Buffalo Shooting Exposes How History Shapes the PresentRoundup
tags: racism, violence, White Supremacy, White Nationalism, Great Replacement
Chad Williams is the Samuel J. and Augusta Spector professor of history and African and Afro-American studies at Brandeis University, and author of Torchbearers of Democracy: African American Soldiers in the World War I Era.
Saturday’s massacre of 10 African Americans in Buffalo by an allegedly avowed white supremacist tragically takes its place in the long history of American racial terrorism. Accused 18-year-old Payton Gendron drove 3½ hours from his home in Conklin, N.Y., to execute a plan, based on a self-produced screed, months in the making. According to the document, he specifically targeted the Tops supermarket in East Buffalo because it was heavily frequented by the Black community. Dressed in body armor and wielding a semiautomatic rifle, Gendron allegedly gunned down unsuspecting Black shoppers. Wearing a helmet camera, he made a point to live-stream the attack and the carnage left in his wake.
Gendron’s screed referred to Dylann Roof — who murdered nine African Americans in a Bible study at the revered Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., on June 17, 2015 — as a “freedom fighter” and shared many of the same beliefs that Black people and other people of color threatened to take over the country and overturn the supposed historical dominance of the White race.
Like Charleston, the Buffalo shooting once again exposes the brutal history of racist violence in the United States and its particularly horrific legacy in the African American experience. These violent episodes are not an anomaly, but part of an ongoing tradition of attacks on Black citizenship and humanity.
Historical context is necessary to fully grasp the significance of the Buffalo shooting. White-supremacist terrorism targeting people of color, and African Americans in particular, has a deep national history — one not limited just to the South. But local history is also important to understanding this horrific incident. Buffalo’s unique history of African American freedom, civil rights struggle and perseverance in the face of structural racism and economic neglect remind us of why Gendron targeted this particular community and why this shooting is especially heinous.
Buffalo occupies an important place in the history of antislavery activism and radical abolitionism. It served as a key station of the Underground Railroad, one of the last stops for fugitive enslaved people seeking freedom in Canada. The famed Black abolitionist William Wells Brown made the city his home. Buffalo was the site of the 1843 National Convention of Colored Citizens, where attendees listened to speeches from notable figures such as Frederick Douglass and Henry Highland Garnet, who boldly exhorted enslaved people to fight for their freedom.
The birth of the modern 20th-century civil rights movement can also be traced through the city. African American educator, clubwoman, suffragist and anti-lynching activist Mary Talbert organized protests against racist depictions of Black people at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. In 1905, Talbert hosted the first meeting of the Niagara Movement, which served as a forerunner to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, founded in 1909.