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John Edmonston Brent: Master Builder

Submitted by: Barbara A. Seals Nevergold, PhD, Co-founder of the Uncrowned Queens Institute

His grandfather was a slave, who purchased his freedom and that of his wife and founded the John Wesley AME Zion Church of Washington, DC in 1847. His mother, Albertine Jones was the daughter of a prosperous feed merchant and his father, Calvin Brent was the first Black architect in Washington. A number of the buildings he designed are still in use today. This was the family of John Edmonston Brent, Buffalo’s first African American architect. Calvin Brent died in 1899, when John was about ten years old and did not see his son follow in his footsteps.

UK_ John Brent overcoatBrent graduated from the D.C. Public Schools. In 1904, he enrolled at Tuskegee Institute, where, according to a 1926 Buffalo American news article, “he took up carpentry for two years, to get an intimate knowledge of building.” He graduated from Tuskegee, in 1907, after taking a one-year architectural program. Returning to Washington, Brent taught school for two years before deciding to pursue architecture at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Brent was awarded a full scholarship at Drexel. He completed the architectural course of studies, graduating in 1912.

Brent moved to Buffalo after his graduation from Drexel and in a relatively short time found employment in the Architectural firm of Max G. Beierl. From Beierl, he went to H. Osgood Holland. While working for Holland, Brent worked on the plans for Hutchinson High School. He then secured employment with Waterbury & Mann, where he worked on plans for the Wanaka Country Club. Next he moved to work for the firm of Julius E. Schultz.

Following this position, the Buffalo American newspaper article states that Brent worked two years, beginning in 1912 (sic), for the firm of North Shelgren & Swift. Since the article chronicled all of Brent’s previous employment before the Shelgren & Swift position, it’s possible that the paper made a typo and the year should have been noted as 1921. The newspaper article continues by noting that at the “present” time, Brent was working for Oakley & Schallmore. Brent resigned that position in order to take the position as the chief architect for the new YMCA building that was being planned for African Americans in Buffalo, New York.

In 1926, Brent became the second African-American, in the country, to design a “colored” YMCA. Brent was not only the architect for this building, but he also over-saw the construction and ensured that many skilled African Americans found employment on this two year project. The Y, originally estimated to cost $200,000 was built at a cost of $285,000. A challenge grant of $25,000 by Sears Roebuck’s founder and philanthropist, Julius Rosenwald was met by the community, which raised the remaining funds. George Mathews, owner of the Buffalo News and his wife, were major contributors to the fund and on-going financial supporters. The Mathews established the Booker T. Washington Endowment Fund with a $100,000 initial contribution in 1928. Upon his death, the Mathews estate left $350,000 to the Washington Endowment Fund.

The history of the Michigan Avenue Y plays an important role in the history of this extraordinary individual. Brent far exceeded his position of architect and builder to play an on-going role as member of the Board of Directors, fundraiser, consumer and contributor. He was intimately involved with the Y for the rest of his life. But his community contributions were not limited to his role and position as an architect. He was the first president of the Buffalo Branch NAACP founded in 1915. As that organization is observing its centennial this year it is important to note that 1915 is also the one hundred year anniversary of the release of “the Birth of a Nation”. The NAACP held demonstrations throughout the country to protest this film. As the President of the newly formed Buffalo Branch NAACP, Brent fully supported these actions. In 1916, he wrote a letter to the Buffalo Morning Courier to protest the showing of the movie in this region. It is a significant document, which can be found at the Uncrowned Community Builder’s website, www.uncrownedcommunitybuilders.com

More about John E. Brent ………

This year marks the centennial of the founding of the Buffalo NAACP, which was formed in March 1915. John Brent served on Finance Committee. Sometime in April 1915, the organization brought in Joel Spingarn for a mass meeting to kick off organization. Other members of the founding group included Mary B. Talbert, Rev. J. Edward Nash, Cornelius Ford, Amelia Grace Anderson, the Rev. Richard W. Boynton, Dr. Jacob Goldberg, the Rev. William H. Boocock, the Rev. Murray S. Howland, Mrs. John R. Joslyn, the rev. Philip L. Frick and Joseph Martin. Brent was elected as the first President in November 1915 to serve for the 1915-16 year.

This letter to the Editor was written by Brent to protest the showing of The Birth of a Nation. The NAACP had launched a national campaign to protest the film because of its derogatory and stereotyped portrayals of African Americans.

Editor, Buffalo Express; your correspondent, George M. Carey, in his letter on Wednesday praising that vicious untruthful, unnecessary, exaggerated film the Birth of a Nation, makes the statement that the South was just as right for the stand as the North and asks a “Buckeye Woman” what was righteous in Sherman’s march to the sea? I, then, ask Mr. Carey what was righteous in that institution upon which the South had built all of its ill-gotten wealth – American slavery! That institution which did so much to disintegrate family life among American negroes, which dishonored colored women and preserved that nothing was too foul or defamatory to be practiced upon the negro race.

Although the Buffalo branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was unable to prevent this slanderous film from being played here, it is indeed gratifying to detect from Morning‘s Mail the very fair and just attitude of enlightened Buffalo regarding the calamity of this distorted production. John Brent

Letter to the Editor Re: Birth of a Nation: Buffalo Morning Express, March 13, 1916 (film was released February 1915) NAACP staged protests across the nation –


The Friends of the Buffalo Story is involved in a yearlong project whose mission is to uncover and reveal the heritage-based stories of people who live along the Ferry Street Corridor. As part of this effort “The Friends” is working very closely with community-groups, who have been doing this work for many years. None has done this more effectively and diligently than the uncrowned queens institute for research & education on women, inc.

We are proud to be collaborating with them to bring you this ongoing feature during the month of February, which focuses on some of the “uncrowned community builders” who have done so much to strengthen the African-American community of Buffalo’s East Side.

Additional “uncrowned community builders” are as follows:

rev. j. edward nash – a legendary buffalo pastor

eva noles – nurse, historian, pioneer

Mary Lee Crosby Chappelle – Sage of the Ages

 

Written by Buffalo Rising

Buffalo Rising

Sometimes the authors at Buffalo Rising work on collaborative efforts in order to cover various events and stories. These posts can not be attributed to one single author, as it is a combined effort. Often times a formation of a post gets started by one writer and passed along to one or more writers before completion. At times there are author attributions at the end of one of these posts. Other times, “Buffalo Rising” is simply offered up as the creator of the article. In either case, the writing is original to Buffalo Rising.

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