BUFFALO. N.Y. (WKBW) — Buffalo in the 1970s was a completely different place. The Aud was still the main home of the Buffalo Sabres, no one talked about tearing down the Buffalo Skyway, and some say discriminatory practices were still prevalent throughout the downtown area.
"It was always iffy if you got into the bar that night," Buffalo resident Robert Hariston said.
"If they allowed black people in, there would only be a certain amount of us," Buffalo native John Morrison adds. "And once that number was achieved, anyone after that caught hell trying to get in."
Hariston and Morrison are two African American men who spent a lot of their life in the city and each say navigating the city's nightlife was difficult for many reasons. Especially being a gay black man.
“It was really interesting," Morrison said. "I have a white friend and one day we came to the bar together. He was immediately allowed to enter the bar.” Morrison on the other hand, had to show a sheriffs card, drivers licenses, and board of registration card to get in. "And, because you were so frustrated by the experience you had at the door, it was never a good time anyways,” he adds.
Hairston and Morrison say inside the bars, DJs would purposefully play music that did not appeal to black people.
“Every now and then they’ll make a mistake and put on some music that we did like," Hariston said. "And once we all ran on the dance floor, they’d change the music.”
“Then the feeling of, why did I put myself through all of that to come in here to a place where you know you're not welcome," Morrison adds. "I thought this has to change. Someone, somewhere has to do something."
So in 1977, Hariston and Morrison filed a racial discrimination lawsuit against Mean Alice, a gay bar on Chippewa.
Morrison lost the case because the judge believed he looked younger than 18, he was 23. Hariston got a $500 settlement, but they say the practices at Mean Alice and other bars in Buffalo never changed. So, the two men created their own place, a space just for them.
“The beginning of Just Us was birthed out of the need to give black same gender loving men and women a space a place, an opportunity,” Morrison says.
“Just us is an offshoot of justice where there was no justice, and it was just us,” Hariston adds.
So in an historic move, blacks from all across western New York came together to dance, mingle, and meet people who looked just like them. In a place and a space where they were welcomed.
“You know it was like a big house party,” one participant said.
Just Us lasted for a few years and as the 90s rolled around, the same men who planned danced parties began to organize activist movements. Creating spaces where black men could meet and talk about things like solidarity and racism within the local gay community. Issues that mattered to them.
"If I had one regret," Morrison said. “I wish dozens of other of us would have done the same thing back then.”
Almost 50 years have passed since the events on Chippewa and today, both men say they are proud to have helped lay the foundation for change in Buffalo and a better life for themselves and their friends.