Unknown Stories: Buffalo's First Black Architect


BUFFALO, NY - For the past two years, researchers at SUNY Buffalo State have been on a mission to find out everything they can about John Brent, Buffalo's first African-American architect.

Not only were they surprised by their discoveries of Brent's work through the years, so were Brent's relatives who are still living in Buffalo.

On Friday, the revelations went on public display for the first time at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. It's the most comprehensive look at John Brent's life and legacy to date.

Christine Parker, a diversity research fellow at Buff State, is the lead researcher on the John Brent project. But, this isn't just some assignment. For her -- it's personal. She's a Buffalo girl and Brent's work has connections to her childhood.

"The gates, when you're a child they're really a large structure, they're huge, they're bigger than you could ever imagine," Parker said. She's referring to the entrance gates to the Buffalo Zoo. John Brent designed two of the nine gates here. Both are on the National Register of Historic Places.

"John Brent had something to do with the design of our experience," she said, "I think it fuels your passion, because now you want to know, where else have I walked, what other portal have I crossed through that this gentleman has made his contribution in buffalo?"

Researchers have been looking beyond the history books, where information about Brent has existed for years. In addition to designing gates at the Zoo, Brent is renowned for designing the construction plans for the Michigan Avenue YMCA, which was built in 1928.

"It was the center of African-American culture in Buffalo," Parker said.

Parker has learned through records at the Erie County Public Library that Brent also designed a YMCA camp in Wales. The camp was one of the few places blacks children were able to go and play.

Because John Brent worked for the City of Buffalo, City Hall was one of Parker's first stops in her research. With the help of city inspectors, more than 40 historical drawings and blueprints created by John Brent were located.

"He's been in every part of this city," Parker said.

Drawings found include a sketch of the Lake Erie shoreline from LaSalle Park to the Small Boat Harbor to Tifft Farm. Other sketches found include Masten, Cazenovia and Houghton parks. Also revealed was a drawing of Roosevelt Square, where West Genesee and Main Streets meet.

"Each drawing is unique, beautifully articulated drawing style. It's a real gift to be so precise," Parker said.

Some of the drawings Brent designed were for future construction, others were done so records of the sites could be on file.

Another blueprint found is the 1951 modification drawing of what was then known as the Humboldt Wading Pool. Today, it's the splash pad at MLK Park. The drawing details of the plumbing and electrical features there were referred to in the wading pool's redevelopment.

Parker has also obtained John Brent's application for membership to the American Institute of Architects, which, according to Parker, shows Brent held a pretty important job for the government.

"John Brent was brought on, was hired through the Department of the Interior, in 1931 until 1934," she said.

It was during this time, Parker says, according to the National Archives, that Brent contributed to the design plans of Founder's Library at Howard University. Today the library is a Literary Landmark.

"Of course he's a D.C. boy, so he went back to his hometown and he had to take care of his family, so I'm sure this was a great opportunity," Parker said.

"There was a whole lot more material than we ever anticipated, we started thinking there were zoo gates and the Michigan Avenue YMCA, but were not aware of the breathe of work that he had done over the years and that is what has surfaced," said Nancy Weekly, the head of collections at the Burchfield Penney Art Center.

But, the chronicling of John Brent's work and legacy has been especially impactful for Brent's descendants.

"I'm very appreciative that Christine pursued this," said Jennifer McGriff, John Brent's niece.

"I was only aware that he had designed the gates," said Brent Rollins, who's a nephew of John Brent, "It means a lot and in many ways and on a personal level it's kind of embarrassing because I don't think I came up to the standards that he laid out before me."

"It's been emotional, it's miffed me a little bit," said Janessa Rollins Robinson, a niece of John Brent, "I attended Howard University, and one of the things I learned is that the building, Founder's Library where I spent many hours studying was partially designed by my Uncle John now, Uncle John took me to Howard University to help me get enrolled probably helped pay my expenses there, did I ever hear a word about that? No."

Brent's nieces and nephew say when they were young, their uncle never talked about his work. Even with this, they say he still had a tremendous sense of pride in what he did.

"He was a modest person that's just who he was he was a solid citizen, a modest person, he didn't brag about what he did, he just did it," Robinson said.

Brent also fought for the rights of blacks. He founded and was the first-elected president of the NAACP Buffalo branch, which was established in 1914 -- just two years after Brent arrived in Buffalo. Brent's name is on the NAACP Buffalo charter.

"He was an architect of social change," Parker said.

"He was such an important part of our lives," McGriff said.

You can only imagine what the experience will be, when John Brent's work and legacy come alive, for the first time.

"It's going to be thrilling," Robinson said.

"I have children and grandchildren that I want to be able to see this," McGriff said.

To imagine walking the paths of life Brent walked. Studying the newly unearthed design plans, creating new memories. Appreciating artifacts like Brent's drawing tools, which his family has preserved after all these years. And reflecting on the family photos.

REPORTER: If you were to sum up that legacy, what would that legacy be?

"I think being a role model on all different levels, it's got to be inspirational," Weekly said.

"John Brent was a pioneer and he'll be revered for that," Parker said.

The John Brent exhibit will be unveiled on Friday Oct. 9 and will be open to the public until the end March at Burchfield Penney.
The exhibit will be dedicated to two Buff State professors who have passed in recent years, Dr. Edward Smith and Dr. Felix Armfield. Both had longed for the John Brent exhibit to come to fruition.


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