Grant Street -- a Buffalo that would have been unthinkable a couple of generations ago: women dressed in head-to-toe robes, men in long shirts, children speaking a Babel of languages. After English and Spanish, the most spoken languages in Buffalo’s public schools are Karen, Arabic, Nepali, Burmese and Somali; at Lafayette High School, students speak 42 different languages.
Yet today’s influx of Asian, African and Middle Eastern refugees into Western New York and Southern Ontario is nothing new. Immigrants, refugees and seekers of asylum have been coming to the Niagara Frontier literally for centuries.
Some are famous and well documented: the Irish of South Buffalo; the Germans and Poles of the East Side; the Italians of the Lower West Side and Niagara Falls. But they were hardly the only immigrant groups to settle in the region.
In the 17th century, several Indian nations were wiped out or forced to flee in the bloody Beaver Wars: the Erie, who lived on the shores of the lake that bears their name; the Wenro, who lived on the south shore of Lake Ontario; the Attawandaron or Neutral nation, who occupied the Niagara Peninsula. Their lands were occupied by the victorious Seneca, and later by the Tuscarora, who moved into today’s Niagara County as refugees from wars in North Carolina.
Large numbers of white settlers first entered the region in the late 1700s as Loyalist refugees from the American Revolution. Driven out of the new United States, they were granted land in Upper Canada, today’s Ontario. Niagara-on-the-Lake was the province’s first capital.
White settlement on the American side began just after 1800, with New Englanders founding the villages and towns of Western New York. Soon, the Erie Canal brought waves of European immigrants into the region; in 1825, Governor DeWitt Clinton, making the first official eastward journey on the canal, encountered a boatload of Norwegians headed west to Orleans County.
English and Scots settled both sides of the Niagara, especially the Canadian side. German Pietists, driven from their homeland by religious persecution, settled the Buffalo Creek Reservation after the Seneca were forced out; other Germans settled in Wheatfield and Williamsville. As factories sprang up in the latter half of the 19th century, immigrants arrived from Central Europe and, increasingly, Western and Eastern Europe. Jews, Greeks and Ukrainians came to Buffalo. In the early 20th century, French-Canadians came to Welland to work in textile mills, and Serbs and Croats settled from Port Colborne to St. Catharines.
Blacks lived in Buffalo from its very founding and built a small but thriving community; they helped fugitive slaves from the American South get safely across the border and create vibrant African-Canadian communities in Fort Erie and St. Catharines. With the start of World War I, the Great Migration brought large numbers of black Americans from the rural South to the industrial North; 18,000 African-Americans lived in Buffalo by 1940, 3 percent of the city’s population. By 2000 that number had increased to 100,000, 31 percent of the population.
During that period, economic decline and white flight to the suburbs helped make Western New York one of the most racially segregated regions in America. But the 21st century has brought the stirrings of a revival to the U.S. side of the Niagara Frontier, marked by a dramatic rise in new residents from non-European regions. Substantial South Asian, East Asian and Middle Eastern communities have grown up in Amherst, spurred largely by the presence of the U.B. campus. Lackawanna is home to a significant Yemeni population. In Buffalo, refugees from Bosnia and East and West Africa, as well as from Asian countries like Burma, Bhutan and Nepal, have brought life to once-depressed parts of the West Side and, increasingly, the East Side.
And on the Ontario side of the river, the Canadian government’s acceptance of 31,000 refugees from the war in Syria has brought several Syrian families to Niagara. They are the latest wave of newcomers to a region where everyone, even the First Nations who lived here before the white people came, is a newcomer.
Mike Dugan, Richard Hummert, Catherine Paszkowska, Mytri Singh and the ESL students of the Buffalo Public Schools Adult Education Center, 389 Virginia Street. They are speaking English, German, Italian, Polish, French, Arabic, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Swahili, Lingala, Spanish and other languages.
Narrator: Susan Banks
Sound recording: Jeff Z. Klein (N.F.H.P.), Omar Fetouh (WBFO)
Sound editing: Micheal Peters (WBNY, Buffalo State)
Piano theme: Excerpt from “Buffalo City Guards Parade March,” by Francis Johnson (1839)
Performed by Aaron Dai
Produced by the Niagara Frontier Heritage Project
Written by Jeff Z. Klein
Associate producer: Karl-Eric Reif
Special thanks to:
Brian Meyer, WBFO news director
Micheal Peters, WBNY general manager, 2016-17 academic year
Doreen Regan, Buffalo Public Schools, ESL coordinator, Adult Education Division
Eva Hassett, International Institute of Buffalo, executive director
Webpage written by Jeff Z. Klein (Niagara Frontier Heritage Project)