Michelle Ann Kratts

Archive for the ‘The African Americans of Niagara Falls’ Category

Stories from Niagara’s rich ethnic past told in “Melting Pot”

In Coming to America, Irish Americans, Niagara County, Niagara Falls, Polish Genealogy, Recipes, The African Americans of Niagara Falls, The Armenians of Niagara Falls, The Italians of Niagara Falls, New York, The Polish of Niagara Falls, Tradtional Ethnic Costumes, Uncategorized on July 18, 2017 at 7:32 pm

Melting Pot; Niagara’s rich ethnic heritage

By Michelle Ann Kratts, Lewiston Public Library

BookCoverPreview (2)

I will always see Niagara Falls as a delicious melting pot of cultures, languages and traditions. In fact, just last summer, I found myself at an international crossroads while sitting on a bench at the State Park. It seemed the world passed me by as I snacked on an ice cream cone. Women strolled by wearing colorful Indian saris or Middle Eastern hijabs. Men presented themselves with Hasidic tendrils or donning Sikh turbans. My ears discerned voices speaking every manner of language imaginable. I could even smell the traditional spices of the world’s cuisines mix and mash with the rising mist as these men and women marveled at the brink of the great cataract.  Some things never change.

Niagara Falls is a great American story. Throughout the years we have nurtured a sacred tradition in which we have welcomed and embraced people from every corner of the world. Our history includes the stories of brave refugees of war, genocide and famine. So many came to Niagara Falls to make a new start. At the dawn of the past century and for many decades afterwards, the factories and the railroads brought in thousands of much-needed workers and their families. They came from the cotton fields of the Deep South, from depression-ravaged towns. Some came from exotic countries– utterly desperate souls– and occasionally with only false papers, as they would never have been allowed in the lawful way. They crowded onto sea vessels with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They said their last farewells to their loved ones and to their homelands—and most often, never again stepped foot on the land of their ancestors. Niagara Falls was the last hope for so many.

BLONEVA

Our new book, Melting Pot; Niagara’s rich ethnic heritage, published by the Lewiston Public Library, is a celebration of these people and their stories. Over the past few years, as the local history librarian, I have collected the stories of our immigrant ancestors for the purpose of sharing their struggles, as well as their triumphs. As you read through the narratives, you will see that oftentimes great hardships precipitated remarkable achievements. Despite differences in ethnicity, these Niagarans shared common housing, jobs, and churches and even married into each other’s families. They shared meals with one another and learned bits and pieces of each other’s languages and traditions. They crafted businesses out of what they did best and introduced our area to unique foods, music and customs. They also valiantly fought prejudice and bigotry whenever it arose—from the violent threats of the Ku Klux Klan to racist intimidations from unkind neighbors.

front cover one

Novak Family at Ellis Island 

Some of the personal stories mentioned include insightful histories of African Americans in Niagara Falls. Exquisitely written by Dr. Michael Boston, assistant professor of African American Studies at Brockport, and a trailblazer and researcher of Western New York African American history, these chapters highlight the importance of “family” as well as leadership in the African American community at Niagara Falls.  Our friend, Bill Bradberry, a Niagara Falls Gazette columnist and the chair of the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Area Corporation, as well as the winner of the Civil Rights Achievement Award in January of 2017, opens the book with a poignant and nostalgic look back in time at the multiculturalism present in individual neighborhoods throughout Niagara Falls.

Other stories in Melting Pot include: the brave and invincible Armenians, heroes and heroines, who defied all odds before coming to our city; the industrious Germans, who dominated local industry and business; the story of coalmining Italians who ventured into Niagara Falls from a dismal life in Pennsylvania; Polish tales of hardship at Ellis Island, and lost connections with the Old Country; the children of Spanish immigrants who had worn the customary clothes of Spain to American schools; the ancient Ukrainian tradition of the painted Easter eggs, or pysanky; and recipes from a war bride from Wales. Many of our Irish stories were submitted by the local chapter of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. Another Irish chapter, written by Niagara Gazette columnist, Don Glynn, reveals a modern day friendship with ties to the Lynch and Buttery families. Yet another tells the story of St. Mary’s Church.  Melting Pot also contains precious family recipes, collected and written with great care, family photos and nostalgic news clippings.

Sdao children (3)

Sdao Family      

The front cover of Melting Pot proudly displays the marriage of Lithuanian born Zygmont Puisys and Ursula Anna Zugzda at Holy Trinity Roman Catholic Church in 1912.  Ursula, an orphan, had been raised in a church rectory in Igliauka, Mirijampole, Lithuania.  It was said that Zygmont had “escaped” his homeland under a hail of gunfire. Their story is representative of how many of our Niagara Falls stories begin…with despair and gunfire.

corrected front cover (2)

                                                              Puisys-Zugzda Wedding 

Melting Pot; Niagara’s rich ethnic heritage will be available at the Book Corner, located at 1801 Main Street in Niagara Falls,    and through Amazon.com. We welcome any new family stories for future volumes.

 

Help for a “Fugitive”– St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, June 2, 1855

In Churches, Hotels of Niagara, Niagara Falls, The African Americans of Niagara Falls, The Underground Railroad on September 9, 2015 at 7:46 pm

By Michelle Ann Kratts

Leafing through the pages of the church records from St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Niagara Falls, New York, reveals, once again, that there were people in this city ready and willing to support the abolitionist cause.  On June 2, 1855, it was recorded under the heading, “Distributions“, that among other distributions of money given to various people in need, one dollar was given to “a negro fugitive.”

photo (34)

Click to enlarge.

Other notations could also possibly refer to African American freedom seekers–those amounts distributed to “a mother and son going from NY to Toronto,” “to mother and son returned from Toronto,” “charity to men travelling,” “alms to a negro missionary.”  I can’t help but wonder if any of these “distributions” ended up with Harriet Tubman, herself.

It is interesting to ponder the situation at Niagara Falls during this time period.  As documenting the Underground Railroad is a difficult task–because of the fact it was operated illegally and in secret–very few actual pieces of evidence have survived.  Each tangible item is sacred to our history–such as this documentation of aid by an established institution in the city of Niagara Falls to a “negro fugitive.”

By June of 1855, the Fugitive Slave Act was well-enforced.  Assisting a fugitive slave resulted in a possible $1,000 fine (equivalent to $28,000 today) and six months jail time. Slave owners were only required to produce an affidavit to a federal marshal to capture a “fugitive slave.”  Owners often came up north in order to “kidnap” free blacks into slavery.  As slaves had no right in court, they had no hope in defending themselves.    It was because of this law that Canada became a very important settling place for fugitive slaves and free African Americans.  It was during the 1850’s that the Underground Railroad was most active.

St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, and the individuals who ran the church during this time period, can be revealed as supporters of the Underground Railroad.  The church records show that African Americans were a part of the congregation early on in Niagara Falls’ history.  They were married and buried by this church according to the church record books.  A quick perusal enlightens us to the very same individuals that keep popping up in other records as possible leaders of this network:  Peter A. and Elizabeth Porter and the Whitney family (James and Celinda Trott, Dexter and Angeline Jerauld and Solon and Frances Drake Whitney) who were also proprietors of the Cataract House hotel, which employed so many African American waiters and cooks who were fighters on the front lines of this battle for the freedom of man.  These men and women were the leaders of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in 1855 and obviously aware of where their charity money was going.

You can check out the records for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church at http://www.monroefordham.com.

Was the Underground Railroad actually a Railroad in Niagara?

In Niagara Falls, The African Americans of Niagara Falls, The Underground Railroad on August 14, 2013 at 2:19 pm
Underground Railroad, September 22, 1858 Niagara Falls Gazette

Underground Railroad, September 22, 1858
Niagara Falls Gazette

Perhaps in Niagara the Underground Railroad was actually a railroad. 

This interesting little piece was printed in the Niagara Falls Gazette on September 22, 1858.

For historians, these two sentences imply so much.  Who were the “four highly colored chattels?”  Who were the suspicious railroad officials?   And, most importantly…who wrote this? It is quite apparent that he (or she) knew all the little secrets of Niagara’s role in this most significant movement.  William Pool was the editor of the Niagara Falls Gazette during this time period.  He was quite active in the Whig and Republican parties and overt in his anti-slavery views.  Perhaps it was him?

William Pool, editor of the Niagara Falls Gazette

William Pool, editor of the Niagara Falls Gazette

This piece also makes it quite obvious that at least one line of the network ran through the railway lines from Rochester to Niagara Falls–with Frederick Douglass at the helm– and on across the Suspension Bridge.  This would have been the Niagara Railway Suspension Bridge, the second suspension bridge in Niagara Falls.

Niagara Railway Suspension Bridge

Niagara Railway Suspension Bridge

Apparently, the world’s first railway suspension bridge served many purposes–including assisting in the freedom of man.

Bringing Lost Souls Home: John Morrison, a hero of Niagara

In The African Americans of Niagara Falls, The Underground Railroad on March 26, 2013 at 8:22 pm

Some new discoveries concerning the history of the Underground Railroad in Niagara Falls….thanks to Oakwood historian and researcher, Peter Ames.

SketchIs this a sketch of one of Niagara Falls’ most heroic men?  

Click on the link below to view the story on Oakwood Cemetery’s website:

http://myoakwoodcemetery.com/kratts-korner/2013/3/26/bringing-lost-souls-home-john-morrison-a-hero-of-niagara.html

One of Oakwood’s Most Remarkable African American Families

In The African Americans of Niagara Falls, The Underground Railroad on February 26, 2013 at 6:09 pm
Photo: Please mister take her tintype / George Barker,Niagara Falls,N.Y.

Photo: Please mister take her tintype / George Barker,Niagara Falls,N.Y.

 

Celebrate Black History Month with some African American family histories from Niagara Falls. This is from my column on Oakwood Cemetery’s website.
Hopefully I can share another one of Oakwood’s remarkable African American family stories before the month is over.

This story was particularly exciting for Pete and I as our trail uncovering this family story led us to Thomas Jefferson, Monticello and the White House!
Read the link below and learn how some very brave individuals worked secretly to bring about an end to slavery.

http://myoakwoodcemetery.com/kratts-korner/2013/2/19/one-of-oakwoods-most-remarkable-african-american-families.html