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Michigan Street corridor archway to tell freedom's story

The Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor has a lot of stories to tell.

The Michigan Street Baptist Church – a stop on the Underground Railroad that hosted such figures as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington – speaks to the abolitionist and civil rights movements.

So does the Nash House Museum, home to the Rev. J. Edward Nash, who was instrumental in establishing what would become Buffalo’s National Urban League and NAACP branches.

And the 100-year-old Colored Musicians Club – a union hall for black musicians at a time when unions were segregated – provides the cultural and artistic narrative, with a first-floor interactive museum and a second-floor club that hosted jazz greats like Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat "King" Cole and Billie Holiday.

But there also are many other stories to come out of the Heritage Corridor. And a new, $200,000 artistic archway planned for the corridor aims to convey them.

"I felt the area would need something that Buffalo had never seen, some type of calling card that would make that area unique," said Common Council President Darius G. Pridgen. Now, officials expect to break ground on the project by local African-American artist Valeria Cray around the time of this year’s Juneteenth Festival, to be held June 17 and 18.

When Pridgen first became Ellicott District council member in 2010, he was very concerned about the lack of tourism in the Heritage Corridor, which critics complained lacked much of anything in the streetscape to identify it as a destination point despite the cluster of high-profile sites. So he proposed to community members and stakeholders an archway on Michigan Avenue – once called Michigan Street – between William Street and Broadway.

Artist Valeria Cray uses this rendering to guide her design of the archway that will be erected for the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor. (John Hickey/Buffalo News)

"That is really the heart of the (corridor's) tourist area,"  he said.

Along the way, there have been setbacks, including wording on the bond document and clerical mistakes, Pridgen said. The process will take at least a couple more months to complete, but Pridgen is determined to get it done sooner rather than later.

"It will happen during this construction season," Pridgen said. "This is by far one of the most important projects that our office has brought to the corridor," he added.

Cray, 67, was selected to design the archway.

The 25-foot-high, stainless steel piece will have a base made of bricks, she said. It will have dove wings in the middle and plaques summarizing the stories of the Nash House, the church, the Colored Musicians Club and the slaves who came through Buffalo.

A Closer Look: Colored Musicians Club

There will be white lights and blue lights – some formed to represent the North Star, which guided runaway slaves – and letters spelling out "African American Heritage Corridor."

"The archway is the doorway to freedom, the door that never closes," Cray said.

Cray said she has been an artist since she was 5. Her work can be seen around the city.

Her Plexiglas and aluminum sculpture – "Adam and Eve" – made its way into the permanent collection at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in 2003. She made the piece in the 1970s and it was on display at the Langston Hughes Institute on High Street before it was shuttered in 2010. Someone from the Albright-Knox saw it there and bought it.

In 2011, the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation commissioned her to create "The Spirit of Life Tree," a sculpture made of a type of steel that turns darker as it ages, Cray said. It is displayed at the corner of High and Ellicott streets in the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.

Cray also designed the African mahogany wood exterior doors at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library on Jefferson Avenue.

And she showed one piece – the copper and brass "Traveling Sculpture" – at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, she said.

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