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Rev. Malcolm Erni, began African-American center ; Aug. 7, 1936 -- Dec. 12, 2010

The Rev. Malcolm W. Erni, who founded the African-American Cultural Center, died Dec. 12 in Hawthorn Health Multicare Center for Living, Buffalo. He was 74.

Mr. Erni "was a tremendous man, committed to his community and to the history of his people," said former Deputy Assembly Speaker Arthur O. Eve. "He tried to inform, enlighten and educate any and everybody who would listen."

Mr. Erni founded the African Cultural Center in 1958, holding its first meetings on Friday and Saturday nights in a funeral home. Soon after, the group moved to the basement of a church near Glenwood Avenue. After a couple of other moves, the center moved into its current Masten Avenue headquarters, a former welding business, in the late 1960s. Mr. Erni and others led a capital campaign to raise funds to buy the property.

Although usually cash-strapped and operating out of a modest building, the center -- which underwent a name change to the African-American Cultural Center -- emerged as the forerunner in Buffalo of African-American cultural awareness. The center provided children a sense of identity and purpose through exposure to the arts.

The East Side institution celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2008, when Mayor Byron W. Brown pointed out the center had "distinguished itself as one of the great organizations, not only in Buffalo, but throughout the Western New York area."

Its Paul Robeson Theatre is the oldest black theater in Western New York. Thousands have been entertained by musicals, dramas and comedies featuring local actors.

The center's Dance and Drum Performance Company, the area's first professional black dance company, performs its West African routines before thousands throughout Western New York and is in high demand during Black History Month.

The Pine Grill Jazz Reunion, a summer jazz series, has attracted thousands to Martin Luther King Park.

The center also runs a summer program and an after-school program.

Mr. Erni, a Buffalo native, dreamed of a cultural and spiritual sanctuary for youngsters and families on Buffalo's East Side.

"He wanted to build a place where young people, especially, would be able to learn about their heritage and culture and become better individuals because of this self-knowledge," said Agnes M. Bain, the center's executive director.

"At least three generations of the Buffalo community -- the children of the first children who were here, their children and sometimes their grandchildren -- have benefited from the vision of Malcolm Erni," she said.

"Uncle Malcolm provided a lot of inspiration to me and my family," said Albert Erni, a nephew. "I would like people to remember him for his dedication and accomplishment in establishing an institution to uphold the arts and culture in perpetuity for the Buffalo community."

Survivors include a daughter, Carol, and a sister, Agnes.

Services will be at 11 a.m. today in Living Water Fellowship Church, 382 Pine Ridge Road, Cheektowaga.

-- Patrick Lakamp

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