What’s in a name? the legacy of smitherman
Andrew Jackson Smitherman (1885-1961) founded the Buffalo Star newspaper in the 1930s later renamed the Empire Star in 1960s during the period the renown internationally acclaimed local African-American novelist Ishmael Reed first honed his writing skills as a teenager growing up on the East side of Buffalo.
Smitherman began his journalism career after earning his law degree from the La Salle University Extension School. He started in the newspaper business at the Muskogee Cimiter in 1908, later in 1911, creating his own newspaper the Muskogee Star in Oklahoma. In 1913, he moved to the Greenwood District of Tulsa where he established and created the Tulsa Star. During this period from 1909 until 1920, he assumed a leadership role in the Western Negro Press Association, later vice-president and president of the Associated Negro Press. He left Tulsa in the aftermath of the infamous Tulsa Riot and Massacre in 1921, settling in Boston and Springfield, Massachusetts before moving to Buffalo in 1925. Smitherman lived at 310 Purdy Street on the East side of Buffalo according to African-American Buffalonians who remember him in interviews on the Uncrowned Queens website. Founders of Uncrowned Queens, Dr. Peggy Brooks-Bertram and Dr. Barbara Seals Nevergold are scheduled to appear at the Buffalo Book Fair on July 11.
Our own famous writer Ishmael Reed started his writing career at the Empire Star Weekly before he left town for New York City in 1962. He wrote in the Empire Star from 1960 to 1962. Reed and Joe Walker, both edited the Star and wrote “the whole paper,” co-hosting “Buffalo Community Roundtable,” a politically radical and formally innovative show on radio station. The radio canned the program after Reed interviewed Malcolm X for the radio program. Remarkably Ishmael Reed started writing a jazz column for the Empire Star at age 13. Hear Ishmael Reed and poet Al young on a New School video on Cave Canem Influences in Black Literature.
I met Ishmael Reed (and his lovely wife Carla Blank, a dancer, musician, choreographer and scholar ) a few times when he came to Buffalo as a writer for the Harlem Book Fair in Buffalo now the Buffalo Book Fair. Also, at Buffalo State College where he lectured to students afterwards we had dinner at Gigi’s on the East Side, later I drove him to his mother’s house in the University District . I reviewed his CD For All We Know (2007) with the Ishmael Reed Jazz Quintet for the Buffalo Challenger, a newspaper he still writes for from his home in California.
Still, I’m puzzled why is one of the most important American writers of this century raised in Buffalo educated here from elementary school through college is hardly known among the youth of the city or is there any site in the city to honor Ishmael Reed who grew up in this town since age 4 after the family moved from Chattanooga, Tennessee in 1938?