For the last 39 years, heading to the Buffalo Athletic Club meant you were heading to the gym. After the original BAC fell on hard times, the club’s majestic E.B. Green-designed home was renovated into a modern health club with exercise facilities for both men and women.
For decades before it was just a gym, it was a private men’s social club. Very private.
When Episcopal Bishop Harold Robinson was given an award by the Erie County Bar Association at a banquet held at the club, a group of Episcopal priests signed a letter protesting the prelate’s attendance, saying in part, “We are … concerned that any of our church's leaders can allow themselves to be honored at a reception in a club that segregates by membership and from an association that meets in facilities segregated by membership. This situation is deeply confusing when religious leaders are expected to provide the leadership and personal example in the most pressing of the country's domestic crises — the breakdown of communication and relations between black and white citizens.”
Bishop Robinson attended the function, but offered terse words for the club in his address.
“All I know is that there are no negroes who have membership,” Robinson later told The News, “and I know there are negroes who have applied for membership.”
His words were too little for some, too much for others.
One letter writer was disgusted, opining in the Courier-Express that it was untenable that "eminent clergy of one of our prominent church denominations presuming to tell the Buffalo Athletic club, a private institution, how to operate its internal affairs.” The letter went on to say the writer grew up with the impression "that this is a free country where one can select his own friends."
At a meeting of black and white Episcopal clergy and laity about the subject that notion was also voiced — and quickly rebuffed.
"Anyone who has been black as long as I have been black, no longer becomes disturbed when confronted with the true feelings expressed by white people," said Geneva B. Scruggs, an activist and volunteer in the community. "But no matter what the situation, we all must approach these racial questions as Christians. If we are truly to live the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man there can be no 'this far and no further.' "
Scruggs likened the private clubs situation to an albatross. “It's hanging about your necks,” she said. “It's been dying a long time, and now it's quite dead. You've just got to get rid of it, or you white people will never be able to stand yourself. You have got to take that albatross off and toss it away forever, along with the crying shame of it."
There were those who tried to change things. Longtime BAC member and former Chief Justice of the State Court of Appeals Charles Desmond mounted a campaign to change the rules of the Buffalo Athletic Club and open membership to all races. He sent the following letter to all his fellow members in 1969:
"In the near future three members of the Negro community, Dr. Henry Everett, Dr. Robert Lee and Nelson Nichols will be proposed for membership in the BAC. I do not feel that these men should be denied membership simply because they are Negro. If you support this view, please sign the statement at the bottom of this letter and mail it back to me in the envelope enclosed. If you prefer to write your own letter to the board of directors, please send it to me for delivery to the board, or send me a carbon copy. I'm enclosing an additional form in the hope that you will have at least one other member sign it and return it to me."
Nine months later, the three gentlemen in question still had no answer from the club. But by 1980, the former social club for white men had changed its attitude from stuffy and elitist to trendy and fitness oriented.
The Buffalo Athletic Club that Western New Yorkers have known for the last four decades was based on what was then a new health club model and formed in 1980.
The story does come full circle.
The same UB Spectrum newspaper which called for the boycott of the old Buffalo Athletic Club in 1968, named the modern BAC “Buffalo’s Best Gym” in 2013. That was the same year that LA Fitness took over many of BAC locations, including the flagship location on Niagara Square.