BUFFALO, N.Y. — One of this city’s main thoroughfares is crossed by a prominent, white archway marked with large black letters: “African American Heritage Corridor.” Michigan Avenue is home to historic buildings and stained-glass chapels, but the most important one sits beside the arch: a 177-year-old, red-brick church, memorialized as the last stop of the Underground Railroad.
This part of Buffalo displays its Blackness proudly. The community has renamed a stretch of Michigan Avenue, “Harriet Tubman Way.”
That unapologetic pride became the target of racist rage on May 14, when a white supremacist carried a semi-automatic rifle into the neighborhood and executed a planned massacre, taking the lives of 10 residents and traumatizing many more. In the days before, the alleged shooter drove three hours from his home in Conklin, New York, to scope out the neighborhood, which is nearly 80% Black. He chose the community’s only grocery store to carry out his attack.
An Erie County grand jury indicted the accused shooter Thursday on charges of first-degree murder. A relative of one victim shouted “You’re a coward!” as the defendant was led from the courtroom.
Officials nationwide quickly declared that the alleged shooter’s actions were violent extremism and domestic terrorism that have no place in the country. Buffalo’s mayor proclaimed that the hateful views behind the attack are antithetical to the city’s values of unity and neighborliness. Their sentiments have been followed by a flood of donations to the neighborhood, where residents have lined up for food box giveaways and shuttles to markets in more affluent communities.
The surge of attention and support was preceded by decades of neglect, residents say. Racism has been systemically crippling Black Buffalonians for generations in the form of limited food options, lead poisoning, discriminatory loan practices and mass incarceration.
Buffalo ranks among the 20 most segregated cities in the country, a pattern created by redlining and perpetuated by a lack of economic investment.
“This is a historical tragedy, is what it is,” Brian Harris said Tuesday, as he shopped at a Tops market nearly three miles from his neighborhood store, which was still considered a crime scene. “This is something from way back; a system that was set up to oppress and keep us down, even in 2022.”
The lingering legacy of redlining
As in many Rust Belt communities, Buffalo’s Black community grew in the early to mid-20th century with the rise of the Great Migration, as families moved North in an effort to escape the oppression of Jim Crow South and secure jobs in the steel and coal boom.
But as they arrived, Black residents were locked out of many of the benefits of industrialization, barred by redlining practices from purchasing homes in well-resourced areas, and relegated to the city’s toxic corridor. More than half a century later, nearly 85% of Buffalo’s Black residents live in the city’s economically-depressed East Side, an area that has been called ground zero for lead poisoning and environmental racism.
Longtime resident Rev. Diann Holt was among the wave of new Buffalonians as a child, moving from Manchester, Georgia, after her father got a job at a now defunct steel plant.
“I remember while growing up when the community was at least 90% Black,” Holt said as she drove down the block where she recalled residents fetching water from a stream that flowed from the nearby Hoyt Lake.
When her family moved to Buffalo, they lived in public housing on the waterfront, the 74-year-old said. But when her parents attempted to buy a house in the suburbs, they were blocked by realtors and banks.
Even though “my dad made pretty good money back at that time, he couldn’t get a mortgage. They would sell [to us] on the East Side but would not sell [to us] in the suburbs,” Holt said.
Last year, the city of Buffalo was presented with an opportunity to “right some of the wrongs” — as one state official put it — of its segregationist history. A yearslong investigation, ordered by then-New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, examined the discriminatory housing policies used against the city’s Black community and found that less than 10% of home loans made in the Buffalo region were made to people of color, though they comprised about 20% of the population.
While the report offered policy solutions, little has changed. Black homeownership rates in Buffalo still lag far behind the national average.
‘Finally, I Got My Own Supermarket’
As Black residents were concentrated on the city’s East Side, resources dwindled, including food options. In the early 1980s, a local entrepreneur launched FIGMOS, a community market whose name stood for “Finally, I Got My Own Supermarket.”
In an interview at that time, FIGMOS owner Douglas Goggins told The Buffalo Challenger newspaper that “People in the community are in great need of a supermarket within their reach. The community is crying for someone to care,” according to a documentary about the market.
FIGMOS closed two years after opening its doors.
Four decades later, Black Buffalo continues to struggle with the realities of living in a food desert, an area with little access to healthy food options. Some residents prefer the term “food apartheid” as a nod to the history of segregation here.
“A desert is something that is natural, it is something that you have absolutely no control over,” Holt said. “So what we have is not a food desert, it’s apartheid. It is deliberate discrimination against someone because of their race.”
In 2003, Tops Friendly Markets opened its Jefferson Avenue location, where Saturday’s shooting occurred. But many residents without cars are left heavily reliant on corner stores for fruits and vegetables — which often are old and wrinkling, they say.
“If you go out to the suburbs, you can get a nice, crispy green pepper. You go to the Tops over here and they’re withered up,” said Della Miller, a 73-year-old resident who said she doesn’t remember a time when quality fruits and vegetables were readily available in the neighborhood.
Miller, who has been active in food justice and access issues in East Buffalo for decades, said her mother once sold food on the street, frustrated that her neighbors had to travel across town to get fresh produce.
“We have not had a decent food source for years, and we worked for years to get to where we are now,” Miller said of the Tops grocery store. “Now we’ve lost that.”
Since the shooting, Tops has provided shuttles to take residents to a store in a more affluent part of town. But some said they don’t feel comfortable shopping there and are stared at by other customers. The Jefferson Avenue location isn’t just a grocery store for this neighborhood — it was a community center, a place of belonging.
“It’s a community of faces of people like me. And I love that,” Harris said. “It’s a certain comfort, I feel in that store. Sometimes I don’t feel the same level of comfort in other stores.”
Rather than take the shuttle across town, 83-year-old Estelle Miller walked to a community center on Wednesday where food boxes were being given away.
She shopped at the Jefferson Avenue Tops multiple times a week, calling the neighborhood store a “godsend.” A lifelong resident of the area, Estelle Miller said she notices a significant difference in accessibility of food in her neighborhood compared to the more affluent Elmwood community next door.
“I think a lot of people in the area feel like there should be more grocery stores,” she said. “They have to go to corner stores. Everybody doesn’t like that option.”
Excessive lead, excessive policing
Limited supermarkets aren’t the only issue affecting Black Buffalonians’ health. A highway built through the community in the 1960s severed access to banks, parks and other city institutions and left residents exposed to more traffic pollution than 90% of the country, according to a database by the White House Council of Environmental Quality.
Adding to the health threats, a 2017 Reuters investigation found that lead poisoning rates in Buffalo’s East Side were eight times higher than those in Flint, Michigan, during the height of that city’s water crisis. Exposure to lead is connected to several dire health impacts, most commonly seen in elevated rates of respiratory and mental illnesses.
Residents in this Buffalo neighborhood are exposed to more lead paint in dilapidated housing structures than 93% of other U.S. residents. Despite those findings, programs to remove lead from more than 36,000 residents’ homes have been slow to make progress, according to the Investigative Post, a nonprofit news source covering western New York.
But Buffalo’s leaders have continued to funnel more money into another resource: policing. Since 2006, the police budget has risen at three times the rate of all other city departments, the Investigative Post found. Days before the mass shooting, the mayor proposed another $3 million increase for the department. Overtime and bonuses for police amount to more than the city allocates collectively for parks, recreation and community services, the investigative news outlet reported.
Likewise, a 2019 analysis by the Vera Institute of Justice, a national criminal justice organization, found that in Erie County, where Buffalo is located, nearly 650 times as much money is spent on jails as employment services, and more than 130 times as much is spent on incarceration than on housing assistance.
Spokespeople for Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown and city council member Ulysees Wingo Sr. said they weren’t available for comment.
According to recent data from the Buffalo Police Department, crime rates have gone down every year since 2008 and reports of hate crimes are no greater than the rest of the country. During the last five years, there have been 33 hate crimes reported to the Buffalo Police Department and more than half were against Blacks, according to the FBI’s Crime Data Explorer — a rate lower than the rest of the country.
But the city’s attempt to suppress violent crime — and increase in police funding — has not fared well with Buffalo’s Black community. In a 2016 survey of more than 2,000 residents, community group Open Buffalo found that less than half of Black respondents said they trust the police, and just 12% said they believe police respect people of color.
“There are a lot of racist cops,” said Jacqueline Holloman as she stood in line at the Buffalo Community Fridge on East Ferry Street, where food was being given away Wednesday. “And people in charge have to find a way to deal with them.”
‘Don’t forget about us’
While they might not have personally known those killed in the weekend shooting, residents said their deaths feel personal.
They were Roberta A. Drury, 32; Margus D. Morrison, 52; Andre Mackneil, 53; Aaron Salter, 55; Geraldine Talley, 62; Celestine Chaney, 65; Heyward Patterson, 67; Katherine Massey, 72; Pearl Young, 77; and Ruth Whitfield, 86.
For some, they were regular faces seen at the Jefferson Avenue store. For others, they were respected neighborhood elders.
“There is no pain like the pain that we’re currently feeling. I’m not related to any of those who were murdered, but it feels like somebody stole one of mines,” Holt said as she remembered Whitfield and affectionately called “Mom.”
During the temporary shutdown of the neighborhood’s lone supermarket, food-related nonprofits and community members have organized pop-up food and supply pantries on sidewalks.
Sheila L. Brown, the owner of WUFO radio station, gave away tomato plants so neighbors could grow their own food. She also set up two tables with disposable diapers, wipes, diaper cream, and canned goods outside the radio station, around the corner from the “African American Heritage Corridor” archway.
But residents recognize it will take more than sidewalk giveaways to deliver this neighborhood from the systemic disparities that have plagued it for generations.
Della Miller, the food justice advocate, is nervous that as the mass shooting news fades from national attention, so will their fight for improved health conditions.
“I am so afraid that this story’s going to die,” she said. “We’re going to be suffering for months, if not years. They will never forget about the shooting but they’re going to forget about the fact that we don’t have a grocery store.”
“I’m just hoping that you don’t forget about us. Don’t forget about us. Please don’t.”
Reporter April Franklin contributed from Buffalo, NY.