Aaron Mossell Junior High School was dedicated Thursday on the city’s north end. Let that be the opening line of a new chapter in Lockport, not the closer.
The story, of course, is about this community coming to grips with a past — and a present — that is not all-glorious. For all its strengths in the present, among them safe neighborhoods, good schools, accessible local government and grassroots-woven safety nets to catch people when they’re falling, there’s a weakness here that can overwhelm any and all of those strengths. It’s the alienation of individual community members who’ve been made to feel that they don’t fit in, are not heard and understood, don’t belong, because they’re not in the majority color-, class- or ability-wise.
There may be no better role models for the alienated, and ultimately all citizens, than the Mossell family that lived, worked, learned and made change for the better in Lockport, and beyond, after the U.S. Civil War.
Aaron Mossell Junior High rests on the same plot of land that held its namesake’s Windsor Trowbridge brickyard. The local landmarks shaped by that Black-owned-and-operated business included the deluxe Commercial Hotel downtown, the still-standing A.M.E. Church on South Street and the old High Street School which, of course, Mossell’s children were not allowed to attend, even though the school was right across the street from their residence, because of their race.
Mossell and his adult son Charles, a minister, waged a five-year campaign to get the Lockport board of education to desegregate district schools, employing a boycott and a sit-in at the “colored” schools and eventually inspiring the board’s 1876 vote to integrate them all — although, Mossell’s great-granddaughter Rae Minter-Alexander relayed this week, that vote wasn’t a sign the local power structure had suddenly embraced human and civil rights, it was strictly about economy in the midst of growing hardship.
Even so, integration was, and still is, a major accomplishment in this community, and it wouldn’t have occurred when it did if not for the strength of character and the sterling values lived by Aaron Mossell and his descendants. Mossell instilled in his children the belief that a quality education was key to advancement in life and was worth fighting for. His children and grandchildren blazed trails in law, medicine and other scholarly fields and proved, are still proving, the patriarch’s point. That alone makes Mossell’s name worthy of underscoring on a Lockport school, especially the one that sits literally on his old brickyard.
Of course, there’s much more behind the renaming of North Park than just Mossell’s passion for education. Vince Davis, a member of two citizen committees that pushed the school board in recent years to give Mossell his proper due, noted at the Thursday dedication ceremony that Mossell’s “legacy is one of humility, honesty, creativity, integrity, inclusion, perseverance and accomplishment.”
As school renaming supporters have pointed out, the Mossell legacy offers inspiration and life lessons for every member of the community: Black, Brown, White, all ethnicities, all ages, all genders; and to that, this page adds, the alienated across the spectrum.
In advance of the dedication ceremony, Mossell Junior High Principal Bernadette Smith expressed her hope that one day “people will look back to this day … as a day the Lockport community reaffirmed their commitment to equality, to diversity and to celebrating our differences.”
It certainly could be that, if this community chooses to regard dedication of Aaron Mossell Junior High School as a beginning, not a denouement.