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Lockport trying to save late-1800s home of a civil rights pioneer

The family home of Aaron Mossell in Lockport seems on its way to being saved.

Mossell, the grandson of a slave, is credited with forcing the Lockport Board of Education to desegregate Lockport's public schools – about 80 years before the U.S. Supreme Court ordered nationwide desegregation in 1954.

Mayor Anne E. McCaffrey said the two-story brick house will be fixed and sold to a worthy family and a historical marker placed in front of it.

"We want to make sure this house is restored and put back into the hands of homeowners who will appreciate the accomplishments of Aaron Mossell," McCaffrey said.

Mossell, an African-American businessman, made bricks that were used to build the schools and streets in Lockport. In 1873, he led a boycott of a separate school for black children on South Street, and in 1876, the Board of Education voted to close the school.

At recent Common Council meetings, John W. Taylor cited the historical value of the house.

"This is black history," said Taylor, 66, who grew up in the house and now lives next door. His father sold the house about 1985.

Taylor, whose forbears acquired the house after Mossell moved back to Baltimore in 1905, said the house should become a museum.

The home at 62 Trowbridge St. has been vacant for the past several years. The city took ownership of it because of unpaid property taxes after its last owner died.

In 2014, the Lockport Board of Education turned down a citizen group's proposal to rename North Park Junior High School after Mossell. Instead, the board decided in February to name the school library after him.

"I want to go farther than that," Taylor said. "My dream is (renaming) North Park, and this house as a museum."

Jackie Davis, who heads a community group called Lift Up Lockport, doesn't object to McCaffrey's plan.

"We're excited that Aaron Mossell is coming to the forefront. He's part of our victorious history," Davis said. "If we're going to be historic Lockport, let's recognize all our history."

Mossell's accomplishments

Mossell was born a free man in Baltimore in 1824, and he died there in 1910.

According to a 1946 account by his son Nathan, Aaron Mossell left Baltimore in 1853 because there were no educational opportunities for black children. After more than a decade in the brick business in Hamilton, Ont., Mossell ran into economic problems and moved to Lockport in 1865.

After opening a brickyard, he sold the Lockport school district the bricks to build a school on High Street. But Mossell was not allowed to send his children to that school.

At the time, Lockport maintained a separate school for black children on South Street. Mossell persuaded the Board of Education to let black children into the white schools, but the board later changed its mind.

On Jan. 3, 1873, a meeting of the city's black residents elected Mossell as their leader and voted unanimously to boycott the South Street school. If their children were not admitted to the regular schools, the parents planned to sue the school board.

The boycott of the South Street school stuck. Finally, in 1876, the Board of Education voted to close it.

"This is an astounding accomplishment, and it happened just a decade after slavery ended," McCaffrey said.

As a civil rights leader ahead of his time, Mossell believed in the value of education, and his children showed the results. One son became a doctor, another became a lawyer, and a third son became a clergyman.

For a while, he preached in Lockport's African Methodist Episcopal Church on South Street, built with his father's bricks. The building still stands – on the site of the school that Mossell successfully boycotted.

The Trowbridge house

In 1878, Mossell built the house at 62 Trowbridge to be closer to his brickyard, which was about a block away.

A marker in front identifies the house as "The Homestead, Built 1862." Taylor said that was his father's name for the house, but he acknowledged the date is wrong.

Taylor also said his father painted the red bricks their present light green.

(John Hickey/Buffalo News)

Alderman Mark S. Devine said engineers inspected the house last week and found the foundation and roof in "fairly good condition."

"The plumbing, electrical, everything inside is shot," Devine said.

McCaffrey said she has been in touch with Isaiah 61, the faith-based group that trains low-income people in the building trades in Lockport and Niagara Falls, and the group is interested in taking on the renovation project.

"I think it could be historically updated and made a museum," said Alderman R. Joseph O'Shaughnessy said. "It would be a wonderful thing for the city. I think it's feasible. I know darn well that there's historical funding available."

Obstacles to museum

Turning it into a museum, however, appears to be a big lift.

Melissa Dunlap, executive director of the Niagara County History Center, said her organization already has more on its plate than it can easily handle, and the location of the Mossell home, near the western edge of the city, isn't ideal for tourism.

"We already have three sites with seven buildings we try to maintain. We have only three full-time people," Dunlap said. "I'm all for promoting Mossell, but financially we just can't take on another building, especially at another site."

The History Center does have a Mossell display. It includes a stone block with the family's name carved in it, which had been on the front lawn of the house.

Although Mossell left Lockport 112 years ago, his impact, including some of his buildings and his longtime home, remains.

"Who knows? Maybe another Aaron Mossell or someone else who would champion the cause of excellence would grow up there," Davis said.

But O'Shaughnessy said the city needs to take advantage of the Mossell sites it has and promote them.

"I don't think there's any qualms about funding it, because of who the man was and what he did," O'Shaughnessy said. "It would be unique. Not many cities have something like this."

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