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Making Black Batavians count: city historian's book a step to help 'end legacy of slavery'

By Joanne Beck
Larry Barnes

City resident and historian Larry Barnes studied the lives of Black people who lived, worked, and/or had gone to school in the city of Batavia at some point in their lives, and the resulting message was as much philosophical as it was statistical.

Barnes is grateful for the prior work of local writer Ruth McEvoy, who thumbed through news articles from 1880 onward, and developed a list of articles about people who were Black. “That was a starting point for me,” he said, “where they lived, what they were doing, if they were working.”

Those articles did more than record people’s actions and behaviors; they documented the limitations imposed on the Black population even after the slaves were officially freed in 1865, Barnes said.

There was discrimination, Barnes notes, by imposed and non-statutory means, including deed restrictions, employment restrictions, facility restrictions, such as at Godfrey’s Pond, land, mortgage, and property rental restrictions, and the deeply subjective problem of “driving while Black,” he said.

How did that impact the Black community? Less family wealth — three cents for every dollar of non-Blacks — and lower household incomes of 60 cents for every dollar, a shorter life expectancy, higher incidence of chronic diseases and a greater chance of dying in a pandemic, being shot by police, getting convicted of a crime and being imprisoned, he said.

One source that proved to be “very interesting” for his book, he said, was the local paper, which was quite specific in identifying people as being Polish or Italian or Black in news articles, especially when the tone of the piece looked unfavorably toward the person of color, he said. They would sometimes be boldly and crudely labeled, such as a “Black stick of licorice.”

Despite the obstacles, many Blacks have had notable achievements, he said, as documented on pages 14 through 19, including:

Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965), a noted playwright and author whose plays were performed on Broadway and her best known work is “A Raisin in the Sun.”

Percy Julian (1899 to 1975), a research chemist and pioneer in the chemical synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants. His work laid the foundation for the production of cortisone and birth control pills.

Alain Le Roy Locke (1885 to 1954), a writer, philosopher, educator and patron of the arts who was a Rhodes Scholar and a significant contributor as a Black artist, writer, poet and musician to the Harlem Renaissance.

Barnes lists several random Black achievers, but more to the point of the book, Black Batavians have overcome and achieved much in their own right, namely the adversity of frequently having been descendants of slaves with limited knowledge of the individuals from whom they came from or precisely from there their ancestors originated, he said. 

“They have been uniquely subjected to especially long-term persecution and discrimination, including being the target of Jim Crow laws,” Barnes writes. 

“And we also observed that, largely as the result of their history, as a group, American Blacks fare less well than most other groups in personal wealth, income, health, and encounters with our country’s justice system,” he states in the book. “Finally, and this needs to be stressed, despite these differences, Blacks have, again and again, excelled in all cases of life activities. I have provided five pages of examples to drive home a point often ignored.”

There’s Mattie Butler, born in 1865, who was a personal cook for President Benjamin Harrison, who served from 1889 to 1893, and was a housemaid at Harrison’s executive mansion in Indianapolis. After later moving to Batavia, she worked at Scott and Bean’s and Henning’s department stores, dying in 1935.

Rev. Raymond Walker graduated from Byron-Bergen Central School and enlisted in the Marine Corps, later becoming a Genesee County Sheriff’s deputy and earning a master’s degree. Walker taught history at Batavia Middle School and later was assistant principal at BHS until he retired in 2005. 

Dean Edwards, a BHS 1988 graduate, is an entertainer who works as a standup comedian, actor, singer, writer and musician who joined the cast of Saturday Night Live in 2001 for two seasons and has worked as a voice actor, staff writer and has appeared in commercials.

The late Dr. Diane London directed the medical response in 1994 when an Amtrak derailment injured 109 passengers near Batavia, and more than 500 volunteers responded. She was the emergency doctor and medical director at Genesee County Health Department, had a medical office in Batavia, and practiced emergency medicine at United Memorial Medical Center, St. Mary’s Hospital in Lewiston and Lockport Memorial Hospital. 

Want to know about more awesome Black Batavians? The book, “Black Batavians: Who They Are, Their Local History, and Aspects of Our Larger Culture That Have Especially Shaped Their Experiences,” is on reserve at Richmond Memorial Library and available at Holland Land Office Museum, and Genesee County History Department.

By studying the lives of Black Batavians, Barnes spotted a trend, he said. 

“What you find over a period of time, is that, before World War II, Blacks were employed in menial jobs that didn’t require much education, and after WW II, jobs were more evenly distributed, and Blacks began to move into positions that did require advanced education,” he said. 

By the 1970s, the Black population had grown rather significantly, he said, by 10 percent, in the city of Batavia.   

People from larger cities of Buffalo and Rochester were attracted to this area’s socio-economic, safety and physical attributes that came with a smaller, rural city, he said. 

What did Barnes glean from his research about the Black population? That, because of their association with slavery, Blacks bring a different perspective — one that shapes how much of the Black population looks at the world, he said.

“Many people are surprised to learn there were slaves in Batavia in the early 1800s,” he said. “If you were a descendant of a slave, you wouldn’t know who your ancestors were. People who are Black often came here from a part of the country where Jim Crow laws are in effect.”

Bryan Stevenson, a Black lawyer, Harvard graduate and founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, asserts that “we will never achieve really good race relations in our society until we acknowledge and face up to our history,” Barnes said. “An attitude of white supremacy made slavery tolerable and, later, the Jim Crow era virtually inevitable.

“And it isn’t just a Southern problem, however, but an all-American problem. Racism permeates our society,” he said.

You can read more about Stevenson’s thoughts and Barnes’ reflections on the topic, and he leaves the reader with a challenge.

“In any event, it’s time for action,” Barnes said. “Each of us can play a part. What are you going to do to help end the legacy of slavery?”

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