May 15, 1937 - July 6, 2017
Few local residents know much about the Niagara Movement, a black civil rights group that lasted only a few years but became the forerunner of the NAACP.
Even fewer people know that the Niagara Movement, led by activist and intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, was launched in 1905 on both sides of the Niagara River, in Buffalo and Fort Erie, Ont.
A heritage plaque depicting the birth of that movement and its founder now stands in the Waverly Beach/Erie Beach area of Fort Erie, a tangible reminder of our region's rich civil rights history following the bustling Underground Railroad from Civil War days.
Deborah B. Cohen, a school counselor, author and amateur historian who died last week, is being remembered as one of several activists who pushed hardest for that plaque. The 80-year-old Amherst woman died, following a lengthy illness, in her family's Waverly Beach home, an area where she spent almost 75 summers.
"My mom and some of her friends involved in the Fort Erie Historical Society lobbied and agitated for a placard to commemorate the establishment of the Niagara Movement," said her younger son, David Cohen. "They recognized that it was the beginning of one of the preeminent black organizations in the United States, and it occurred right here in Buffalo and the Niagara Region."
Historians say the 20th Century U.S. civil rights movement began in Buffalo and Fort Erie, when Du Bois, an Atlanta University professor, convened a group of 29 African-American leaders and activists for four days in July 1905.
"... because it was the eighth largest city in America, with excellent rail connections, and because it was a place associated with the struggle for freedom from slavery," stated an article from the Buffalo History Museum. "Western New York was remembered as a major crossing point on the Underground Railroad for runaways headed to safety in Canada."
After meeting the first day in Buffalo, the group moved to the Erie Beach Hotel in Fort Erie for the last three days. On the commemorative placard, Du Bois is quoted as saying that the group was looking for a quiet place outside Buffalo, near the water, "where we can be to ourselves, hold conferences together and at the same time have bathing, croquet, tennis and fishing for recreation."
Historians, though, also have pointed out that Du Bois may have wanted to move far enough from Buffalo to avoid the attention of civil rights rival Booker T. Washington. The Niagara Movement strongly opposed Washington's much more conservative and compromising approach toward civil rights.
As Town of Fort Erie officials began putting up other placards along the town's bike path several years ago, Mrs. Cohen and several others lobbied hard for the Niagara Movement heritage plaque, which was dedicated in July 2015 – 110 years after the conference. The display includes a reprinting of the Niagara Movement charter, along with small photos of 27 of the 29 participants.
Mrs. Cohen left another mark on the Waverly Beach community, just southwest of the Peace Bridge, as the editor of "Waverly Beach Chronicles – Memories, Stories, Ramblings of 100 Summers on the Canadian Lakeshore." The 170-page book, published in 2003, serves as the small community's history.
"She was a lifelong member of the Waverly Beach community," said her husband, Dr. Gary Cohen. "It's most likely that she was conceived there, and she died there."
Referring to both the Niagara Movement placard and the Waverly Beach book, Dr. Cohen said, "They memorialize Debby's life."
A Buffalo native, the former Deborah Bleichfeld attended School 56 and graduated from Park School in 1955, before earning a bachelor's degree from the University at Buffalo and a master's in counseling from Canisius College.
Mrs. Cohen worked as a school counselor for the Orleans Niagara BOCES from the late 1980s through the 1990s.
Outside work, she remained active with the Park School alumni her whole adult life; served as a docent leading architectural tours of downtown Buffalo for the Friends of the UB School of Architecture and Planning; won an award for conflict resolution from the Herman Badillo Bilingual Academy; and worked with the local chapter of the Brandeis University National Women's Committee.
Mrs. Cohen was preceded in death by her daughter Elizabeth, who died in 2014.
Surviving are her husband of 59 years, Dr. Gary N. Cohen; two sons, Jonathan R. and David G.; one brother, Bruce Bleichfeld; and four grandchildren.
Funeral services were held July 9.