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Annual conference revels in diversity

From the commemorative wooden bus in the lobby to fragile-looking dolls on shelves behind glass, the Fourth Annual Conference on African and African-American History & American Diversity offered something for everybody Friday in Buffalo's McKinley High School.

"Mission Possible: Preserving Our History, Our Health, Our Heroes, Our Legacy," concludes today at the school with a full schedule of activities.

Though daytime events, which began Tuesday, were geared more toward students, Friday night was the grand opening of the conference. During a reception preceding the program, guests snacked and browsed displays in several locations.

McKinley's Carpentry Class of 2006 built scaled-down facades of safe houses of the Underground Railroad, where slaves seeking freedom sought refuge on their journey north.

Among them are the Johnson House in Philadelphia; Burlington Pharmacy in Burlington, N.J.; the Levi Coffin House in Fountain City, Ind. -- and Buffalo's own Michigan Street Baptist Church.

At those safe houses, colorful quilts hanging on clotheslines or blazing lanterns let runaway slaves know where they'd be safe. Quilts also conveyed secret messages; included in a display is the image of a sailboat that communicated boats were available for crossing crucial waterways.

Display boards near the entrance to the auditorium are filled with posters reflecting the conference theme.

Elementary school pupils' entries are drawn and lettered in crayon and pencil. High school entries reveal sophisticated graphics and drawings by talented hands.

Winners of the poster contests will be announced this afternoon.

Entrance to the auditorium is through the doors of an almost life-sized wooden bus, honoring the memory of the late civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks. Flashing yellow caution lights and real wheels set in the tire wells add authenticity to the display.

Friday night, the auditorium was filled with music, including songs by the Niagara Falls Housing Authority Youth Chorus and ballads sung by Morley, a performer from Jamaica, Queens. Morley was accompanied by Ernesto Villa-Lobos, a jarocho violinist and composer from Mexico.

Student guitarists Gary Collins and James Martin joined the performers on stage for their final number.

Mattie Rhodes, a clinical professor of nursing at the University at Buffalo, gave the keynote address on issues of importance to women, in particular, because "Women in the families may be the ones to set the health agendas."

Rhodes backed up her comments and slide presentation with informational handouts about blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease, stroke and diet.

Health and historical issues are among the topics in workshops scheduled for this morning. Registration begins at 7:30 a.m.

Health and wellness screenings also will be offered between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.; a poetry slam begins at 10:20 a.m. in the library, and a soul food cook-off at 11 a.m. Contest winners will be announced at 1:30 p.m.

e-mail: citydesk@buffnews.com

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