will eventually move its offices, currently on Titus Avenue, and its Bailey Avenue displays into the new building. It also plans to raise $2 million and expand the museum into a five-story facility.
"We are confident we can raise the money and convert it into an educational center that will attract tourism to Buffalo," he said, adding that the museum will seek government grants and private donations. "We've already begun, working with the Delaware branch of Citibank of New York State. The state of New York has been very supportive."
The building, vacant for several years, once housed the import-export business of Sharvan, a nationally known Ukrainian-American community leader, who also had a Ukrainian radio show for over 40 years. The Williamsville resident died in 1998 at age 77. His wife and three children donated the building to the museum, to be called the Wasyl Sharvan Africana Research Building.
Erie County Legislator Gregory Olma, D-Buffalo, arranged the transfer.
Pittee-Polkah Toe said the building is in good condition. Architects have looked at it, and judged the plan feasible. However, more studies need to be done. The plan calls for the fifth floor to contain a re-created African village with a glass roof. Other facilities would include the Bureau of the African Diaspora, an Africana Research Library-Archival Repository, data bank, international trade office, Africana theater and conference center, gift shop and African restaurant.
"We want to create cultural tourism in our area," explains Pittee-Polkah Toe, who feels the Africana will boost the Broadway Market area. "We are very hopeful."
Among the museum's other current displays is an African village similar to the one Pittee-Polkah Toe grew up in. In addition, the museum sponsors the International Africana Arts Traveling Exhibit and Seminar that has been sponsored by institutions around the globe.
The Africana's MultiCultural Education for American Schools project has staff development in African history and culture for American teachers, as well as a mobile Africana museum that has been installed in various local school districts.
"We're doing our best working with schools," says Pittee-Polkah Toe, who says he wants to go to more inner-city schools.
Financing from the project came from the State University of New York Research Foundation through the Buffalo Community Partnership. Also in February, the museum sponsored the second International Black Genealogy Convention, held at Empire State College.
"Unlike many genealogy programs that rely on archival and historical materials for data," Pittee-Polkah Toe said, "the convention brings together ethnomusicologists, linguists, biologists, historians, archivists, artists, librarians, policy makers, anthropologists and archaeologists to study the best way of doing black genealogy in view of the erroneous documentation of the records of African slaves. You can't use one discipline to explain where black people come from."