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Striving for unified black heritage in Buffalo

When she was picking the brains of Elmwood Village Association leaders about how they invigorated that area, Gail Wells heard a lot about “social capital” – that is, people with the expertise and commitment to help the neighborhood thrive.

Wells hopes that there are at least 1,200 people out there who feel just as strongly about the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor.

That’s how many “Friends of the Corridor” organizers hope will sign up at to volunteer 10 hours a year to serve as docents, greet visitors, spruce up gardens and otherwise help the area become the tourism magnet that it could be.

The volunteers would help at events such as the Feb. 27 open houses at the corridor’s anchors: Michigan Street Baptist Church, the Nash House Museum, the Colored Musicians Club and WUFO Radio. Starting at 2 p.m. at the church – a key Underground Railroad stop where famous abolitionists spoke – and winding up by 4:30 with jazz at the club, the “friend-raiser” will showcase the history and culture that make the corridor so important while developing a Listserv of volunteers.

“What would the area look like if we have the energy of young people, of seniors?” said Wells, corridor marketing director, citing the principle of “ujima,” or collective work and responsibility, that blacks celebrate during Kwanzaa but now have a chance to put into action while inviting others to join.

Beyond their direct contributions, 1,200 supporters also would create a constituency with the clout to make sure the area becomes all that it can be.

When you take out-of-towners there now, you get a quizzical, “Where is it?” Although the individual sites are captivating, there is nothing that ties them together into an identifiable destination point to let visitors know they’ve arrived at what Wells calls “hallowed ground.”

That begins to change this summer when a $200,000 archway is erected at Michigan Avenue and Broadway, said Common Council President Darius Pridgen, of the Ellicott District. A lifesize cutout of Pvt. Jesse Clipper, the first local African-American killed in World War II, also will be added to the small park at Michigan and William Street, and Pridgen said he’s working with nearby Durham Memorial AME Zion Church for a similar cutout of Harriet Tubman.

The corridor has received $525,000 from the city, county and state over the last three years. Chairwoman Karen Stanley Fleming said part of the city money is being used to produce a streetscape plan that might include banners or benches to make the area more identifiable. A site next to the church might become a visitor center.

The arch, cutouts and banners are the kinds of exterior eye-catchers that the corridor has long needed. Bookended by the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and Canalside, which have received millions in investment, it should be a vibrant link making sure that black heritage is also part of the “new Buffalo.”

Down the road, period sidewalks or streets connecting the sites also would brand the area, though no one is talking about that yet. Pridgen said the immediate key is breaking the “paralysis of analysis” to get things moving, then the corridor “can grow into what the community wants.”

Making 1,200 new “friends” would be a good start.