February 23, 2023 • By Cynthia Van Ness
Buffalo’s Black history includes many stories of unsung heroes and lesser-known trailblazers. Explore the stories below of the city’s first Black author, playwright, juror and television host. And discover even more Buffalo firsts of all kinds, more than 350 of them, at this link.
First Black author
In 1853, James Monroe Whitfield (1822-1871), who was a barber, became Buffalo’s first published Black author. His book of verse, America and Other Poems, was published in Buffalo by J.S. Leavitt. Whifield’s epic poem America takes the nation to task for the injustice of slavery. Frederick Douglass was an enthusiastic fan of Whitfield’s work.
Buffalo’s First Black Playwright
David Paul Brown’s anti-slavery play was performed at the Eagle Street theater in 1845, seven years before the debut of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American stage, often called the first anti-slavery drama. The Buffalo Gazette reported that Brown, who was a barber, was kidnapped and sold into slavery while visiting New Orleans. He apparently escaped and returned to Buffalo, dramatizing his experience for Buffalo audiences. Little is recorded about Brown’s life and work. We do not know his birth or death dates or the name of his play and have been unable to find a surviving copy of the script. In the 1847-1848 Buffalo city directory, David Brown is listed as a barber at 119 North Division Street.
First Black member of a jury
Abner Hunt Francis (1813-1872) owned a successful clothing store in Buffalo in the 1840s and participated in the 1843 Colored Convention in Buffalo. Also in 1843, he was selected to serve on a jury of the Recorder’s Court in Buffalo, making Francis either the first or second African American to serve on any jury in the US. In 1851, Francis moved to Portland, OR, where he opened another store.
First Black newspaper
Buffalo has a history of Black newspaper publishing dating back to 1895, when the short-lived Afro-American began publishing on Oak Street. It was probably associated with the Afro-American League, the local chapter of a national civil rights organization. No copies of the Afro-American are known to survive.
First Black host on public television
Dr. Samuel L. Woodard (b. 1930) of WNED was the first African-American to appear on educational television in New York State. Dr. Woodard was a graduate of the University at Buffalo and a history teacher at South Park High School. He taught a history class twice a week on live television at WNED, He taught a history class twice a week on live television at WNED, which, at the time, had only existed for three years. Dr. Woodard later became the first, after Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination in 1968, to advocate for a national holiday in honor of Dr. King