The Life of William E. West Sr.
William E. West Sr. once wrote that Black History was the "record of the religious faith, physical strength, and ability [to] rise above the indignities and brutalities imposed by an oppressor of 400 years." (2) His personal story embodied Black history. West Sr. was born to Samuel and Lauretta Henry in 1922. West Sr. was the fourth generation of his family to walk the shores of Lake Erie on Southern Ontario and Western New York; his family has lived on the Niagara Frontier for 175 years. His great grandfather Lafayette Henry was a run-away slave who settled in Bertie County (Ridgeway), Ontario, Canada in 1840 at the age of 16. He changed his name to William Henry to hide his identity from slave hunters. Henry was married to Susanna, who was an Indian maiden and had two children Isaiah and Jenny. In 1854, Town of Bertie Township census records listed William Henry and his family among its residents. (3) Henry's son Isaiah, who was born in 1853 in Ridgeway, was William E. West's grandfather. Isaiah had six children, Lauretta, Mary Jane, Jesse, Josephine, Florence and Charles. The Henry family lived in the section of Ridgeway known as "Little Africa". There was only one other black family who lived in the Ridgeway area at the time known as the Simms. Isaiah's daughters, Lauretta and Florence Henry, returned to the United States before 1900. These young women worked as maids for white Buffalo families.
Although Samuel and Lauretta Henry were his birth parents, Mary Jane West raised William E. West Sr. Mary Jane could not have children of her own. She nevertheless maintained a very close and loving relationship with her sisters, who promised that whichever one of them got pregnant first would give Mary the child to adopt. Lauretta Henry was the first of the sisters to conceive, giving birth to twins, but she neglected to tell her husband of the promise. Samuel worked for the railroad as a porter and was able to provide a middle-class life for his family, so there was no reason to give away one of his children. He was resistant to the idea of giving his child to Mary Jane; however, when West Sr.'s twin Esau died the day after birth, Samuel changed his mind. He thought the death of Esau was a bad omen and consented to the adoption.
West Sr. proved a precocious student and athlete throughout his years in elementary and secondary school. West Sr. attended School #8, where he studied with approximately fifty black students. Photos of West Sr. drawing horses appeared in the Buffalo Public School #8 yearbooks in 1935 and 1937 and offer evidence that his artistic creativity began in youth. (4) The yearbooks also reveal that West Sr. was an accomplished middle school student, publishing his notes and drawing, and winning the Safety Poster contest. (5) He also learned how to play the cello and played in the school band. West Sr. took several art courses in high school which included Representation I and II, drawing, oil and water coloring painting. While at Fosdick Masten, West Sr. became a cross-country track athlete, which earned him two All High medals and letters. In 1940, he won third place in the city-wide cross-country finals, and in the fall of 1941 he became the Buffalo City Cross-Country Champion.
Serving His Country
Writing in 1944, William E. West Sr. represented his military service as a sorrowful dream made glorious by his commitment to country and community: "Dreams are the hopes of a man/ craving for the glory of his land/for which he is willing to slave and sweat/that the sorrows of his country men [sic] may be met." (6) West Sr. joined the United States Marine Corp on April 20, 1943 and completed basic training at Camp Pendleton, California. As a result of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Executive Order 8802, which desegregated national defense industries, the United States Marine Corp received its first African American recruits in 1942. West Sr. was among the first African American men to become a Marine. He was assigned to a segregated unit and deployed in 1944 as a Private First Class to the South Pacific Theater.
During his time in World War II, West Sr. maintained a personal journal where he expressed hopes and dreams for the future as well as reflected on discriminatory treatment by white American officers. Two goals he wrote about included a desire to get marry and start a family and his ambition to pursue a career in art when he returned home. (7) West received an honorable discharge and satisfactory service in World War II from the Marine Corp as a Corporal on January 7, 1946 at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina.
Husband and Father
After returning home, West Sr. began his family and embarked on his career. He met his soon-to-be wife, Geraldine "Gerry" Summers, at a party. She was a young, attractive woman, but she and West Sr. had come to the party with different dates. West Sr., however, was determined to get Summers' attention. Much to his relief, another young man asked to take his date home at the end of the night. West Sr. and Summers thus had the opportunity to come together that evening. After a short courtship West Sr. married Geraldine on December 20, 1946. Geraldine's family (Summers and Wilkinson) were also descendants of runaway slaves who had settled in St. Catherines and Toronto, Ontario. Her parents moved from St Catherines, Ontario to Buffalo during the 1920s. Her maternal great grandfather Horatio Wilkins (Wilkinson) was an assistant to Harriet Tubman when she visited St. Catherines. West Sr. and Summers were married forty-seven years.
West Sr. was a devoted husband and father of four children, Sharon, Yvonne, Khadijah (birth name Sandra) and William. His primary focus was his family, especially enjoying his children's company on the weekend. Most Sunday afternoons were spent taking the family on long car rides. On these journeys, West Sr. promised to keep his family safe, so sometimes he offered warnings to his children. For example, he would occasionally drive through segregated neighborhoods and explain why black families were unwelcomed in these areas. He called them "shotgun territory," neighborhoods where white residents might confront unwanted black visitors with a shotgun. (8) Racial segregation in Buffalo, however, did not extend to the city's art community. West Sr. and his family were always welcomed at the Burchfield and Blair homes. He also enjoyed taking his family to visit his parents, who lived in Steubenville, Ohio until his father passed away.
West Sr. also started his career after the war. At first he worked full-time in manufacturing. He was employed at the foundry as well as a variety of part time jobs. In 1948, however, he went to work for the U.S. Post Office. West Sr. would work there for thirty years until he retired in 1978.
Faith and Perseverance
William E. West Sr. maintained strong spiritual beliefs that played a significant role throughout his life. He practiced Christian Science from 1933 to 1946, and his family joined the United Church of Christ (UCC) in 1959, where they remained active until 1975. He attended Grace United Church of Christ with his wife from 1984 until 1995 and the United Methodist Church from 1999 until his health began to fail in 2010.
Faith permitted West Sr. to overcome challenging circumstances in life. For example, at the Salem UCC church picnic in Dunkirk, New York, in July of 1969, West Sr. severely injured himself. He was playing first base in a baseball game when a batter collided with him as he bent down to catch the ball. West Sr. collapsed, losing feeling his body. At Buffalo General Hospital, West Sr. learned that he had severely bruised his spinal cord, resulting in the loss of feeling from neck down to his toes. The doctor's prognosis was dubious, describing the spinal cord injury as the type that had left many people permanently paralyzed.
Faith, prayer, and perseverance allowed West Sr. to recover. While in the hospital, his wife Gerry gave him a necklace with a mustard seed and hung it around his neck. She prayed with him, reading the passage: "Jesus replied Truly I tell you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you." (9) The entire West family prayed that West Sr. would recover. God answered that prayer with a miracle. Several weeks after the accident, feeling started to return West Sr.'s body. He received intensive physical therapy to relearn how to walk and use his limbs and torso. Six months after his accident, in the winter of 1970, he returned to work at the Post Office. West Sr. would later retire from the Post Office due to the physical strain on his body, but not before he worked an additional eight years, defying his doctor's preliminary prognosis.
West Sr. refused to be defined by his physical disability. He maintained his independence all his life with the assistance of canes, walkers, electric wheelchair and a handicapped accessible house. Whenever people speak about West Sr. and his life, they do not tell a story of injury and physical limitation. Rather, people admire him for his art, social justice, and tenacity in the face of adversity.
Social Justice Advocacy
A major part of William West Sr.'s life was his social justice advocacy and participation in community organizations. While a member of the Salem United Church of Christ (UCC), West Sr. served as the Congregation President and Sunday Superintendent. The church was integrated with a diverse, progressive congregation involved in civil rights and social justice initiatives. During the 1960s, West Sr. also served on the Wider Horizons Reading Program, which was funded by President Lyndon B. Johnson's War on Poverty campaign. Wider Horizons was a community-based, afterschool tutorial program for elementary school children. Salem UCC was also involved in bringing Saul Alinsky's organization, Industrial Areas Foundation, to Buffalo, which helped to establish the BUILD organization, which initiated a community movement to fight for equal opportunity and civil rights in Buffalo area.
William West Sr. contributed to local ventures in cooperative economics. In the late 1960s, he and several church members organized to address the lack of major supermarkets in the neighborhood and promote self-sufficiency. They began selling a $2-bags of fresh vegetables out of the church basement on Saturdays. West Sr. used the success of the weekend food bags to create the East Side Cooperative Organization (ECCO) in 1968. Shares of ECCO were sold to people in the community. In 1969, ECCO received a grant from Buffalo's First March of Hunger. In 1970-1972, ECCO received Model Cities grant funding, which allowed them to expand from a neighborhood corner store to a full-fledged supermarket on William Street by 1972. (10) The positive neighborhood response to community ownership helped the ECCO expand further, later moving to a larger location on Genesee Street. Runaway inflation and the economic recession of the early 1970s led to the dissolution of the supermarket and ECCO in 1975.
West Sr. played a leadership role other community organizations as well. For example, he served on the Buffalo Postal Community Federal Credit Union's Supervisory committee from 1959 to 1969. He joined the St. John Lodge No. 16 Free and Accepted Masons Prince Hall in 1966 and was elected as Worshipful Master in 1982. West Sr. remained involved with the St. John's Lodge until 2010. He was also a member of Hadjji Temple #61 Ancient Egyptian Arabic Order Nobles Mystic Shrine, a member of Bison Consistory #29 Ancient & Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Prince Hall Affiliation, Past Patron of Naomi Chapter #10 Prince Hall Order of the Eastern Stars. The masonic organizations were ideal for fostering fellowship with neighborhood leaders and applying his organizational and mentoring skills. (11)
The Artistry of William E. West
William E. West Sr. was a successful artist in Buffalo, New York, and developed creative relationships with many local artists. West Sr.'s relationship with Charles Burchfield, for example, began as a student-teacher relationship but transcended that in later years. On many occasions, West Sr. visited Burchfield at his home to discuss his art work, taking his young family for Sunday afternoon drives to visit the Burchfield family home in Gardenville, New York. Burchfield respected West Sr.'s work, writing in his personal journal that "[West's] work shows a distinct advance over last year--His humility towards his own work is very genuine and touching. Bill is one of the finest people we know--a true gentleman." (12) West Sr. counted the personalized Christmas cards and notes from Charles Burchfield among his most treasured items.
West Sr. also developed a very close relationship with John Baker, an educator and fellow artist, who has curated several of West Sr.'s shows. Baker described West Sr.'s watercolor paintings as pure and exceptional. Baker also extolled West's paintings of urban scenery and landmarks in the inner city over a sixty-year period--paintings that documented the history and lifestyle of Buffalo and its African American community. He added that West Sr. was always a secure person and was never discouraged by any type of criticism. He painted what he believed in, Baker thought; art was West Sr.'s true passion.
Although West Sr. faced much sadness in his later years, he cultivated his legacy with love for his family and meticulous recordkeeping. As a devoted husband, West Sr. took care of his wife Gerry during her lengthy illness until her premature death in 1994. Several years later, he renewed his friendship with his 'high school prom date' Bessie Robinson. They maintained a devoted, close, and loving relationship for seventeen years until he passed away. Both Robinson and West families enjoyed seeing their relationship blossom. At the time of his death in 2014, West Sr. had five granddaughters, one grandson, seven great-granddaughters and seven great-grandsons. The stories of West Sr. and his loved ones have been documented in an extensive collection of newspaper articles on his artwork, the birth and death records of eight generations of extended family members, and carefully maintained reflective statements and family photographs.
William E. West Sr.'s Legacy
Interpreting Black History as the story of black Americans resiliency in the face of oppression, it should not come as a surprise that West Sr. kept careful records of his family's journey to freedom. Throughout his life, William E. West Sr., maintained a strong interest in the history of his family and ancestors. For example, he documented his mother's stories about his grandfather and growing up in Ridgeway, Ontario with her sisters and brother. From his mother, he learned how his grandfather Lafayette Henry escaped from slavery to Ontario, Canada from a plantation in Virginia. West Sr. also scoured Canadian census records to locate demographic data on his great grandfather, William Henry and grandfather Isaiah Henry. Moreover, one of West Sr.'s most cherished heirlooms was the dagger that his great grandfather carried on the Underground Railroad, a precious reminder of the dangerous path to freedom our ancestors tread.
Some of West Sr.'s collection has been recognized as a national treasure. One of his mother's books was The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Or Gustavus Vassa, The African, the first published autobiography of a former slave, originally printed in 1789. West Sr. owned one of the earliest editions of the autobiography printed in 1831. The Smithsonian Museum proved interested in the artifact and now has the edition on display.
After my father's death, I had the pleasure of going through his art workroom and storage cabinets. I found a treasure trove of artifacts and historical documents. Among the best-preserved items are my father's childhood papers, military records, art work, and photography. My father kept many of his mother's records, which included every one of my father's report cards from elementary school through high school as well as letters from his elementary and high school principals. My father also saved his high school athletic letters, elementary and high school yearbooks, and his high school diploma.
My father also saved a wide range of documents related to his service in the Marine Corp and World War II. I found letters of recommendation from his high school principal and the director of the Michigan Avenue Y, induction papers, discharged papers, a uniform, metals and GI Bill paperwork. He also kept a journal while he was over in the South Pacific; excerpts are published below. In the journal my father has pictures of his parents, beloved family members, and friends. Among the journal entries are poems and personal reflections about his wartime experience and goals for the future. In his family photos albums, there are pictures of his Marine Corp troop.
In addition to childhood papers and military records, my father collected every loose drawing and sketchbook he drew in since the early 1950s. This collection includes about 50 sketchbooks and 100 loose pen and pencil drawings. Similarly, as a student at Empire State College, he was asked to document his involvement in many community activities such as BUILD and ECCO in a credit-bearing assignment. He kept this file, in which he wrote about memories that shaped him from childhood to his later years. He later graduated from Empire State College in 1980 with a bachelor's degree in Professional Studies, majoring in Fine Arts.
Finally, William E. West Sr. worked diligently to document his life in photographs. His parents owned a camera from the time he was born, and there are many pictures of my father as an infant and young man. Continuing his parent's tradition of photography, my father maintained an extensive collection of family photos ranging from the time he was childhood to his time in military service to the six generations of family that followed his return from World War II.
Published below are two documents from the Henry-Jennings Family collection that offer insights into the life and thought of William E. West. The first is a brief essay he wrote on the meaning of Black History. The second is an excerpt from his World War II diary. Both show his commitment to creative thinking and writing. William E. West Sr. has left behind a rich legacy, deserving of further research and reflection.
Sharon West (1)
(1) Sharon West is a local history researcher writer as well as daughter of William E. West Sr.
(2) William E. West Sr., "What Is Black History" (undated), Henry-Jennings Family Collection.
(3) William E. West Sr., "Family History," (undated) Henry-Jennings Family Collection.
(4) Buffalo Public Schools, The Octet (Buffalo, New York: 1935), 32, Henry-Jennings Family Collection.
(5) The Octet, 1935, 21.
(6) William E. West Sr., "Shades of Marine Corp Life," (undated) Henry-Jennings Family Collection.
(7) West Sr., "Shades of Marine Corp Life."
(8) Yvonne J. Gist, "Reflections of My Father," October 24, 2014, Henry-Jennings Family Collection.
(9) Matthew 17:20.
(10) William E. West Sr., "Casual Art Statement," (undated) Henry-Jennings Family Collection.
(11) Gist, "Reflections of My Father" (2014).
(12) Charles E. Burchfield, "Charles E. Burchfield Journals," Volume 58 (b), Tuesday, March 26, 1957, Burchfield Penney Art Center.
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|Publication:||Afro-Americans in New York Life and History|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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