Political and social freedoms define the American experiment from its roots to its present. This shared national history is one built and influenced in part by the efforts of local and regional actors. Abolitionist movements and the Civil Rights movement as we know it in its contemporary form were nurtured and protected locally, cultivating and supporting activities and momentum for change throughout the nation. Today, the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor stands as a space designed to celebrate this impact. Freedom, cultural expression, and self-determination are among the themes the location embodies, but much of this history and its relationship to a broader national picture is obscured by a lack of impactful visual elements designed to highlight this important regional asset. The newest project in the AK Public Art Initiative aims to address this.
Today, if you stand at the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Ferry Street in Buffalo, you are standing at the northern entrance into the Historic Corridor. You will see Bethel AME, Buffalo’s oldest black religious institution, organized in 1831 and a critical station on the Underground Railroad. You might even notice that the intersection announces in small signs the junction of the honorary intersection of Richard Allen Way and Harriet Tubman Way. You might peer down the street to see Buffalo Public School 192, Buffalo Academy for Visual and Performing Arts. You would stand at a critical cultural crossroads of our region, but you might not recognize it as such.
At the corner of this same intersection is a large concrete wall, nearly eleven feet tall and 300 feet long, surrounding the property of the NFTA Cold Spring Bus Maintenance Depot. This space provides the ideal surface for a mural that will respond to the significance of the location as the entrance into the Historic Corridor and as a space celebrating our nation’s civil rights legacy. Our proposed project, currently operating under the working title of The Freedom Wall, will utilize the design of the wall, divided into 29 sections, to depict portraits of notable civil rights leaders in American history, past and present. The scale of the wall creates a unique opportunity to present a historical narrative that recognizes well-known national activists alongside equally important but less widely known local leaders. The site provides the opportunity to present information on all of the leaders that might be depicted in the mural, and it stands to become a destination as well as a formal and dramatic entrance into the Michigan Street African-American Heritage Corridor.
The leaders that will be depicted on the wall will be chosen by conducting interviews and public meetings with members of our community, consulting with faith-based organizations, through conversations with local and national historians, partnering with local stakeholders and agencies, and through research conducted in conjunction with curriculum responding to this project developed at SUNY Buffalo State. We encourage public participation and feedback for this project and will hold a series of public meetings to discuss the topic of freedom through the lens of civil rights as our community defines it and to gather suggestions for the content of the final mural. The work will be painted by the Buffalo-based artist Chuck Tingley in the summer of 2017.