In Remembrance of Christine Ann Castro Parker
Wednesday, July 24, 2019
In Remembrance of Christine Ann Castro Parker (June 28, 1959-July 11, 2019)
It truly is tragic when the life of a passionate, creative person is abruptly cut short. And yet, Christine Ann Castro Parker accomplished a great deal during the last decade of her life. Crissie, as she was known to her family and friends, became my student at SUNY Buffalo State in 2012—and in only a few years she blossomed into an enthusiastic researcher and champion of Buffalo’s first African American architect, John Edmonston Brent (1889-1962). Her life and accomplishments are an inspiration, especially to young women of color in pursuit of their dreams.
Inspired by the election of President Barack Obama, Crissie returned to school at the age of 50 and earned an Associate Degree in Arts and Humanities from Erie Community College by 2012. That fall, she became an undergraduate student in my museum studies class on curatorship at SUNY Buffalo State. She also was studying with Felix L. Armfield, a professor of history and social studies education who served as associate director of the Monroe Fordham Regional History Center and was a member of the African and African American Interdisciplinary Studies Unit. We mentored her and dissuaded her from dropping out when the work seemed overwhelming. Unbelievably on April 20, 2014, Dr. Armfield died catastrophically in a fire. His passing touched us deeply; but Crissie believed he communicated with her from beyond and appeared in her dreams. Less than a month later, in May 2014, Crissie earned a Bachelor of Arts in History and received a history honors society award.
But before Professor Armfield’s passing, we started her on the hunt for information about John E. Brent. It all started in 2013, when SUNY Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus Edward O. Smith, Jr., invited me, Felix, and a few others to view blueprints by John Brent that had been uncovered in Buffalo City Hall that showed he had designed gates for the Buffalo Zoo’s Entrance Court. The only other clues we saw included a 3x5 card with a reference to the Michigan Avenue YMCA, which had subsequently been demolished. We immediately thought this would be a great subject for further research and, eventually, an exhibition. I told Crissie I had the perfect project for her if she applied to the museum studies program in the graduate school. I showed her copies of the landscape architecture drawings we had seen, and she was hooked. It took a few years—but we made it happen.
Crissie received a SUNY Buffalo State Graduate Diversity Fellowship in 2014 and The Edward O. Smith, Jr. Scholarship Fund Award in 2015 to assist her graduate studies. She searched far and wide for primary documentation, even traveling to Brent’s native Washington, DC, where his father had been an architect, to visit The Founders Library at Howard University, designed by Louis E. Fry, Sr. John Brent had been one of “a group of black architects who, because of the Depression, had been laid off from their work with the school department of New York City” and assisted Mr. Fry with architectural drawings.
Among John E. Brent’s most significant architectural designs is the Michigan Avenue Branch Y.M.C.A. (1928), which was his first large commission in Buffalo. He was the second African American architect in the United States to design a YMCA. In addition to his architectural engineering and design accomplishments, Brent became the first president of the Buffalo Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on November 30, 1914.
In addition to her Independent Study work, Christine took my course “Researching and Presenting Museum Collections” in Spring 2015, which provided fundamentals for the next steps. I became the principle advisor for her master’s degree project. Her research was fundamental to our co-curating the exhibition, Through These Gates: Buffalo’s First African American Architect, John E. Brent that was held at the Burchfield Penney Art Center from October 9, 2015 through March 27, 2016. She connected with members of Brent’s family, who lent critical historic artifacts, and the City of Buffalo lent Brent’s original park and zoo drawings from when he worked with landscape architect Roeder J. Kinkel. Due to budgetary constraints, our alternative to an exhibition catalogue was a co-authored short condensation of her thesis published as an article in Western New York Heritage Magazine in Fall 2015.
As she struggled with the rigors of academic writing, Chrissie channeled her creativity via another medium to create a “mini-documentary” titled “Through These Gates.” This 20-minute video was written and co-produced by Christine A. Parker and local television journalist Sandy White at Mustard Seed World Productions, who directed the video crew, TVRE Productions, Inc. They utilized the talents of many Western New York professionals, including Aaron Moss, assistant professor of theater, SUNY Buffalo State, who played Brent in historical reenactments. Others provided context for this time of segregation when Brent was still able to contribute to the landscape, culture, and socio-political development of Buffalo and the surrounding region. Among the people who appear in interviews are Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, SUNY Buffalo historian and author Lillian Serece Williams, Ph.D., and Uncrowned Community Builders co-founder Dr. Barbara Seals Nevergold. The video’s title “Through These Gates” refers to the Buffalo Zoo’s Entrance Gates 3 and 4, which were placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. They were literally Crissie’s childhood connection to Brent, which motivated her commitment to tell the story of John E. Brent’s professional contributions, social advocacy, and distinguished life of service as a leader in the African American community. “Through These Gates” premiered at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, and later shown at the North Park Theatre, the Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, and other venues.
With these laudable accomplishments, Christine A. Parker earned her Master of Arts in Museum Studies from SUNY Buffalo State in August 2016. Her thesis will be viewable on Digital Commons on September 1, 2019. However, Crissie did not rest on her laurels. She established the Sankofa Heritage Collective, Inc. in 2015 with the intention of promoting the African American and Caribbean cultures that formed her personal roots. She shared her experiences and knowledge at conferences, schools, and libraries. Last November, she gave presentations to two of my museum studies classes. Preservation Buffalo Niagara assisted her in creating a traveling exhibition of panels about Brent’s achievements for display in area venues, and earlier this year presented her with a 2019 Preservation Leadership award.
What an exceptional woman! We will miss Crissie; but are assured that the legacy of Christine Ann Castro Parker will serve generations to come.
Burchfield Scholar, Head of Collections, Charles Cary Rumsey Curator, Burchfield Penney Art Center & Burchfield Penney Instructor of Museum Studies, SUNY Buffalo State