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Lockport plans playground named after hometown civil rights leader

A City of Lockport playground may soon be named for Aaron A. Mossell, the 19th century civil rights leader who forced Lockport to integrate its public schools 76 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered it.

Plans call for the playground to be installed in a long-vacant parking lot on South Street.

That's the same street where the city's segregated black school used to stand.

Mossell, an African-American who was one of Lockport's most successful businessmen, led a successful three-year boycott of the school, which resulted in black children being allowed to attend the same schools as Lockport's white children.

Mossell, a brick manufacturer, supplied the building materials for First African Methodist Episcopal Church, 123 South St., which stands on the site of the South Street School, which was closed in 1876.

Now, the new playground in the racially diverse neighborhood will bear Mossell's name.

"How appropriate. It's right down the street from the church that Aaron Mossell built," said Jackie Davis, leader of Lift Up Lockport, a local citizen group.

Mossell, who had been born a free man in Baltimore, moved to Lockport in 1865 and opened a brickyard on Trowbridge Street. About five years later, Mossell was hired to supply the bricks to build a public school on High Street.

But he found he wasn't allowed to send his children there because they were African-American.

Mossell protested to the Board of Education, which in 1871 agreed to allow black children to go to the regular public schools. The board, however, soon changed its mind.

On Jan. 3, 1873, a meeting of Lockport's black residents elected Mossell as their leader. They announced they would boycott the South Street school or sue the Board of Education unless the schools were desegregated. After three years, the black parents won their fight.

Trying to improve South Street

The Greater Lockport Development Corp., the city's business development agency, started a South Street initiative in 2016, trying to find ways to spruce up the run-down street that borders Harrison Place, the city's business incubator which has been one of the corporation's biggest successes.

The building was erected more than a century ago as the main plant of Harrison Radiator, which later was purchased by General Motors. GM moved out of the old plant in 1985.

The 2.17-acre parking lot, which will become the Aaron Mossell Playground, used to serve Harrison workers.

Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said the city won a $450,000 state grant to fund the playground, which she said will be built in 2019.

McCaffrey said the playground's offerings will be chosen with community input.

Supporters say the playground will boost the neighborhood.

"There is no green space. That site has been vacant 30 years," Davis said. "People walk every day past that big, ugly eyesore."

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