Katie Harrod and her husband, Jerome, took a chance in 2009 on buying a house just east of downtown.
“It really looked like some areas were a ghost town,” said Harrod, an attorney. “But we just had a feeling it was going to come back.”
The area is coming back, Harrod said, because of renewed interest in places like the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor, where she attended a first-of-its-kind Christmas celebration Sunday afternoon with dozens of others.
“There’s so much activity and so much positive energy going on down here,” Harrod said. “It just really is heartwarming to be a Buffalonian.”
Her grandson, Xavier Rogers, 9, drizzled purple and green paint in a clear ornament, swirled it around and added it to the Christmas tree in front of Michigan Street Baptist Church, where Sunday’s event was centered.
It was one of many activities during the family-friendly event planned as a way to celebrate the Christmas season and showcase the corridor, which is also anchored by the Colored Musicians Club, Nash House Museum and Langston Hughes Institute.
“If you go on Elmwood or Delaware or downtown, they have lighting of trees, they have wreaths,” said Sheila L. Brown, owner of WUFO-AM 1080 radio. “So we think in the corridor, since it’s so historic, we should be doing the same thing.”
The church, in particular, played a key role in the nation’s anti-slavery movement.
Frederick Douglass spoke there during an 1843 anti-slavery gathering, according to a University at Buffalo website, and printed programs found in the nearby Nash House Museum show that Booker T. Washington delivered a speech at the church in 1910.
The corridor has an important healing role to play today, too, when issues like violence and poverty are still prevalent, said Bishop Clarence Montgomery of El Bethel Assembly, which owns and operates the church building.
“In this time we need something like this,” he said, following the tree-lighting ceremony and caroling. “Not so much for the children, but for us. We see so much and we can get disappointed very easily because it seems like nothing’s changing.”
On Sunday, there was a focus on “inspiring and uplifting music,” said commission chair Karen Stanley Fleming, including a gospel music performance by Sandra Clay led by George A. Davis III on piano.
Eva Doyle, a retired history teacher, talked about the history of gospel music, focusing on Thomas A. Dorsey, known as the “father of black gospel music.” And in a speech, Larry Goins, a retired Buffalo police officer, addressed the theme “peace on Earth, goodwill towards all.”
“Certainly we know about the poverty rates in Buffalo,” said Fleming. “We know that our families need really positive events like the one today. So that’s why we’re so happy this church is standing-room only. It shows that people are interested in positive events and learning about their history.”
Cecil Foster, a professor in the University at Buffalo’s Department of Transnational Studies, said the corridor is vital for building community and identity.
“An institution like this, in a sense, reinforces those bonds,” he said outside the church. “These kinds of events certainly provide the kind of glue that bring people together.”
Erie County Legislator Barbara Miller-Williams, who also lives nearby, said she has seen the area’s resurgence. “People are worshipping here, they are living here,” she said. “Businesses are coming in. This is a strip that has historical significance and we’re very proud of it.”
After the tree lighting, some of the assembled crowd crossed Michigan Avenue for a jazz concert by the Alec Dube Quartet in the Colored Musicians Club. Organizers hope the event becomes an annual one.
“We’re just happy to have more and more events,” Fleming said. “That’s our goal – not only to be a tourist attraction but also to be a beacon in the community.”