LOCKPORT – A proposal to name the library in North Park Middle School after the man given credit for forcing the desegregation of Lockport schools is not quite the honor his great-granddaughter wanted.
Rae Alexander-Minter, a descendant of Aaron A. Mossell, called the suggestion “a first step,” but said she would prefer to see the entire school named after Mossell.
Lockport School Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley said the Board of Education already decided in 2014 not to do that, deciding it was unwilling to change a name that was “pretty ingrained in the community,” as board president John A. Linderman said at the time.
Instead, the board decided to insert mention of Mossell in the social studies curriculum in the middle and high schools. That has happened, Bradley said.
In 2014, the board also suggested naming the newly repaved bus circle in front of North Park Middle School after Mossell, or building a memorial wall in his honor. Neither of those ideas has proceeded, Bradley said, because no one has stepped forward to raise funds for them.
“It would not be funded by the district,” Bradley said.
She said Trustee Jon A. Williams suggested to his board colleagues that the library at the middle school be named for Mossell instead.
“I’m not from Lockport. I’m not a native,” Williams said, “I see ‘George Southard Elementary School’ and I have no idea who that is.”
He said that since the North Park library was renovated this summer, this is “a perfect opportunity to put something in there with some information about Aaron Mossell.”
Williams said he wants something more than a photo hanging in the school lobby. A permanent installation in the library could be that something.
“I would like to see something there so people know who he was,” Williams said. “I think it’s important to know this history. The library to me is a place where history is kept.”
Mossell’s great-granddaughter said that proposal is encouraging, “but it may be an attempt to pacify me and others who want the school named for Aaron Mossell.”
Other than the high school, North Park is the only school now open in Lockport not named after a person. All the others are named after past Lockport educators. Two now-closed schools, DeWitt Clinton and Washington Hunt, were named after governors of New York.
The North Park name was chosen when the school opened in 1940, after the names of several people were considered. Lockport does not have a park called “North Park,” but the school, on Passaic Avenue, is located near Outwater Park, a large park in the northern part of the city.
A brickyard Aaron Mossell owned after the Civil War was located where North Park Middle School now stands. In 1871, Mossell supplied the bricks to construct an elementary school on High Street in Lockport, now called John Pound Early Childhood Center.
That school was for white children only. Black children were required to attend a separate school on South Street.
Mossell and his son, the Rev. Charles W. Mossell, put pressure on the Lockport Board of Education to allow black children to attend the High Street school. The board hemmed and hawed, at first approving desegregated schools, then changing its mind.
Aaron Mossell called a public meeting Jan. 3, 1873, at which black citizens agreed to boycott the South Street school. Some black children and their parents reportedly forced their way into classrooms at white schools a few days later. In 1876, the school board finally closed the separate black school for good and expanded a white school on Washburn Street to make room.
All this happened generations before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated schools in 1954.
The Lockport district has a naming policy that calls for a committee to be formed to consider a request and report back to the Board of Education within six months, Bradley said. Michael W. Pickreign, assistant principal at North Park, will chair the committee, which includes Williams, two teachers, a teacher aide, a student and a parent.
The idea of renaming North Park after Mossell originated in 2011 with Michael J. Pullano, a Lockport social studies teacher, shortly before his death from melanoma. It was pushed by a group of prominent citizens, but ultimately turned down by the school board.
Williams said the tale of Mossell is “a fabulous story that the City of Lockport could embrace.”
Alexander-Minter, 78, noted that her ancestor fought for desegregated schools in Lockport for five years.
“I think we can do the same thing. My eye is on the prize. This is one step, but it’s not enough,” said Alexander-Miner, who holds two doctorates, in education and anthropology, and is currently a scholar in residence at Columbia University Teachers College.