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Another Voice: America's first sanctuary city

By Richard G. Berger

For years Buffalo has been a hospitable destination for newly arrived immigrants from all over the world.  They have come to study, to make homes, and, in part, immigration is responsible for the economic resurgence of Buffalo. What may not be well known is that Buffalo was America's first Sanctuary City.

In the years before the Civil War, Buffalo was a passionate Abolitionist city, with a free black population that was anything but docile. Situated on our northern border, only a quick boat ride from Canada, Buffalo was the terminus of the Underground Railroad, a place where blacks who escaped slavery for freedom could find relative safety and jobs. We had little tolerance for the slave States and laws that made humans into property, to be bought and sold like horses.  Buffalo was booming economically as the terminus of the Erie Canal, and the labor of freed blacks was needed to help move all the cargo from lake boats to barges.  Dug's Dive, right on the Commercial Slip at Buffalo's Erie Canal Harbor, was a black hostel and eatery.

In 1845, a group of former slaves built the Michigan Street Baptist Church, which was completed in 1849.  The Church, though modest, became a center for the struggle against slavery, a place for newly emancipated blacks to congregate, and after the Civil War it played an important role in the founding of the Civil Rights Movement.

Buffalo hosted the black Liberty Party's National Convention in 1843, which demanded the emancipation of all slaves.  Rev. Samuel H. Davis, who later became the pastor of the Michigan Street Church, delivered the fiery keynote address. Altogether, there were four Abolitionist Party Conventions held in Buffalo to nominate candidates for President.  The most famous was the National Free Soil Convention of 1848 that nominated Martin Van Buren, the former President, as its standard bearer.

In 1850, Buffalo's former mayor, Millard Fillmore, became President and signed the hated Fugitive Slave Act, provoking angry protests in Buffalo. It was reported in the New York Times in 1855 that at a bounty hunter could not find a lawyer in Buffalo, for fear of the "mob." Local judges told bounty hunters to leave town, and even a Federal judge in Buffalo declined to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act.

After the Civil War, the Michigan Street Baptist Church continued to be a center for the advancement of Civil Rights in the U.S.  Its pastor, Rev. J. Edward Nash, led the Church for 61 years.  It was at the home of Mary Talbert, a member who lived next door, that W.E.B. DuBois met with other national black leaders in 1905, to form the Niagara Movement, the nation's first national Civil Rights organization.  It eventually became the NAACP that we know today. The Church is clearly one of the most important national historic landmarks.

Don't be surprised if Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents meet with resistance here.  It is our tradition to protect those who come to Buffalo seeking freedom.

Richard G. Berger, is an attorney in Buffalo, who serves on the Board of the Buffalo Niagara Freedom Station Coalition, a Not-For-Profit corporation which seeks to promote the historic restoration of the Michigan Street Baptist Church.





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