In the early 1900s, two of the biggest figures in African American politics were Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois, and both men have historic connections to local pastor Rev. J. Edward Nash and his ministry at the Michigan Avenue Baptist Church on Buffalo’s East Side.
The legacy of Rev. Nash is on full display at his former residence in the Nash House Museum, which is located at 36 Nash Street in Buffalo, around the corner from the historic church.
Born, raised and college-educated in Virginia, a 24-year-old Nash accepted the offer of ministry at the Michigan Avenue church in 1892 because of its historic connection to the Underground Railroad. Nash’s presence and influence in the local African American community led to him becoming a popular and respected figure, with a reputation that stretched far beyond Buffalo. He was instrumental in bringing branches of both the Urban League and the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) to Western New York.
For 32 years, Rev. Nash was secretary of the Ministers Alliance of Buffalo, an influential interracial religious organization. In this role and others, Rev. Nash was able to battle injustice and advocate for various members of his community.
Through his tireless local work, Nash gained statewide and national acclaim. In 1910, his reputation led to him serving as host for a visiting Booker T. Washington. Just 9 years earlier, Washington became the first African American invited as a guest to the White House, dining with President Theodore Roosevelt in October 1901 – just one month after Roosevelt’s inauguration on Delaware Avenue in Buffalo.
Some history books describe Washington as an accomodationist, someone who argued that Black people should temporarily accept crushing discrimination measures and focus on advancing their rights though economic gains. Put very simply, Washington argued that collective prosperity was the path to equality, and not political turmoil and confrontational activism.
As you can probably imagine, many Black folks were not on board with this philosophy and a more activist parallel movement at the time was being led by W.E.B. Du Bois, the primary political rival of Washington. Du Bois favored Black activism and education over accommodation. Du Bois was also somewhat of an elitist, arguing that college-educated Black men should put aside personal interests and fight for equality. This position became known as the Talented Tenth, a term coined by white liberals that said 1 in 10 Black men were capable of earning a college education.
These contrasting (and somewhat problematic) philosophies could both be found within the ministry of Rev. Nash. Nash did formally host Washington for a speaking tour of Buffalo, but his parishioners were instrumental in hosting an iconic meeting led by Du Bois.
In 1905, DuBois held a meeting across the river from Buffalo, in Fort Erie, that would set the stage for the Niagara Movement. This highly activist movement would go on to become the NAACP. This historic meeting is said to have been held in Fort Erie to keep it secret from local supporters of Booker T. Washington.
The political intrigue surrounding two competing ideologies under the same church roof resonates in the Nash House today, and Sharon Holley, president of the board for the Michigan Street Preservation Corporation (MSPC), recently told Step Out Buffalo about a bit of the oral history around the meetings in Fort Erie.
“There are some stories out there that say, they wanted to meet in a Buffalo hotel, but were not allowed,” she told us in a recent phone call. “Then, there are other stories that say DuBois wanted to meet at a resort where he could relax, and that’s why they chose the hotel in Fort Erie.
“There was a lot of things in the newspapers about who was on who’s side. Some of the papers said Booker T. was sending people into the meetings W.E.B. DuBois held to see what they was talking about.”
Early 19th-century politics was just one aspect of the life of Rev. Nash and you can glimpse the life of this towering local icon at the Nash House. Described as a time capsule, the house features pristinely preserved personal quarters and Nash’s study. A typewriter, victrola and other furnishings are all typical of pre-World War II era Buffalo. Undisturbed papers and books offer a window into the thoughts of Rev. Nash on a wide range of topics.
Due to the on-going COVID-19 situation, the Nash House can be visited in person and reservations are recommended due to social distancing concerns. There is more info regarding tours and other historic sites in the Michigan Street African American Heritage Corridor. As the entity that owns the house, the MSPC has been vital in redeveloping and restoring the Nash House and other aspects of the historic corridor.
In speaking about that herculean restoration effort, Holley largely credited community advocate George K. Arthur, who recently passed away.
“He was a major force in establishing the Nash House Museum, through vision for what the house would become – a historic place on Buffalo’s East Side,” she said. “So, since his transition we’re still trying to continue that mission and follow up with what we can. We can’t walk in his shoes, they’re too big.”
This post was originally published in 2021 and has been updated.