Ellen Pauletta Peoples, Buffalo’s First Black Female Fire Fighter Retires After 26 Years of Service

by Nanette D. Massey                                                                           cover photo: leah hamilton

It was 1991 and a 5'4", 120 pound Ellen Peoples showed up for day one of her training as Buffalo's first Black female fire fighter. Her presence was a surprise to everyone, even her own parents. She hadn't told anyone in her family she was studying for the exam. Most surprised was her father, Conde Peoples, who was already one of the very few Black fire fighters in the city himself. His reservations subsided as he reminisced over his daughter's roughand- tumble upbringing. This would be the same fearless, sensible, brave woman charging into buildings, he thought to himself, and he had little to worry about.

Ellen grew up with brothers older than her. Having someone to play with meant keeping up with the boys, and she did so with gusto. She described herself as a real ashykneed, fence climbing, dirt under her fingernails tomboy. She was a fearless adventurer. Ellen went to Burgard Vocational High School, where she was one of only two girls in the entire school, and studied aviation mechanics. As a result, she was no stranger to being in an almost all male environment. After finishing at Buffalo State College, She knocked around town as a substitute teacher, waited tables, taught aerobics classes, and even did a four-year stint as a member of the Buffalo Jills cheerleading squad. In fact, it was her ambition to make it as a Cowboys cheerleader that moved her to Dallas, Texas. After a few years, it was her attachment to family that brought her back. It was the early 90's, yet Buffalo was still light years away from a sensibility that could even imagine a Black mayor. On top of being the first Black female, Ellen was only the 10th woman hired as a fire fighter. She knew there would be opposition wherever she went and vowed to be a professional no matter what, believing professionalism would trump all things in the end. Ellen explained that women in this profession had to make a decision early on about just being "one of the boys" or setting immediate boundaries. The fire houses were no strangers to off-color remarks, bawdy conversations, even pornography. One of her fire houses even had a tacit agreement with the neighborhood "working girls" that the house was eventually cited for.

"There is a fine line for women," she said, "and it's tough to draw." The same man she might have had to call to account for his behavior might be the same man she would need to count on later for a life-saving decision or a leg-up to her next position. Ellen’s mother encouraged her to start from the beginning demanding the respect she deserved as a woman co-worker. Ellen battled for a long time for lavatories for women. Of the nineteen houses open when she started, only six had anything resembling separated showering accommodations and commodes for women. A bathroom might seem like a small thing. For Ellen and other women it posed limitations such as choices for where they wanted to be stationed, overtime hours available to them, opportunities for advancement, not to mention just plain having a work environment where a woman can feel safe. Ellen took her concerns to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commision on more than one occasion. Other women were afraid to join their names to the action, and each time nothing moved forward.

Out in the field, Ellen's fierceness was never in question. She drew a fire call on her first night on the job. She remembered it was the night before Thanksgiving. Sent up to the top floor of a burning structure, she charged in ahead of her supervising officer. She knew she was being tested for hesitation or panic, and she jumped right in. They slapped her on the back and broke out the good beer to acknowledge her when they got back to the station. She exemplifies the benefit of diverse backgrounds among emergency response personnel by recalling that there were many instances where she was the only Black person on the scene.

Once they were summoned to a home where a young boy called because he smelled smoke. As soon as she and her White partner entered the house, Ellen recognized the smell of a hot comb against dry hair. The woman doing her hair was shocked the boy called 911 and began yelling at him out of panic. Ellen's partner wanted to call the police on the woman for her spirited outburst towards the boy, and the whole situation could have gone irretrievably sideways if it weren't for Ellen's own life long experiences in Black women's beauty salons. She was able to calm everyone involved down, and they left the home without a hot comb becoming the lead story on the six o'clock news.

Ellen would love to keep going, but a shoulder injury has put her on the sidelines. What she will miss most about the job is the active, hands-on involvement with her community. She usually lived in the same neighborhood as the station she worked in and was likely to personally know the people at the calls they were responding to. Ellen loved the visibility, the respect the uniform afforded, and the opportunity to use her visibility as an inspiration, encouraging everyone she engaged with to know that they too could make a difference in their respective communities.

The city sends Ellen Peoples off with a retirement party Thursday night at 6 p.m. at the Landmark On Pearl event facility at 318 Pearl Street in downtown Buffalo. Tickets are $45 and can be acquired at https://www.eventbrite. com/e/ellen-peoples-retirement-

Monument to Honor African American Veterans

 By Nanette D.Massey

Half the country is enmeshed in battles over the appropriate treatment of monuments to Civil War Confederates. At the same time the City of Good Neighbors is on the forefront of history by installing the nation’s first monument specifically honoring all Black veterans.

This Saturday, November 11th—Veterans Day--will see the formal announcement that the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park will house this first-of-its kind testament to the contributions of America’s African American enlisted. Honored will be veterans from every military branch and from every conflict since the nation’s birth.

"In war time we fight and die together, but in peace time the war continues only we die alone," says local Marine veteran Lance Corporal Willie Chillis, reflecting on the importance of such a monument and remembrance in general. "We should stand and live together so we can stand for the national anthem.

African American soldiers defend the country because it is their home and not just during wartime," Chillis, a case worker with the WNY Veterans Housing Coalition, adds. "I joined at 18 because I wanted to make a difference and I'm still serving because I rescue homeless veterans every day." Chillis also participates in color guard ceremonies for fallen African American soldiers as a member of the Jessie Clipper American Legion Post 430.

Vietnam era Air Force Veteran Warren Galloway chairs the African American Veterans Memorial WNY committee, the group spearheading the monument's realization. Warren adds "it's important for our young people to understand that we've always been a part of this, especially in the climate we're in now." The germination of the project occurred around 2014 when the Erie County chapter of The Links, an organization of influential professional Black women volunteers, commissioned a project to honor deceased area veterans.

The 2016 art installation "African American Veterans of WNY," currently housed in the public library at Jefferson and East Utica, was the result. People associated with the project later visited the new museum of African American culture in Washington, D.C. and were further inspired by the Military History Gallery on its third floor. State Assembly Woman Crystal Peoples-Stokes was brought into the loop and her efforts secured previously unavailable space at Buffalo's Naval Park.

Tolbert Says City-Wide Vote Critical to His Campaign for Sheriff

•Picks Up Endorsement from Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes and State Leaders

•Says Vicious Attack Ads from Howard Camp Absolutely False

                      Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes and Bernie Tolbert

                      Assemblywoman Peoples-Stokes and Bernie Tolbert

In his opening remarks during a press conference at his Jefferson Avenue headquarters last Wednesday, candidate for Erie County Sheriff Bernie Tolbert declared that after twelve years of Sheriff Tim Howard, “our community needs healing!.”

Pledging transparency if elected, he assured that his commitment would be to the people of Erie County and that citizens would have a sheriff’s department “they can look to with pride.” He later told The Challenger that the importance of the city-wide and community vote to his campaign on November 7th “can’t be overstated… it is absolutely critical” that voters go to the polls on November 7! The press conference was called to announce that Tolbert had received the endorsement for Sheriff from members of Erie County’s Democratic Delegation to the New York State Senate and Assembly including Senator Tim Kennedy, Assembly members Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Sean Ryan, and Monica Wallace. Standing with Tolbert at the endorsement announcement, Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples- Stokes spoke on Tolbert’s character and qualifications and repeated the importance of getting the vote out.

“It is an honor to be here to support Bernie for Sheriff,” she said. Alluding to Howard’s dysfunctional reign she continued, “the best way to fix the problem (in the Sheriff’s Department) is to get a new Sheriff!” adding, “This is one of the most important races of the year.” “There is no doubt that based on his experience with the FBI and his background in international security management, Bernie Tolbert will remove the stain of Sheriff Howard’s failed leadership from our community, and restore pride and professionalism to the sheriff’s office,” said Peoples- Stokes. Citing his passion for justice and service, she added, “Bernie will be a tremendous asset to the residents of Erie County as sheriff.”

Acknowledging the NYS Democratic legislator’s endorsements, Tolbert spoke of the need for Erie County to identify the destructive mismanagement of Sheriff Howard’s administration and ways to prevent such damaging management in the future. “I am honored to have the support of our Democratic state delegation of outstanding leaders and public representatives. When elected sheriff, I will look to partner with them in creating a safer county for all of our citizens, and engage them in reaching out to the State Attorney General and the State Commission on Correction to request state hearings into the condition of the jails and hold those hearing here in Erie County where our community can participate directly..” -Denies False Claims in Vicious Attack Ads from the Howard Camp- Under current US law truth matters in commercials, but unfortunately not in political ads! Last week Tolbert flatly denied the ads currently running accusing him of sexual harassment in the past.

He released the following statement earlier in his in campaign in reference to that issue: "Tim Howard’s ad is classic political dirty tricks. It is utterly false. It is part of a pattern of disinformation, and misdirection that has characterized Tim Howard’s management of the sheriff’s office. He desperately wants to hide his appalling record: 22 unexplained deaths in the jails under his leadership; 700 overdose deaths in the county since 2015; a record-setting murder rate this year; and a toxic political environment made worse by Howard’s speeches to rallies of racists, bigots, and extremists. “Howard’s ridiculous attack ad,” continued Tolbert, “includes a number of untruths including that I was involved in a sexual harassment suit at the NBA several years ago. Erie County residents and voters should know this is a lie pure and simple. I have never been the subject of such a charge. Tim Howard’s toxic politics of lies and hate have no place in our county.”

The Power And Potential Loss Of The Black Vote in Buffalo!

Despite being the second biggest city in the state, and despite Democrats being the biggest political party in the City on Buffalo, the trend suggests fewer people are exercising their right to vote. A little less than 26,000 democrats turned out to cast a ballot in Buffalo’s mayoral primary. That's not quite a quarter of the party regulars coming out to vote. Of particular concern is the youth vote.

By Betty Jean Grant

On Wednesday, September 20, 2017, We Are Women Warriors group will host a Community Political Empowerment Seminar where we will encourage young voters to get registered before the November General Election. The position of Erie County Sheriff is on the ballot. I don't need to tell any of us in the minority community how critical it is that a new Sheriff with compassion and who is fair minded, be elected. The meeting will be at the Frank E. Merriweather Library Wednesday, Sept. 20 and it will begin at 5:30 P.M. Panelists and speakers include Charley H. Fisher, Katrinna Martin-Bordeaux, Eva M. Doyle, Duncan Kirkwood, George K. Arthur, India Walton and a representative from the Buffalo Branch of the N.A.A.C.P. For more information, please contact Betty Jean Grant@ 602-5877 or Esther Smothers @ 697- 6034.

-Primary Election Day Reality- For those voters under 34 years old, the polling sites on Primary Election Day were a lonely place to be, especially if they were looking for their voting peers to be in attendance. In some election districts, there were no voters who were 18, 19 and 20 years old who cast a single vote for their empowerment or for the countless lives lost by those of our ancestors, who wanted to vote and sometimes died or were killed trying.

What is it about voting that causes so many young people not to participate in the elections? Do they not care that by not voting for a candidate of their choice they are, in effect, voting for the candidate they don't want to win? This is a lesson that was not learned by the anti-Obama administration, Republican voters. But with Barack Obama becoming the nation's first African American President, they were ready for us, him and the congressional elections of 2010. I believe that was the year that we lost control of the US House of Representatives. It was also around this same time that Donald Trump and other racist persons and groups began the 'Birther' campaign against the President. And I was around this time that people like Steve Bannon of the Alt Right magazine and movement began to mobilize the ultra right, White supremacists, KKK, Nazi and other White nationalist groups to start a 'One-Term President' Barack Obama campaign. It failed to work in 2012 but they were good and ready for whomever won the US Presidential Democratic nomination in 2016. The fact that Hillary Clinton was a strong supporter of Barack Obama and also a female made the effort of trying to remove the legacy of the first African American President all the more critical for them, for they indeed wanted to return to the 'Jim Crow' and segregated policies of old and “Make America White again!”

Youths in Buffalo, especially African American and Latina youths, are hired last for almost every job; arrested about 10 times quicker for the same offense committed by a European youth; are prosecuted and sentenced to jail time more frequently and for longer periods of time. And yet when they can actually do something about their plight, they choose not to participate in their redemption but run to us and complain about how unfair the system is to them.

There were two positions for judgeships on the ballot and three candidates ran for the seats, but those future lawbreakers who will appear before these two judges did nothing politically to ensure that when and if they do have to appear in a court of law, fair minded judges will be there to ensure their impartially! The 'Greatest Generation' for voting consistently are the senior citizens in their 60s and older. They vote in every primary and general election. They are the ones whose fathers and uncles were lynched, whose grandmothers was technically raped by the overbearing sharecropping 'Master' who replaced the Plantations' Slave masters of a few generations past.

Frederick Douglass eloquently declared," Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will." We can no longer expect those who look like us to always represent us fairly, unashamedly and to fight for issues that may impact minorities. We can no longer leave the health and vitality of our community and its people to those who might not do the right thing. We (I am talking about the young; the older generation received and acted upon the message long ago) can no longer expected our leaders to be led by conscious because too many of them are led by those with the fattest wallets.