The release of the 1950 Federal Census through the Ancestry.com database allows us to search for not only our own ancestors, but any persons living in the U.S. during the 1950 Census of citizens. Curious about the lives of some famous authors, artists and journalists, etc. who hail from Buffalo, New York, Grosvenor Room librarians have pieced together a display of Buffalonians right outside our doors.
Come to the Central Library and get a closer look at the lives of these Buffalonians in 1950, along with some other elements of the time period, including images, advertisements and the U.S. Geological Survey map of Buffalo and vicinity produced that same year. Take a look at where some local celebrities lived, including Rick James, Charles Burchfield, Wolf Blitzer, Lucille Clifton, Lawrence Block and Andrew J. Smitherman, among others.
Ask folks what their favorite building on Lafayette Square is and some will say “the building with the green-framed windows.” Because this building was just recommended for the State and National Registers of Historic Places, let’s consider the history of Brisbane Building.
Originally known as the Mooney and Brisbane building, this 7-story building with its signature green-framed windows was named for James Mooney, brother Henry Mooney, and James Brisbane, all real estate investors. The Mooney name was dropped after the brothers both tragically met their demise on June 16, 1910. James died of a long-term illness and Henry shot himself in the Hotel Lafayette having suffered from what may be called long-term “despondency”—likely because of his brother’s condition.
James Brisbane, a successful businessman, was born in Batavia but resided in New York City. When he died in 1918, his remains were returned and buried in Batavia. His name identifies this important Lafayette Square building but his association with it was solely as a real estate investment.
Several businesses were located in the Brisbane Building. H. Kleinhans & Company, a clothier, was one of the original and better known tenants. Kleinhans’ occupied the basement along with half of the first floor and the entire second floor. The store itself outlasted the Kleinhans brothers who were gone by 1934. Corporately purchased in 1967, Kleinhans became Kleinhart Clothing Co., Inc. and finally Hartmarx, Inc. closing the Brisbane store in 1992. When Edward Kleinhans died in 1934, he left a million dollars for the construction of a music hall thus—Kleinhans Music Hall.
Other tenants included the S[eymour].H. Knox Store, later known as Woolworth’s (1888-1997), a five and ten cent store (where Rainbow is now located) and Faxon, Williams, & Faxon (1897-1908), one of the most prominent grocers in Western New York. Faxon, Williams & Faxon had occupied space in the Arcade, the building preceding the Brisbane on the same spot. The legacy of Knox’s success in business can be seen in the Albright Knox Art Gallery and Knox Farm State Park.
Grandson of Abel Beebe an early settler of Buffalo, Milton Earl Beebe (1840 – 1922) was a carpenter and became an architect after serving in the Civil War. Milton E. Beebe and Son [Henry Beebe] was a very successful architectural firm designing many commercial buildings, churches and homes in Buffalo and beyond. He and his first wife resided in Fredonia until 1898 when, without notice to anyone, including his wife, he mysteriously disappeared severing all ties with Western New York. Beebe later turned up in North Dakota having remarried in 1899.
With the recent opening of the Buffalo Film Works Studio on Babcock St., the largest production stage in upstate New York, easily capable of handling large, Marvel sized blockbuster productions, and the re-opening (boldly, considering most drive-in theaters have closed throughout the country) of the Dunkirk drive-in theater, it felt appropriate to remind Buffalonians that our history with motion pictures goes all the way back to its nascency. While our city has hosted numerous, well known film productions throughout the years, from The Natural (1984) to The Savages (2007), Marshall (2017), and Nightmare Alley (2021) amongst others, it may surprise you to learn that Buffalo lays claim to opening the very first theater solely dedicated to screening movies.
In the beginning, movies were either used to keep audiences occupied during the interludes of vaudeville and theater acts, or served as mere “peep-show” entertainments to be consumed in penny arcades. But Mitchel Mark, who came to be known as the “Buffalo Movie King,” realized the potential of the art form and, after traveling through Europe developing connections that would guarantee a steady influx of films to screen, opened the first movie theater, Vitascope Hall, in the basement of the Ellicott Square building in Buffalo, NY in October of 1896.
Films up to this point were only about thirty seconds to a minute long and tended to depict documentary-like scenes and scenarios. While fictional or dramatic sequences had already been filmed by 1896, the, arguably, first true narrative film wouldn’t be released until 1902 with George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon. Perhaps due to these limitations, the opening of Vitascope Hall did not receive a lot of attention from the press. While the Buffalo Daily Courier listed it’s hours of operation along with other theaters in the city, only the Buffalo Illustrated Express dedicated a column to its opening. This makes it difficult to believe Mark’s statement that 200,000 people attended his screenings in the first year of operation alone. Then again, the theater was open for almost twelve hours a day, conceivably screening films (albeit the same ones repeatedly) a couple hundred times per day, so the numbers could potentially be fudged to support his claim. Regardless, the fact remains he was a pioneer in the movie theater industry and, because Buffalo was a bustling city and well located geographically, Mark was able to create and foster a film exchange hub with the international film company, Pathe. Mark would import films and distribute them to surrounding cities, sustaining and increasing our country’s love of cinema. He also played an impactful role in pushing the industry to treat film as a serious art form, thus elevating movies to the status they hold today, far above the dredges of simple filler they formerly occupied.
By 1906, Mark would leave Buffalo for New York City to open the famous line of Strand Theaters. He died suddenly of blood poisoning in 1918 and was buried in Forest Lawn Cemetery here in Buffalo. An interesting side note: his daughter, Winifred, would marry Aubrey Lownes Jr. and their child, Victor Lownes III would go on, in 1954, to meet Hugh Hefner and eventually become the promotions manager for Playboy Magazine, start the Playboy Club, develop the Playboy Jazz Festival, and executive produce the first Monty Python movie. He too is buried in the Mark Family mausoleum in Forest Lawn.
Learn about genealogically rich Western New York records with this new class by the Grosvenor Room’s genealogy specialist. The webinar shows examples of fascinating historical documents such as name changes, adoption records, coroner reports, military discharges, apprenticeship records, divorce records, probate files, marriage records, and poorhouse registers.
In 1921, A.J. Smitherman was the editor and publisher of the Tulsa Star, an influential black newspaper in Oklahoma that regularly reported on discriminatory actions against the African-American community, often at great personal risk. At the time, Tulsa was home to a thriving community of black residents even as racially motivated lynching and violence was a regular occurrence. In late May of that year, the black community mobilized, most likely due in part to Smitherman’s reporting, to protect the life a black male youth jailed for allegedly grabbing a white female elevator operator. A white mob, many armed and deputized by city authorities, responded by destroying the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, killing hundreds and burning down large swaths of black-owned property.
In the aftermath of the massacre, Smitherman fled to Massachusetts having lost most of his possessions and wanted by the authorities in Oklahoma. After avoiding extradition to Oklahoma, Smitherman and his family moved to Buffalo. In 1932 he began a new newspaper, the Buffalo Star, and published it in a similar manner as the Tulsa Star, reporting on the black community and revealing injustice locally and nationally. The Buffalo Star was later renamed the Empire Star and began covering Rochester as well as Buffalo news.
In September 1960, Smitherman began a weekly column in the Empire Star describing his early life in Alabama and career in Tulsa. Entitled “A Biography,” Smitherton wrote in detail about his work as an editor and his efforts to fight racial injustice in Oklahoma.
In 1961 A.J. Smitherman passed away suddenly, leaving his autobiography unfinished. Forty-six years after his death, charges against Smitherman and others unjustly indicted for inciting the riot back in 1921 were dismissed thanks in large part to the efforts of educator and activist Barbara Seals Nevergold, a co-founder of the Uncrowned Community Builders website which honors the efforts of African Americans in the Buffalo area.
The Grosvenor Room has collected a large run of the Buffalo/Empire Star available for view on microfilm and maintains a vertical file dedicated to life and career of Mr. Smitherman in Buffalo. The file also contains facsimile copies of Mr. Smitherman’s poetry including a “Treasure Trove” of poems published to benefit the Bipartison Voters League.
Found among the treasures of the B&ECPL’s Rare Book Room are a half dozen paintings by Native American artists created sometime between 1915 and the early 1930s by Pueblo natives of the southwest. Each of the works was conserved by students of the Art Conservation Department of Buffalo State, cleaning and restoring the vivid color images that feature traditional ceremonies and costume. Primarily self-taught painters, these men found admiring patrons that encouraged their talents through informal training, even providing paper, brushes and other supplies.
Two of the artists featured here are Awa Tsireh and Otis Polelonema.
Otis Polelonema, also known as Loadamosiva (or Springtime), was an award-winning Hopi Pueblo artist who attended the Santa Fe Indian School where Superintendent John David DeHuff and his wife, children’s author Elizabeth Willis DeHuff, nurtured several young Native artists. The DeHuffs supported the students using their native culture as inspiration for their artwork, and Otis would later incorporate these methods and artistry in his paintings, as well as weaving and song writing. His works were included in every major exhibition in the early 1900s and can be found in numerous museums, including the Heard Museum in Arizona.
Awa Tsireh, also known as Alfonso Roybal and Cattail Bird, was born in New Mexico into a family that was very active in the arts. While his education ended at grade school, Awa Tsireh was instructed in the home of John David and Elizabeth Willis DeHuff, both significant patrons of Pueblo culture. He also modeled for a portrait by painter William Penhallow Henderson, whose wife, Alice Corbin Henderson, became a patron of his work. Awa Tsireh would eventually work in many mediums, including metalwork, and his paintings can be found in several museums, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Vital records (births, deaths, marriages) are an important resource for genealogists. They often provide a connection from an individual to their parents, tell us where an individual and their parents were born, and may provide other details such as places of residence and occupations.
There is extra excitement for this census release because this is the first time NARA is providing a name index on the opening day. The index was created using an Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning (AI/ML) and Optical Character Recognition (OCR) tool. Because the index was computer generated errors are expected, so don’t discount names that look similar but are not exact. (You might see a name like Felix Hoffman indexed as Felip Haffman.)
If you do not have luck finding your ancestor by keyword searching, you can browse the images page by page. Census records are arranged by enumeration district. Each city and town will have one or more district. Browsing small towns for a name is not difficult, but large cities may have hundreds or even thousands of districts. In 1950, Buffalo had almost 900. Enumeration district maps are online. If you’re not sure where your Buffalo ancestor lived, Buffalo city directories are available for use in the Grosvenor Room.
With holiday revelries behind us, perhaps you are thinking of having a “Dry January?” Many people are feeling sober-curious these days, but the move towards a more temperate lifestyle is nothing new in America. The Grosvenor Room has many resources from the Temperance Movement demonstrating that Americans have long been concerned about the effects of alcohol on individuals and its impact on society as a whole.
Often promoted by middle class women, an onslaught of lectures, books, and pamphlets – even plays and songs about the evils of over consumption were published by temperance societies and concerned citizens. This movement grew throughout the 19th-20th centuries culminating in the ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment in 1919. The amendment constitutionally prohibited the manufacture, transportation, or sale of alcohol in the U.S. – only to be repealed in 1933 with the Twentieth Amendment after it became painfully clear that the ban could never be enforced and cost the government dearly in tax revenues.