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EVENT STIRS IMAGES OF OVERCOMING BIAS

Mamie Beale Johnson was attending Virginia Union University in Richmond in the 1940s when she encountered racial discrimination on a streetcar.

"A white boy and his mother got on the streetcar and wanted me to move from my seat," Johnson, a native of Buffalo, recalled Wednesday evening during the annual dinner of Housing Opportunities Made Equal in the Buffalo Convention Center.

"I was 18 and somewhat frightened," she said. "I left the car. It was very embarrassing."

Later, when the Hutchinson-Central High School graduate was again traveling in the South, a white woman boarded a bus and refused to sit behind her.

At first, Johnson refused to move to the back of the bus, citing a new federal law. But the police disagreed, and rather than get off the bus at 3 a.m., she moved to the rear.

Johnson, who earned a mathematics degree and worked at Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory for 22 years, recalled for the 250 people at the dinner -- whose theme was "Living History . . . No One Simply Passes Through" -- how she and her college friends used to express their defiance by sitting in the "whites only" section at the bus station and drinking from the "whites only" fountain. Her husband, Horace Johnson, became a Common Council member from the Masten District.

Leeland M. Jones Jr., who was the first African-American member of the Council, representing the Ellicott District, recalled being rejected by a hotel in Baltimore while in college.

The University of Buffalo's first black football player to play in a game south of the Mason-Dixon line, he had traveled with his team to play Johns Hopkins University in 1942.

"They refused to let me stay in a white hotel with my team," he said. "They sent me to the Royal Hotel -- a 'colored' hotel. So I called the Afro-American Newspapers and said, 'What do I do? The farthest South I've ever been is Lackawanna, N.Y.' So they drove me to the home of the president of the Afro-American Newspapers."

Jones later married the president's daughter and brought her back to Buffalo.

The third veteran to share recollections of the civil rights movement was Aurora Town Justice George M. Hezel, founder and director of UB's Affordable Housing Clinic.

"The mission and work of HOME are as important to the City of Buffalo and the surrounding community as the work of a financial control board," said Hezel, who served on HOME's board for 23 years. "What good is a city without a sense of community? It's a body without a soul."

He then quoted from the Prophet Malachi: "Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us?"

HOME's mission, he said, is "knitting back into society people who have been marginalized."

Chuck Thomas, who was re-elected board chairman, reported that, despite a 50 percent reduction in staff, HOME last year served 5,211 people in housing cases, filed 27 discrimination complaints and successfully conciliated 46 other cases.

Elizabeth G. Clark of the law firm Hodgson Russ received the James Crawford Award for Outstanding Service to HOME.

e-mail: acardinale@buffnews.com

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