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“Colored People to Hold Mass Meeting and Make Protest.”

This was the dramatic reportage in the Buffalo Courier on Thursday, June 19, 1902. What prompted this announcement was a surge of insults and attacks on blacks with impunity by “white thugs” on Michigan Street south of Broadway. The racial situation in that part of the city was tense. The newspaper suggested that “a race war is imminent…the young colored men…have already organized into several crowds for protection.” However, one victim of the most recent assault, William P. Rhodes, proposed another option—to demonstrate publically blacks’ indignation and anger against virulent prejudice, and to demand change.

Rhodes, the proprietor of the Magnolia Saloon at 55 William Street, called for the protest meeting to occur at his business on June 20. Early on Sunday morning on the 15th, he and two companions—bartender James Dorsey* and housekeeper Jessie Wright – were accosted by a crowd of white men as they returned home from the Central RR Station. According to the Buffalo Evening News on June 16, one of the white men “made some slurring remark about the woman.” Dorsey protested, and was knocked to the ground by the thugs who then pounded Rhodes so severely that he required hospital care. But there was still more to occur.

On the 16th, the Buffalo Express best summarized what happened next when a patrolman from the 3rd Precinct arrived on the scene—“none of the assailants was arrested. Patrolman Malonney… arrested Dorsey and Wright… They were fined $5 apiece [for disorderly conduct] in sunrise court yesterday by Justice Rochford.” Later, because of Rhodes’ actions including hiring an attorney one day before the rally, and threatening to file suit to recover the fines imposed on his cohorts–four of the alleged assailants were arrested, although their cases never were adjudicated.

Rhodes’ “mass meeting” drew about 25 prominent black men, according to the Courier on June 21. Some of them made speeches that “were quiet in tone, although some criticism was made of the lack of necessary police protection…. The men then formulated an approximately 350 word resolution that reviewed the hostile racial setting caused “by thugs called men who, possessing white skins, arrogate to themselves the right to molest…any person of a different race or color….

The resolution concluded with a request for “the cooperation of all good citizens, white or black, to aid us in our denouncement of this wanton tendency to the end that we may live in harmony together.” There was no word in the resolution on a need to form groups “for protection.”

The aftermath of these events was positive. The protest meeting, and its proposal for racial harmony, generated its desired goal–the local daily papers carried no new reports on race-based attacks by white thugs near Michigan Street at least for the rest of 1902. Thanks to one black man who almost overnight became an activist for justice– a tense racial situation subsided in a northern city. Five decades before the emergence of the modern Civil Rights Movement, an African American man successfully confronted racism in his hometown of Buffalo.

*The Courier is the only newspaper that refers to this man as Ralph B. Dolsey.

This article was first published on 5/18/16 on NewYorkHistoryReview.com.

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