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Erik Brady: 3 historians who tell as much about present as misremembered past

Erik Brady: 3 historians who tell as much about present as misremembered past

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Freedom Wall portrait of W.E.B. Du Bois by Edreys Wajed

An East Ferry Street mural depicting 28 civil rights leaders, including W.E.B. Du Bois, was commissioned by the Albright-Knox Art Gallery's Public Art Initiative in 2017. Shown here, Detail of W.E.B. Du Bois, by Edreys Wajed. From the accompanying panel, "W. E. B. Du Bois was a prolific scholar whose influential writings revolutionized our understanding of the myriad forces responsible for racial inequity in the United States and what form possible solutions might take."

All roads lead to Buffalo, even the stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue that connects the White House and the Capitol.

That thought came to mind the other day upon opening the New York Times. There, in the lead position on the editorial page, columnist Brent Staples wrote this:

“The history of the United States is rife with episodes of political violence far bloodier and more destructive than the one President Trump incited at the Capitol on Wednesday. Nevertheless, ignorance of a grisly past well documented by historians like W.E.B. Du Bois, John Hope Franklin and Richard Hofstadter was painfully evident in the aftermath of last week’s mob invasion of Congress.”

This, of course, echoes those age-old admonitions about how those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it. Or, as William Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

Du Bois, Franklin, and Hofstadter have as much to tell to us about our perilous present as our misremembered past. And each offers a tie to Buffalo, or to the greater Niagara Frontier, which is to say both sides of the border along our shared Niagara River.

We offer here thumbnail sketches of each of these important figures, in the order in which Staples mentioned them:

Du Bois: He was the African American political thinker and activist who was a founder, in 1905, of the Niagara Movement  the intellectual underpinning of the modern civil-rights movement. His influence is always there, from Rosa Parks to Martin Luther King Jr. to Black Lives Matter.

He stood in opposition to Booker T. Washington, the prominent African American leader at the turn of the 20th century who preached conciliation in the face of segregation. Du Bois demanded change.

Leaders of the Niagara Movement held a founding meeting at the Buffalo home of Mary Talbert, the African American social reformer who is a giant of our history. Then they met formally at the Erie Beach Hotel, in Fort Erie, the Ontario town that was once a terminus of the Underground Railroad.

The Niagara Movement, simply put, sought a place for African Americans in the American dream. Its name was meant to convey the place of the movement’s origin  and the power of its argument.

Franklin: He was the prolific African American scholar of slavery and Reconstruction who is considered the first in his field to reckon the cost of violence in the American story of race.

You might say he was born to his calling. His father, Buck, was a lawyer who defended African American survivors of the Tulsa race massacre in 1921, when mobs of white Oklahomans destroyed 35 square blocks of one of the wealthiest African American communities in the United States, known as Black Wall Street. As many as 300 died, and more than 1,200 businesses and homes were burned to the ground.

Reuben Gant, the Buffalo Bills’ No. 1 draft choice in 1974, grew up in Tulsa but never learned about the massacre when he was going to Booker T. Washington High School, which also happens to be Franklin’s alma mater. Today, Gant is executive director of the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation, which is preparing to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the terrible siege.

A.J. Smitherman was a newspaper publisher who survived the Tulsa massacre and moved to Buffalo, where he would become the longtime publisher of the Empire Star, a Black community newspaper that derived its name from his former newspaper, the Tulsa Star. Buffalo News columnist Sean Kirst movingly tells the story of Smitherman’s Buffalo descendants here.

And now Gant is proud to carry on Franklin’s name at a place that strives to do the hard work of transforming the bitterness of racial division into the hope of a better future.

Hofstadter: He was born in Buffalo in 1916, graduated from the University of Buffalo, as it was called then, and went on to be a two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning historian.

Many of his 13 books remain in print, and the titles are as timely as today. Among them: “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” and “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” plus a 1970 article for American Heritage magazine, “America as a Gun Culture.”

Staples’s column in the Times said that the storming of the Capitol offered echoes of an intricately planned coup carried out, in 1898, against the city government in Wilmington, N.C., in which white supremacists overthrew officials elected through an alliance of African Americans and white progressives. And then Staples quoted from Hofstadter and co-author Michael Wallace in their “American Violence: A Documentary History”: “African continued to cringe before Caucasian as the troops paraded the streets, as the guns barked and the bayonets flared, for a new municipal administration of the ‘White Supremacy’ persuasion.”

Franklin would not flinch from 1921 Tulsa, nor Hofstadter from 1898 Wilmington. And the reverberations of Du Bois, from 1905 Fort Erie, are ever with us.

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