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Peyton Harris

He was born in Richmond, VA. He was accomplished in the area of Community. He later died on 2-1-1882.
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One of Buffalo's most historic buildings, the Michigan Street Baptist Church (constructed between 1845-1849), is well-known for its association with the Underground Railroad and Buffalo's civil rights movement. Lesser known is its association with one of the most interesting members of Buffalo's nineteenth century African American community, Peyton Harris (1791-1882), who was a veteran of the War of 1812.

Harris was born on Christmas day, 1791 in Powhattan County, Virginia. During the War of 1812, Harris served in the 4th Regiment of Booth's Georgia Militia (Fort Hawkins Nov. 1814). After the war, he operated boats on James River. Harris moved to Buffalo about 1833 and became involved in the Erie Canal, owning and operating several canal boats. He purchased property on Michigan Avenue, residing at 379 Michigan, and later, at 515 Michigan. Harris was integral to the formation of the Michigan Street Baptist Church at and the time of his death (Feb. 1, 1882), he was deacon and trustee.

Harris was a businessman, owning and operating stores that were clothing and or dry cleaning businesses. In the Buffalo Directories, he is listed through the years as a tailor, dyer, cleaner.

The congregation that eventually became the Michigan Street Baptist Church began as a separate entity of Buffalo's First Baptist Church in 1836 formed to meet the needs of Buffalo African American community, beginning with just 13 members.

In the early 1840s the congregation made plans for the construction of a house of worship. They purchased the site on Michigan Street but had no funds to construct a church.

By 1844 adequate funds had been raised and construction began. At that time, Peyton Harris succeeded in obtaining all of the lumber, brick and stone for the erection of the building. The church's pastor, Rev. Samuel H. Davis, a mason by trade, performed the majority of the construction work himself. In June 1845, the cornerstone of the church was placed after which he spent approximately half of his time building the church and the other half administering to the needs of the congregation. Four years later, the building was ready for worship. The building was a simple structure constructed of brick with a limestone basement foundation.

The church that Harris helped to construct became more than just a house of worship. It also became the basis of a political stronghold for abolition and end to segregation, efforts in which Harris actively participated.

In 1838 a group of Buffalo's most influential African American citizens, which included at least four officers from the Michigan Street Baptist Church, published a statement protesting the "opprobrious epithets continually poured out against the colored citizens, and the contemptuous manner in which we are treated."

In 1841 the congregation met for the purpose of expressing their gratitude for the liberation of the Amistad captives." (The Amistad was a Spanish slave ship carrying African slaves to America. The slaves mutinied and took control of the ship. Eventually the ship was capture and the slaves arrested and held for trial. Following the intervention by abolitionists and a celebrated court case, the Africans were freed.)

In 1842 the Michigan Street Baptist Church adopted a resolution opposing slavery. African American abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Henry Highland Garnet, Martin Delany and others, made frequent stops in Buffalo to speak at anti-slavery gatherings. Although providing assistance to fugitive slaves was a violation of federal law, it was widely held that the Michigan Street Baptist Church was a station on the Underground Railroad. By the late nineteenth century, such stories had attained legendary status.

Members of the Michigan Street Baptist Church also participated as delegates to the National Convention of Colored Citizens. Until the beginning of the Civil War, Delegates from free African American communities throughout the North met to consider the plight of African Americans (slave and free), and to plan strategies to promote the uplift of African Americans.

In 1843 the National Convention of Colored Citizens was held in Buffalo. Michigan Street Baptist Church pastor Samuel H. Davis was elected Chairman of that convention. Henry Thomas, an officer in the Michigan Street Baptist Church, was appointed as one of two convention secretaries. Davis gave the opening address. In that address Davis gave a strong condemnation of both southern slavery and northern prejudice and discrimination.

In 1849 the National Colored Convention was held in Troy, New York. Peyton Harris was a delegate. Moreover, the convention elected Harris as one of three vice presidents.

Even after the close of the Civil War, Harris continued to fight for rights of African Americans. In 1870, he appeared before the Buffalo Common Council and Superintendent of Schools, attempting to end segregation for public schools. At the time, Buffalo African American children were limited to attending school at the Vine Street grammar school. Harris worked so that the children could attend any school in the City of Buffalo.

When Harris died in 1882, he was 90 years old and the oldest African American citizen in the region. He led an incredible life, serving the United States during the War of 1812 and then spending the rest of his life working to advance the living conditions of Buffalo's African American community.

The building that Harris helped to construct, the Michigan Street Baptist Church, stands as a reminder of his contributions to Buffalo.

The Michigan Street Baptist Church continued to be important and significant after Harris' death. His was
married to Rebecca. He was the grandfather of members of the Talbert family as his daughter married Robert Talbert. One of his grandsons was William H. Talbert. His granddaughter-in-law, Mary B. Talbert, was an important political activist during the twentieth century. In 1905 W.E.B. DuBois and other prominent African American leaders met at Mrs. Talbert's home near the church at 521 Michigan Avenue and adopted the resolutions that led to the founding of the Niagara Movement.

The original Michigan Street Baptist Church celebrated their final services in their church on 24 February, 1962. The following week, they began holding regular services in the former Humboldt Parkway Methodist Church. The building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1974.

Reprinted with permission: Christopher Brown; Updated by Barbara A. Nevergold, 2017.