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Raymond Bass

He was born in Wilmington, NC. He is accomplished in the area of Business.
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Black participation in the history of Western New York would not be complete without acknowledging the contribution of the first African American building trades contractor; a man who was to expand the unionization of unskilled workers and to pioneer minority representation in the mainstream of organized labor.

Ray Bass was born in rural Wilmington, North Carolina in the early part of the 20th century during a period of severe economic and social repression of people of color. Wages in the rural south were less than a dollar a day. In addition to starvation wages, blacks were victims of Jim Crow laws, lynching and disenfranchisement. Though over fifty years had passed since the end of the Civil War, black peonage flourished, forcing countless thousands into hopeless debt and virtual bondage.

In the South, there were few educational opportunities available for poor blacks. But World War I had given them a great opportunity for industrial employment, and they migrated north in great numbers. Violence was occurring in both the North and the South, and the times presented a chance for southern blacks to escape Klan activity, mob rule, and lynching. The anticipation of work at wages higher than ever before imagined was also a great motivator for blacks to leave the South.

Hundreds of thousands of African Americans fled north to work in such industries as shipbuilding, meat packaging, steel and coal mining. They developed a collective self-respect and independence. Being paid a living wage helped to improve their quality of life and engendered a new pride born of self-confidence.

But in 1929, the stock market crash and the Great Depression saw them relegated back to their old position. They were the first to be fired and during this period of great suffering, they suffered the most grievously. Hundreds of thousands of families, both black and white, were forced to accept relief to survive. Occupations simply disappeared. Public soup kitchens were for whites only, and wages were reduced to starvation levels.

On the strength of hearsay that major highway construction was taking place somewhere in the Western New York area, Ray Bass and his wife migrated to Buffalo during the Depression. He applied for work at a construction site. When the foreman inquired about his skills, although he was not an experienced bricklayer, he replied that he could lay bricks. The foreman told him to report to work in the morning.

All that day, Ray watched the professional bricklayers ply their trade. The next morning he reported to work and as he later related it, "I laid bricks with the best of them." This proved providential to say the least. Bass has the distinction of being one of the first African Americans admitted into the building trades union in Western New York, at a time when minorities were being denied even the most menial jobs. Unknown to him at the time, it marked the beginning of a career that would earn him singular recognition.

He was bright, affable, and a hard worker and spent his free time in the construction site shack poring over blueprints. This amazed the site foreman who told him to buy a set of drafting tools and he would teach him how to use them. Ray proved an apt pupil. Late at night, he studied, trying to assimilate the information gained from his on-the-job training.

His quest for knowledge that would make him a true professional knew no bounds. He had a certain air of arrogance and good looks that precluded ever acting in a subservient manner. I was told that his manner led to many union hall fights for his demeanor was atypical for the times. Through his efforts, other minority workers were subsequently employed in construction, but no one, at the time, achieved his status.

Before he passed, a few years ago, he had founded one of the largest construction companies in metropolitan Buffalo. During his professional career, he supplied the brick masonry for Friendship Baptist Church, the St. Augustine's Center, the Sturgeon Point Pumping Station on Route 5, the Weinheimer Plumbing Company on Niagara Falls Boulevard, the North Tonawanda Fire Station and many of the homes in the Como Park area.

He completed the masonry work on Towne Gardens and the West Seneca State School. He erected the public school on Route 5 in Angola, Lincoln High School in Lackawanna, and in the early days, he helped complete the masonry work on the Liberty Bank Building in downtown Buffalo. But most significantly, he is responsible for African Americans being accepted as apprentices in the building trades and accepted as union members locally.

I realize how exceptional Ray Bass must have been to have created a kind of life that was antithetical to the grinding poverty experienced in the North and the South, and to have achieved the degree of success that he merited during a period when Northern attitudes toward minorities were hardly different from those in the South. In the middle of the Depression, he bought a prized possession, a brand new Nash automobile.

His was a quest for excellence. I have often wondered what he might have accomplished had he been the recipient of a formal education and equal opportunity. He was intelligent, caring and respected, and he made an important social contribution. He was my father.

Reprinted with permission of Capt. Marian Bass