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Track meet honors shared legacies of King, Kosciuszko

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Poland's Thaddeus Kosciuszko seem like an unlikely historical pairing.

But centuries before King became synonymous with the civil rights movement, Kosciuszko, a hero in the American Revolutionary War, attempted to buy freedom for America's slaves.

On Saturday, the Kosciuszko-King Unity Track & Field Classic at Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Pavilion honored both men as civil rights heroes.

Kosciuszko, a Pole who fought with Americans in the Revolutionary War, requested in his will that his friend, Thomas Jefferson, use Kosciuszko's wartime back pay of more than $15,000 to buy, free and educate slaves and give them land and cattle.

Graham Russell Hodges, a history professor at Colgate University and co-author of a book on Kosciuszko scheduled for a January release, said Kosciuszko suggested buying Jefferson's slaves and emancipating them.

"The plan was to make slaves into citizens," Hodges said.

But Kosciuszko's executors did not follow through on the promise.

Few of the more than 170 spectators at Saturday's track meet had heard of Kosciuszko, but upon learning of his desires to free slaves, most said he deserves a place in civil rights history.

Which is why Cheektowaga's Jim Serafin suggested the historical linkage. Serafin grew up on Fillmore Avenue when mostly Polish-Americans called the East Side home. Now that the neighborhood is mostly African-American, Serafin wants to show Buffalo -- which has a reputation as one of the most segregated cities in the nation -- the connection between Polish-Americans and the civil rights movement.

"Let's acknowledge how the East Side is changing," he said. "Let's bring [both ethnicities] together.

Kosciuszko's contribution is starting to appear in local schools' curriculum. Adrianne Lockhart, principal of School 78, said pupils at the school learned this year about the relationship between King and Kosciuszko. And some of those pupils competing in the track meet said they knew Kosciuszko stood for peace, friendship and freedom.

e-mail: cthompson@buffnews.com

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