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Lockport school to be renamed for 19th century Black leader who forced desegregation

Lockport school to be renamed for 19th century Black leader who forced desegregation

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In this late 19th century family photo, Aaron Mossell, the Lockport businessman and civil rights leader, is seated, third from the left. 

Seven years after rejecting the idea, the Lockport Board of Education voted unanimously Wednesday to rename a school after Aaron A. Mossell, a Black businessman who led public protests that triggered the desegregation of Lockport public schools in 1876.

That was 78 years before the Supreme Court ordered all American schools desegregated.

By September, North Park Junior High School will be called Aaron Mossell Junior High School – fittingly, said Vincent Davis, a member of the renaming committee that recommended the change.

That's because the Passaic Avenue school stands on the site of the brickyard Mossell operated in Lockport, Davis told the board on June 2.

Mossell's bricks were used to build Lockport schools, businesses, homes and at least one church, Davis said.

"He also donated bricks to his neighbors so they could build their homes near his," Davis told the board. "That illustrates how much he believed in the strength of community."

"Mr. Mossell is a person for all of our students to look toward and emulate," Superintendent Michelle T. Bradley said at Wednesday's meeting.

"I just want to say thank you for agreeing to change the name. I think that's awesome," said Renee Cheatham, the only Black member of the board.

Davis, a Black resident of the Town of Lockport, said the committee thought naming the school for Mossell was appropriate, "not because he was rich, not because he was successful, not because he was Black, but because he saw the potential within every individual to achieve."

"He was a very charismatic man, very into his neighbors and helping everybody," said Craig Bacon, deputy Niagara County historian. "Aaron Mossell was a role model for everybody in the city, and still should be."

Mossell was born a free Black man in Baltimore in 1824. In 1853, dissatisfied with educational opportunities for Blacks in Baltimore, Mossell moved his family to Hamilton, Ont.

Right after the Civil War ended in 1865, Mossell moved to Lockport and went into the brick business.

According to research by the Niagara County Historian's Office published in The Buffalo News in 2013, Mossell lived on High Street at the time, across the street from a school his bricks built.

Today the district's John Pound Early Childhood Center stands on the site – named, like all other current Lockport schools except the high school and North Park, after a former district administrator.

But Mossell's son, the Rev. Charles Mossell, sought to have his children – Aaron Mossell's grandchildren – admitted to a regular public school instead of the Blacks-only school on South Street.

In 1871 and 1872, the board vacillated on the issue, at first voting to allow Black children to attend the white school, then changing its mind.

On Jan. 3, 1873, Aaron Mossell led a public meeting of Black parents who agreed to boycott the Blacks-only school. In the following days, according to research published in 1999 by local historian Clarence Adams, 18 Black students forced their way into several classes at white schools.

By 1876, the board changed its views, enlarged a white school on Washburn Street to make room for Black children, and abandoned the South Street school. The remnants of that building are today part of Lockport African Methodist Episcopal Church.

The campaign to rename North Park after Mossell originated with Michael J. Pullano, a Lockport social studies teacher, shortly before his death in 2011.

A committee of prominent citizens promoted the idea, but in 2014 the Board of Education voted it down. At the time, John A. Linderman, the board president, said the North Park name was "pretty ingrained in the community."

North Park opened in 1940, with the name chosen after the district considered and rejected several people for the honor. Lockport does not have a park named "North Park," but the school is in the northern part of Lockport and is near a city park.

However, the issue didn't go away, and ideas for honoring Mossell surfaced from time to time.

In February, Lockport PTSA President Paula Travis started an online petition that drew 575 signers in favor of renaming the school.

The district chose a seven-member committee, headed by Bernadette Smith, North Park's principal. It reported in favor of renaming the school, and this time, the idea was accepted.

The name change must be ratified by the state Education Department. "It's a formality, we're told," board member Kyle Lambalzer said Thursday.

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