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Quilt honoring Lockport desegregation pioneer to be unveiled

LOCKPORT – Aaron A. Mossell, whose strong stand against a separate school for black children forced Lockport to desegregate its schools more than 75 years before that became the law of the land, is being honored in a special quilt to be unveiled soon.

The quilt may be shown at Wednesday’s Lockport Board of Education meeting, and it will be available to a wider audience at 6:30 p.m. Feb. 6, when the district holds an African-American History Celebration in Lockport High School.

The quilt, finished during the first week of January after 10 months of work, was made by nine women from the Kenan Center and Dale Association quilters’ groups. Nancy Smith, vice president of the Kenan Quilters Guild, was the project manager.

The 49-by-55-inch cotton quilt depicts a Mossell family tree as an actual tree with branches labeled “Freedom,” “Community,” “Education,” “Integration,” “Family” and “Commerce.” The leaves on the tree are labeled with the names of the Mossell family.

All this is superimposed over a brick wall, which is appropriate because Mossell was head of a company that manufactured bricks in Lockport.

In fact, his bricks were used in the construction of John Pound Elementary School on High Street.

Some prominent Lockport citizens sought to rename North Park Junior High School in Mossell’s honor, but the Board of Education rejected the idea last year after a committee studied the idea.

“The committee felt the North Park was pretty ingrained in the community,” School Board President John A. Linderman said at the time. North Park has been so named since it opened in 1940. Other than the high school, it’s the only public school in Lockport not named after a person.

However, the board did decide to add information about Mossell to the Lockport curriculum.

Ryan Schoenfeld, North Park principal, said the information will be taught during February in eighth-grade social studies classes.

Rae Alexander-Minter, Mossell’s great-great-granddaughter, will speak at the Feb. 6 event.

A New York City resident, Alexander-Minter, 77, who holds doctorates in anthropology and education, has been emailed photos of the quilt.

“I’m really impressed with what I saw. I can’t wait to see it up close and personal,” she said.

Aaron Mossell was born in Baltimore in 1824. He and his wife were never slaves, but they left the country for Hamilton, Ont., after the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 was passed. They moved to Lockport in 1866.

North Park school was built on the site of Mossell’s second brick factory. Schoenfeld said, “His homestead is literally right around the corner from North Park.”

The notion of renaming the school started with the late Michael J. Pullano, a social studies teacher who worked first at North Park and later at the high school.

Before his death in 2011, Pullano had been quietly working to honor Mossell, and enlisted several prominent Lockport citizens to work for the goal after his death following a battle with melanoma.

In 1871, Mossell instructed his children not to attend Lockport’s “colored school” on South Street. He insisted that his three children should go to the high school later named for John Pound. In 1871, the Board of Education refused to admit them.

However, Mossell kept fighting, and in 1876, 78 years before the U.S. Supreme Court declared segregated schools unconstitutional, the Lockport School Board changed its mind. A school on Washburn Street was expanded to make room for the city’s black children, and the South Street school was shut down. Part of the building was later reused for the Lockport African Methodist Episcopal Church on the same site.

Mossell remained in Lockport until about 1905 before moving back to Maryland, where he died in 1910.

Alexander-Minter said that as a girl, she knew Mossell’s son Nathan, who was the first black man to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania Medical School.

Since blacks were not allowed to be treated in white hospitals in Philadelphia, Nathan Mossell founded his own hospital, which had white doctors on its board.

“He didn’t believe in discrimination in any form,” Alexander-Minter said. She said Nathan Mossell refused to take only black interns from the medical school.

As for the quilt, Alexander-Minter said, “I see it as a visible documentation of a family of great achievement. At a time of racial strife in this country … it will resonate with young people, all people, white, black, brown.”

Smith said it is uncertain what the final destination of the quilt will be. Schoenfeld said, “I would love to have it here at North Park.”

However, Smith said there’s been talk of rotating it among all Lockport schools, and the History Center of Niagara also has expressed interest.

The 49-by-55-inch cotton quilt was made in part at a public quilting bee last August at the Community Market, organized by Ellen Martin of Sweet Ride Rentals.

Smith said the design for the tree on the quilt was made by Lockport elementary school art teacher Marcie Orr, and Lockport artist Jack DiMaggio made line drawings for the quilt depicting two other still-existing Lockport buildings made with Mossell’s bricks, the AME church and the Vine Street School at Vine and Garden streets.

Karen Gast Photography of Lockport transferred DiMaggio’s drawings onto the quilt, Smith said. The final quilting was done by Tara Thom of Town and Country Quilter of Albion.

Alexander-Minter said she’s proud of the quilt and of the family history it represents. “It’s an American story,” she said.