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Who The Hell Is Helping Around Here?
by David Buczek
Cynthia Van Ness works at The Buffalo History Museum all but hidden behind an overwhelming volume of documents and books on Buffalo’s history. Her job as Director of Library Archives at the Museum fits so well it’s as if the Museum was built for her. Why is she so important? For years Van Ness has personally researched and logged thousands of documents, photos and bits of information about the City of Buffalo, dating back to the early 1800’s and made them available online. The various renditions of her Buffalo history web site have been a treasure for anyone looking for historical information on the city’s people, buildings, and events.
She has also single handedly debunked several stated “facts” about Buffalo, such as the claim that black civil rights activist W.E.B. DuBois and the Niagara Movement met in Fort Erie in 1905 instead of Buffalo because of hotel discrimination. Van Ness located evidence showing Buffalo hotels were fully complying with a statewide anti-discrimination law passed in 1895. In addition, Du Bois’ writings showed that his plan was to find a quiet, out of the way location for the meeting, and that the Erie Beach Hotel satisfied that need. Van Ness has helped to rewrite the correct history of mistaken “facts” using all different forms of evidence, such as letters, manuscripts, and maps.
“I began working as a page for the Rochester Public Library when I was eighteen, after I had graduated from high school.” Van Ness knew immediately that she wanted to work in the library as her career. In 1994 she began working downtown at the local Buffalo Library. During her years there, she expanded her independent research into several different aspects of Buffalo. This includes real estate, maps, pictures, diaries, directories, and sites. After working there for a few years, she transferred into the Buffalo History Museum in 1997 where she took her research to a new level. The city of Buffalo was now at her finger tips.
“I always had a fascination with Buffalo,” said Van Ness, “but I really began doing research in 1995, when my husband and I tried to buy the McDonnell & Sons Monument Company at 858 Main St. I amassed a large binder of mentions of the family and business.”
The building originally was abandoned and left for sale by the City of Buffalo. When she inquired to purchase the property, Buffalo turned her away and told her that the building was not for sale. The building later would sold to and rehabilitated by Bernie Obletz only to later become part of a five-building development called Granite Works.
From 1995 on, the history of the city became “obsessive” to her as she began to dive into research. Van Ness worked on the board for Preservation Buffalo Niagara for a few years, and once her term ran out, decided to step down to continue with her research.
While at UB in the early 1990s, Van Ness developed a genealogy website. She was given web access by the college to post her research and in December 1993 roots.com was launched. It was the first genealogy site ever created on the internet (that web address is now an online clothing site).
This roots.com website was used as her main database to fill in several empty pockets of Buffalo’s history. Once on her feet, Van Ness created her own website that is currently called buffaloresearch.com. Van Ness pokes fun at the site saying, “ We entered the contest Worst Website sponsored by Luminous Media, and won.” The website is currently going through a massive overhaul to develop into a more smart phone compatible site. The simple site contains links to all of Van Ness’ research that she has done in her spare time.
One of Van Ness’ favorite pieces of Buffalo research is an old journal that was given to the History Museum. In the journal, Van Ness depicted photos of a group of friends who had vacationed together in the Adirondacks. Some of the journal entries and the photos suggest that there might have been homosexuality that had occurred between some of the friends. She thought of this as being extremely fascinating, especially considering that the photos dated back to the early 1900’s when being gay was not openly accepted.
Van Ness is currently working on Buffalo’s involvement with the Underground Railroad. She said that the railroad itself was not underground, and was not always in barns or churches. Often times people allowed ex-slaves into their homes, and into public areas in New York. Van Ness is closely working right now on a letter written by Frederick Douglass that is titled Underground Railroad in Active Operation. In this letter, Douglass writes openly that he is using public houses to move families into safety. The slaves are brought from Rochester, into Black Rock, Buffalo where they are then transported to safety in Canada. This piece of evidence is an important feature of Buffalo’s history. Not only was Buffalo one of the first cities to ban slavery, but also helped in the movement to abolish it. Van Ness is helping to create a more transparent and better understanding of how Buffalo changed the course of history for the United States.
This extraordinary woman has worked to develop new findings to further enhance Buffalo’s history, and has become the backbone of research on a national level for Buffalo, as well. As she comes into work each day at the History Museum, she continually drives herself deeper into the rabbit hole of Buffalo’s history. Working all hours of the day, work and her life have become one in the same. Currently, Van Ness lives on Norwood Avenue in Buffalo and is married with no kids. She enjoys spending time with her husband and is involved with several organizations. Van Ness clearly loves Buffalo but, she said laughing, she hates the “five foot high snow drifts” against her car.
The library at Buffalo History Museum is open to the public from Wednesday to Saturday from 1-5pm. For more information on Cynthia Van Ness, or the independent research that she has done, please visit www.buffaloresearch.com. For more history on Buffalo from the History Museum, you can visit www.buffalohistory.org or call 716-873-9644.
Cynthia Van Ness has a Master’s Degree in Library Science (1994) from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Buffalo, and a Bachelor of Arts in Art History from SUNY/Empire State College (1987).
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