5.14 | “We Claim Victory Over Hate”

Unity. Hope. Prayer. Love.

“We Claim Victory Over Hate”

Those were the common themes Monday afternoon as hundreds of people, including political and business leaders, media, community activists, and neighbors came to the parking lot of Tops Market at Jefferson and Landon Street to marvel as the supermarket unveiled “Home Space” on the second anniversary of the racist mass killings of 10 beautiful Black men and women and the injuring of three others.

In the aftermath of the horrific 5.14.2020 murders at Tops by a white supremacist, New York Governor Kathy Hochul and Buffalo Mayor Byron B. Brown announced a committee to work with the families of the victims to create a memorial so the community would never forget these victims or this horrific event. On Monday, the Governor was in town to announce the selection of the architect and displaying renderings of their work. Millions of dollars are needed to be raised and a location, blocks away from the tragic site, will be announced soon.

Meanwhile, the leadership of Tops Friendly Markets, spearheaded by John Persons, the CEO of Northeast Grocery, its parent company, completely renovated the Jefferson Street store while creating an impressive waterfall tribute to the ten victims inside.

Artist Valeria Cray and her son, Hiram

To ensure the memories of those ten beautiful victims would never be forgotten, Tops commissioned a renowned local sculptor, artist, activist, businessperson and educator, Valeria Annette Cray, and her equally talented son, Hiron, an instructor of painting, drawing, and digital art at the State University of New York at Corning.

On the morning of the second anniversary of 5.14 Tops and the artists unveiled “Honor Space” as its dedication to the victims. Located at the corner of Jefferson and Langdon, every inch of Honor Space has a special meaning, explained its landscape architect, Joy Kuebler. The 34 Group, led by former Buffalo Bill and Hall of Fame running back Thurman Thomas and his wife, Patti, were the contractors.

Buffalo Mayor Byron B. Brown being interviewed after the event

“It’s remarkable and absolutely beautiful,” Persons told an overflow audience Tuesday afternoon when the ten victims were remembered by having their names read by Mayor Brown, followed by a Buffalo Firefighter ringing the bell ten times. “This is our humble way of being able to express to the families we are honoring their loved ones and doing something positive in their names.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James was given a tour of Honor Space before she addressed the audience, which included members of the victim’s families and the three injured victims and their families. 

“Tops is really tops for creating this space,” she said. “After that racist massacre two years ago, they could have moved from this community, but they did not, and they have continued to exhibit corporate leadership. I wish they would come to Brooklyn.

“Hate has no place in the state of New York,” she added. “We now have 10 beautiful Black angels looking over us.”

Rev. Rachelle Robinson, who delivered the invocation, declared, “Give us this day as we claim victory over hate, to remember the people whose lives were taken from their families, their friends, and their families.”

The ten victims were:

Aaron Salter

Celestine Chaney

Roberta Drury

Andre Mackniel

Katherine Massey

Heyward Patterson

Geraldine Talley

Ruth Whitfield

Pearl Young

Kubler said 15 months ago the artist, Tops officials, members of the victim’s families, and others began meeting, crying, and creating a space “where anyone could sit on a bench, rest, and reflect among the flowers which were all selected to offer peace and hope.” 

She described the local artist, Valeria Cray, by saying “She has poured herself into the East Side community her entire life” and “This work is soul food from her heart.”

Cray’s son then read a very deep and heart-felt story about her mother’s vision for the monument, a stainless-steel structure that features purple for royalty and gold for power. It will be illuminated at night.

Cray, in an interview prior to the media event, explained with sincere passion, “This has been a very spiritual experience for us. I give it all to God. He picked all the right people to put it all together and our fabricator did a fantastic job of making it just like the model we created.

“We are so blessed Tops commissioned and funded all of us to do this for our community. I am immensely proud of them,” she added. “The whole spirit of God surrounds us, and this is truly holy, sacred ground we stand on, as I blessed it three times before the sculpture was installed.”

One of the 10 granite posts for each of the victims
The Pear tree that came from a seedling from 9-11 in New York City

Cray calls the sculpture “Unity” and truly hopes that is what it brings to those who visit. The space includes ten granite posts, which will illuminate, and has the name of each victim etched on the top. Each flower garden has a significant meaning and there is a Pear Tree, which symbolizes resilience and hope. The tree came from a seedling presented to Buffalo through the 9/11 Memorial and Museum’s Survivor Tree Seedling program.

Cray, the only African American female modern artist with a sculpture, Adam, and Eve, in the permanent collection of Buffalo’s Albright Knox Art Gallery, is an amazing artist and community activist who genuinely believes in her adopted hometown of Buffalo. She has proven in the past, that with a vision and a team of equally motivated individuals, anything is possible. 

A sign that explains the history of the pear tree

30 years ago, Cray founded 50 Women with a Purpose worked tirelessly to get the city to open the Apollo Media Center on Jefferson and the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library next door at Jefferson and East Utica Streets. They also led the effort to convince Tops to open a much-needed supermarket on Jefferson Avenue. They also sponsored a Jefferson Avenue Arts Festival for 10 years.

Her public art projects include a painted tile mural inside the Apollo Media Center and the exterior doors at the Merriweather Library. In 2011, her sculpture “Spirit of Life Tree” was commissioned by the Buffalo Renaissance Foundation for the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus at Ellicott and High Streets. In 2019, she designed the archway of the African American Heritage Corridor on Michigan Avenue. As a businessperson, she owns East Wind, a salon specializing in hair loss and hair attachments.

Many of those in attendance on Tuesday were talking about what has occurred in this neighborhood during the past two years and what they would like to see.

Honorable Charley H. Fisher III, a former Councilmember-at-Large of the Buffalo Common Council, knew many of the victims and reflecting on that day two years ago, he said, “It was heartbreaking, a deep hurt, and a lot of pain. I am seeing some development on Jefferson and that is a start, but we need more.”

Honorable Betty Jean Grant

Honorable Betty Jean Grant, a community activist who served as an Erie County Legislator for 10 years, was asked about the multi-million-dollar study they are going to do on Jefferson Avenue. “No more studies,” she said boldly. “We need to see action. We have been studied to death.”

With all the local media on sight with multiple reporters for its newscasts throughout the day, many residents were asked about changes they have seen in the neighborhood since the massacre occurred two years ago. Many responded by asking, “Look around, do you see any changes?”  They asked where all the money raised went and what was going to occur in Jefferson.

Someone asked a Tops official about a vacant and abandoned home on Riley, adjacent to Tops which has been an eyesore since before the massacre. “There was work being done on that house recently. They put new plywood on the windows,” he said.

Sign greeting guests as they enter the Honor Space on Jefferson

Many of the elderly men and women began talking about what the street used to be like before the first major front page news story occurred about a Jefferson Avenue tragedy during the long sweltering summer of 1967. That is when Buffalo was one of many cities across the nation experiencing race riots. For several nights gangs of young Black youth roamed Jefferson from William Street north firebombing stores and eventually chasing away almost all of the locally owned businesses. Fans who attended Buffalo Bisons baseball games at War Memorial Stadium stopped attending games forcing the team to play its night games in Niagara Falls. Less than three years later, the franchise moved midway through the 1970 season to Winnipeg leaving Buffalo without professional baseball for nine years.

Someone mentioned $20 million is now available for a study about what should be done to improve and upgrade Jefferson Avenue and its streetscape.

After hearing and seeing her newest public artwork today, it appears to me the city may want to ask Valeria Cray to put on her East Buffalo activist hat and recruit another 50 Women with a Purpose and do the study themselves and present their findings to the city. Something tells me their work will begin and end with prayer and I believe the city would be impressed with what they present.

The post 5.14 | “We Claim Victory Over Hate” appeared first on Buffalo Rising.

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