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Black builder of church celebrated at sign unveiling

A place of worship, a stop on the Underground Railroad and a significant force in the civil rights movement, the Michigan Street Baptist Church is the oldest building in Buffalo built and continuously owned and occupied by the city's black residents.

Thursday, the legacy of its African-American builder, Samuel H. Davis, was celebrated with the unveiling of a new sign from the New York State Heritage Trail that provides information on his many accomplishments.

"I'm so proud to be a descendant," said William Richardson, one of Davis' great-great-grandsons, who participated in Thursday's event.

A former professor from Toronto, Richardson began looking up the family history when he retired in 2000. He found a handwritten document from around 1853 in which Davis talks about the importance of family history. It was titled "To My Children" and outlines the first 20 years of his life in Maine from 1810 to 1830, before coming to Buffalo in 1842.

"He came here because he wanted to help people," Richardson said.

Born a free man, Davis was not only a mason. He also was one of the church's early ministers, an orator, an abolitionist and an educator who taught in an African-American school set up by the Buffalo Board of Education. He later established a private school here for black children called the English-Colored School.

Lyle L. Kersey, another great-great-grandson of Davis, also was a guest at the unveiling. Kersey's mother was Davis' oldest grandchild. A Canadian citizen living in Toronto, Kersey spoke about the importance of knowing and understanding the past.

"Family history should be preserved and treasured. Teach your children and grandchildren your family history and start at an early age," he said.

According to a historical sketch written around 1908 by J. Edward Nash, the church's pastor at the time, the Michigan Street Baptist Church began in 1836 when 13 black men and women separated from the Washington Street Baptist Church, Buffalo's first Baptist church. It had a white congregation that allowed blacks to worship there.

The smaller group then formed its own church, and in 1844, Davis started building the Michigan Street Baptist Church, which remains a place of worship. In June 1845, the cornerstone for the church was laid, making it the city's first African-American congregation to construct a new building for its own church.

Prominent national black leaders, including Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois and Adam Clayton Powell Sr., visited the church, which remains a place of worship even today.

Davis also served as station master at the church, which was a stop on the Underground Railroad.

In 1843, he was elected president of the National Convention of Colored Citizens in Buffalo and was the keynote speaker, even though more famous orators of the day such as Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet attended the convention.