“He was not only a patriot of his minority community, but of this city,” said Johnnie Mayo, who worked with him to found the BUILD Academy and later served as its principal for 15 years.
Bill Gaiter on The Freedom Wall, 2017—by John Baker—on the corner of Michigan Avenue and East Ferry Street.
Aerial view of William L Gaiter Parkway looking southeast, Courtesy University at Buffalo
For over a year, GObike has been working with community stakeholders in the neighborhoods surrounding the Scajaquada Creek Pathway and William L Gaiter Parkway. The project, dubbed ‘East Side Trails,’ was part of a local coalition of non profits that applied for and won $10M in funding from Clean Neighborhoods Challenge from New York’s Clean Transportation Prizes Program. What was once a feasibility and design study now has funding to commence construction. Designs will be revealed this spring, but the main charge is to repair, enhance, and maintain the walkway and bicycle paths, green space, trees, benches, and signage along the aforementioned paths. Traffic injuries and deaths in the city of Buffalo are dramatically higher in the districts surrounding East Side Trails, and this is part of an effort to collaboratively build safe, beautiful space for children and adults out walking, cycling, and rolling to move away from conflict with cars and trucks. East Side Trails are poised to be some of the most expansive and robust trail system in the entire city.
While working together with business owners, block clubs, artists, various non profits, and others, to develop these spaces, we have often focused on usage, connectivity, design, amenities etc. As we shift in historic trail markers and the community art that will be incorporated into the project, we’ve begun to dig into the history of the neighborhoods surrounding East Side Trails, especially William L Gaiter, the namesake of the massive parkway connecting Kensington Ave to East Delavan Ave.
Forever enshrined on the Freedom Wall at E Ferry St and Michigan Ave, Gaiter guided Buffalo’s Black community through some of its most difficult moments from the 1960s through the 1990s. As a leader in the fight for civil rights locally and nationally, he organized demonstrations, lawsuits, boycotts and more, going so far as to be arrested on occasion.
“We are not going to get anything from City Hall or Albany or Washington unless we fight.”
Uncrowned Community Builders is a project from the Uncrowned Institute for Research and Education on Women Inc. William Gaiter died in 1997, and Uncrowned Queens was formed in 1999. The organization featured Gaiter shortly afterward with this write-up, and here are a few highlights from it:
Consider that he became president of B.U.I.L.D. (Build Unity, Independence, Liberty and Dignity) on the day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1966. Those were some very dark and pressured days. Anyone in a leadership position in the African American community at that time had to walk a very fine line between the anger and the frustration the community felt and the reality that violence would not solve the American problem of racism. During that tragic day and the following weeks, cities all across the United States went up in flames.
During the time he was President of B.U.I.L.D., changes were sweeping through the Black community and B.U.I.L.D. was the catalyst of that change. Under Gaiter’s leadership B.U.I.L.D. confronted, demonstrated, picketed, and fought for a better community on all fronts. City Hall, the School Board, and the Police Headquarters all targets of change for the organization. Bill said “We are not going to get anything from City Hall or Albany or Washington unless we fight.” Out of that struggle came a variety of accomplishments that still is part of the Buffalo’s East Side community. B.U.I.L.D. Academy and the Juneteenth Festival represent a continuing legacy of Gaiter and B.U.I.L.D.’s efforts of the late sixties.
It is hard to imagine Buffalo within the yearly Juneteenth Festival. The festival has evolved into one of the premier summer events for all of Buffalo. If it wasn’t for Bill and other dedicated African American community leaders, this event would have never happened.
Hundreds of minority construction workers owe a debt of gratitude to the struggle of B.U.I.L.D. and other construction organizations that Gaiter helped to create or worked with to make sure that minority construction workers go their fair share of the work.
He struggled from the initial efforts to get minority workers hired at the University of Buffalo in 1968 to getting those jobs and obtaining construction contracts for minorities at the recent construction of Roswell Cancer Institute in 1996. Bill was in the middle of the struggle.
When famine spread over Ethiopia and the local television showed starving Ethiopian babies, he organized a fundraising effort to bring some relief to the victims of one of the world’s worst disasters.
Other organizations that he built or was affiliated with include the Buffalo Affirmative Action Program (BAAP) which was responsible for recruiting, training and unionizing minorities into the construction industry in Buffalo and vicinity. Bill developed a Behavior Counseling Program for high school students who were at risk of dropping out of school. Through WNY Council for African Relief (WYNCAR), he was the driving force that led to the adoption of the Malika Village in Senegal, West Africa and to the raising of over $75,000 to aid Malika and other African countries as well as the development of a student Exchange Program that helped over 500 American students visit and study the Senegalese culture. He served as President of The Institute for People Enterprises (IPE) which he organized in 1978. In 1984 he organized and chaired the Western New York Council for African Relations. He was also the Affirmative Action/EEO Officer for the Roswell Cancer Institute Re-modernization Project.
Bill was the recipient of numerous awards including the Buffalo Challenger Buffalo Citizen Award; Phyllis Wheatley Club, Certificate of Appreciation; Black Educators Association, Community Service Award; Buffalo Urban League, Evans-Young Humanitarian Award and many others. Mr. Gaiter served in many capacities to serve the community. Some of these positions include: Erie County Crisis Center, Board of Directors; City of Buffalo Manpower Planning Advisory Council; Cora P. Maloney, College Advisory Board; St. Augustine’s; Board of Directors; Sheehan Memorial Hospital, Board of Directors; Founding Board Member, Architectural and Environmental Planning Traineeship Program at SUNY-Buffalo; and others.
Besides being a community activist, Bill Gaiter was also a political strategist and organized. He was the Field Operations Coordinator in 1977 when Deputy Speaker Arthur O. Eve ran for Mayor of Buffalo. He coordinated a massive Voter Registration Campaign which registered a record 10,000 new voters. The Democratic primary turnout for that historic election was a startling 81%. That was the highest turnout in the history of the Northeast. He also put forth the same effort for Wilbur Trammel and George K. Arthur when they ran for Mayor.
After his sudden death in 1997, he was eulogized by The Buffalo News, which had at one time named him the News‘ “Citizen of the Year” and here are highlights from that piece:
A native of Anniston, Ala., Gaiter was a bus driver in Buffalo when the civil rights movement came into focus for him at a 1966 meeting of BUILD, the activist black federation of religious and community groups.
He said he attended the meeting in part out of guilt over events in Selma and throughout the South. Two years later in 1968 — the day after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — he became president of BUILD (Build Unity, Independence, Liberty and Dignity).
The organization persuaded the Buffalo Board of Education to establish the BUILD Academy as part of the public school system.
“The legacy of BUILD Academy is an awareness that organized people can make a difference,” Gaiter said in a Buffalo News article earlier this month.
“He could understand everybody’s position,” said Daryl Rasuli, who knew him for 20 years. “He was a calm person. He could at least get everybody to listen.”
Rasuli, who is the spokesman for the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority, said the community will miss Gaiter.
“He dedicated his life to the betterment of the community. I think it’s a terrible loss,” Rasuli said.
Despite reversals in the community, she added, Gaiter held to the belief that conditions could be improved with more work and leadership.
“He didn’t despair,” Mrs. Mayo said. “He felt that there was still hope.”
In 1970, Gaiter became executive director of BUILD, a post he held for eight years. He was instrumental in the development of BUILD’s halfway house and outreach recruitment center.
It was during his tenure, in 1975, when the Juneteenth Festival was started in Buffalo. Gaiter was joined by Claudia Sims and Judson Price in organizing the first festival.
Gaiter formed the Institute for People Enterprises in 1978, a support organization for community groups.
He was appointed Erie County’s equal employment opportunity coordinator in 1983, with duties involving monitoring and improving county hiring of minorities and the furthering of opportunities for minority businesses. He also headed a counseling program, STAR, Student Timeout for Academic Renewal.
In 1984, he formed the Western New York Council for African Relief to improve the quality of life in a selected African community and to develop cultural, economic and social ties between Africa and Western New York. He led a delegation to the Senegalese village of Malika to deliver money raised by 47,000 Buffalo school children.
Gaiter was recognized for his activities throughout his career. He was named a Buffalo News Citizen of the Year in 1988 and was the 1993 recipient of the Buffalo Urban League’s Evans-Young Award.
If you would like to contribute ideas or suggestions for history and cultural markers along the East Side Trails, we’d love to hear from you! Please email Kaden Shea at firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘EST History Markers’ or leave us a voicemail by calling (716) 222-3220.
If you’d like to get more involved with William L Gaiter Parkway, our friends at the Norfolk Block Club #1 will be holding their annual Plant the Parkway cleanup event at 10:00 AM on Saturday, May 20. Tools and supplies will be provided by the Tool Library, and no prior registration is required – we hope you’ll join us!