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Sun., Oct. 4
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African-American church leader reflects on importance of Martin Luther King Jr.


William E. “Buster” Crabbe, 78, remembers watching Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech on Aug. 28, 1963, on a television inside a Watertown restaurant.

The 78-year-old, who last fall helped reopen Thomas Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church on Morrison Street, couldn’t recollect the name of the now-defunct eatery. But he does remember the way his spirit was lifted by Dr. King’s speech.

“He wasn’t just speaking for one group of people, but for everyone,” said Mr. Crabbe, a congregation member since 1985 at the Church, which was closed two years before it reopened last fall. Built in 1909, it’s the oldest African-American church in the north country.

Dr. King “served up what I wanted him to that day. He was a hero to me,” Mr. Crabbe said.

The Harrisburg, Pa., native was stationed as a soldier at Camp Drum from 1962 to 1965 after serving in the Korean War. Though segregation was prominent in the South during the 1960s, he said, the north country seemed somewhat removed from the intense racial tension during the Civil Rights movement led by Dr. King. Discrimination against African-Americans existed here, he said, but acts of discrimination were mostly hidden by the cloak of civility.

For example, experiences of black people being turned down for jobs for which they were qualified were commonplace, he said. After he was discharged from the Army in 1965, Mr. Crabbe applied to become a police officer for the city of Watertown by sending his application in the mail. To this day, he is convinced the department deliberately ignored his application because of his skin color.

Although the application was sent before the deadline, he said, “They said they didn’t get it. And when I went there in person to apply, they said I was too late. I should have delivered it in person to begin with.”

Young people today need to be reminded of efforts made by Dr. King to end segregation in the South, where blacks were banned from restaurants and forced to sit in the back of buses, Mr. Crabbe said. Teaching children about African-American history has always been a key part of the mission at the church, which hosts services at 5 p.m. every Sunday. Services are led by the Rev. Daren C. Jaime, who also leads People’s AME Zion Church in Syracuse.

Mr. Crabbe leads Sunday school lessons for children in the church basement, where the Henry R. Barr Community Learning Center is located. The room pays homage to Mr. Barr, an African-American businessman who built the church in 1909, and includes a wealth of black history. Its walls are lined with photographs of prominent black historical figures, along with information about how past congregation members traveled to Watertown via the Underground Railroad. A projector is set up for children to watch instructional films.

During lessons, Mr. Crabbe teaches children about how black leaders such as Dr. King fought for and earned equal rights over the course of American history.

“I want kids to realize that he strived to give blacks the rights they deserve — freedom to work, and equal rights to employment, education and churches,” Mr. Crabbe said. “It bothers me when kids say they don’t know about these things. But at the end of the program they do.”

Mr. Crabbe and the Rev. Mr. Jaime, meanwhile, are focused on expanding the church’s congregation and making a laundry list of repairs necessitated by years of neglect. The church needs a new roof and numerous exterior and interior repairs. It flooded multiple times over the winter and has a leaky roof that is more than 20 years old.

Hosting fundraisers and applying for grants will be needed to accomplish that maintenance work, Mr. Crabbe said.

“There are Irish and Italian festivals here in Watertown, but we’d like to have a big event here to recognize black history,” he said. “That’s one of my personal goals, and I think a lot of community leaders would support it.”

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