Records from the Michigan Avenue Y.M.C.A. in Buffalo. Lillian S. Williams partnered with the branch to house its records at UB’s University Archives. Williams was first vice-president of the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier at the time she collected the items as part of the association’s initiative to preserve records pertaining to Buffalo’s African American community. Photo: Douglas Levere
By CHARLOTTE HSU
As a graduate student in the 1970s, Lillian S. Williams set forth to study Black history in Western New York.
“My friends and I wanted to do research projects on the African American community in Buffalo, and we were discouraged by our professors because they contended there were no sources to support that research,” says Williams, now an associate professor in the Department of Africana and American Studies, College of Arts and Sciences.
“We knew that was the wrong answer,” she continues. “We knew there were sources, that there were primary records. The question was: Have they been collected by the repositories in the area? They had not. And what we did was to collect them. We were serious about wanting to do research on African Americans. So we showed our professors that the sources were there, and we each completed dissertations on the topics that we wanted to do.”
Those efforts helped to catalyze the formation and growth of the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier, which has since built a collection of over 600,000 pages of documents from local African American organizations, families and individuals.
Williams’ work on that project illustrates a central theme of her career: building up resources that enable fellow historians to carry out research in the areas of Black history, women’s history and local history.
Beyond Western New York, she edited the microfilm edition of the papers of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs, was among the first members of the Association of Black Women Historians, and worked with fellow historians to document Black women’s achievements through biographies. At the invitation of Julieanna Richardson, Williams joined the scholars who comprised the planning board for “The HistoryMakers,” a national African American oral history project.
“Today, the resources are there — because we created them. Repositories recognize the importance of collecting the records of African Americans, whereas before they weren’t interested in those collections,” Williams says. “I remember years ago, when I was doing research, I was told to go to an oral history collection because they might have information on someone I was interested in. I spoke to the director, who said, ‘Why would we be interested in her?’”
Preserving history of African Americans in WNY
In the 1970s, when Williams began searching for historical records pertaining to the lives of African American people and organizations in Western New York, she and fellow UB graduate students Monroe Fordham and Ralph Watkins found a wealth of material.
“We discovered there were major collections, in people’s garages, in their attics, and they saved them. So it was almost as if they were waiting for us to come along and ask for those records,” Williams says, noting that the friends worked closely with members of the community at every stage of the effort. At first, “It wasn’t easy,” she recalls, “because people wanted to make sure they could trust us, that we would preserve their records, because that was a part of their legacy.”
Over time, the team microfilmed an enormous number of documents: photographs, letters, scrapbooks, leaflets, event programs, newsletters and more, initially working in Fordham’s basement. Many of the records might not otherwise have survived.
On one occasion, at a meeting of activists addressing issues of poverty and racism, Williams mentioned that she was interested in the history of the Michigan Avenue YMCA, but that she couldn’t locate any papers. The organization’s executive director happened to be there, and said, “They’re in my office, and if you call my secretary at 9 a.m. the next morning, you can have them,” Williams recounts. She brought the documents back to UB, where longtime archivist Marchand “Shonnie” Finnegan added them to the University Archives.
Early on in this drive to preserve local Black history, Fordham approached Williams with the idea of starting an organization devoted to African American history in Western New York. The two joined with Shirley Harrington, a longtime educator; Frank Mesiah, a president of the Buffalo Branch of the NAACP; and Melvin Watkins, a librarian, activist and community leader, to found the Afro-American Historical Association of the Niagara Frontier in 1974, at a meeting in Williams’ Buffalo apartment.
“We published a newsletter. We published a journal. We did a radio broadcast program,” Williams says. “It was only a few years in that we sponsored a conference, and people came from Alaska, from Ireland, to Buffalo to talk about local history because at that particular time, local history wasn’t well respected in the academy. But we thought that in order to understand what’s taking place nationally, you have to understand what’s taking place locally, as well as across the country.”
Fordham, Harrington, Mesiah and Ralph Watkins have died. But their legacy survives through the association. The group hosts events, publishes the journal “Afro Americans in New York Life and History,” and has taped oral histories. Williams remains a board member.
The extensive records that Williams, Fordham, Ralph Watkins and other members of the organization saved are available in microfilm at three locations in Buffalo: the William A. Miles Center for African and African-American Studies at the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Branch Library on Jefferson Avenue; the E.H. Butler Library at SUNY Buffalo State; and the Monroe Fordham Regional History Center at SUNY Buffalo State.
Williams used many of the documents to write her 1999 book, “Strangers in the Land of Paradise: Creation of an African American Community in Buffalo, New York, 1900-1940.”
“If you looked at the literature of Black people in cities, there was this narrative that they came from the South to the North and settled in cities, and everything fell apart,” Williams says. “I knew there was a different story. This didn’t make sense to me. My parents moved from Mississippi to Niagara Falls during the ’40s, and we had community. I knew that we lived in community. We did not live in chaos. That’s the story I wanted to tell.”
Editing papers of NACW
Williams’ effort to obtain and preserve the papers of the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs (NACWC) was a years-long quest.
The journey began when she started studying the life of Mary Talbert, an early 20th-century civil rights activist, suffragist and human rights reformer who lived in Buffalo. Talbert served as president of the NACWC from 1916-20.
Williams recalls that as a PhD student, “I ran across Mary Talbert everywhere. It didn’t matter where I was conducting research, whether I was looking at presidential papers, government departmental papers, or if I was looking at community institutions — there was Mary Talbert. Who is this woman, and why is she omnipresent? I knew she was president of the NACWC, and I thought if I got access to those papers, I would be able to get more information on Mary Talbert.”
So soon after completing her doctorate at UB, Williams contacted the NACWC.
“I tried to gain access to their papers, and they said…