When Adrienne Massey heard that there was a shooting at Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, New York, she was hoping her aunt, Katherine Massey, knew what was going on. The store, on Jefferson Avenue, was less than five minutes from her house, in one of the Blackest areas in town. As the only major grocery store in the neighborhood, it was the place she often went to buy fresh food. What Adrian didn’t realize at the time was that her aunt was already inside of the grocery store.
“I never thought something like this would happen so close to home,” Adrienne Massey said. “When we found out she was in Tops, you think in your mind ‘Nah, it can’t be.”
On 14 May, an 18-year-old white gunman radicalized by online white supremacist networks walked into the Tops Grocery store on Buffalo’s East Side and shot and killed 10 Black Americans, including Katherine Massey. He has since pleaded guilty to domestic terrorism as a hate crime, murder and attempted murder, charges that come with a mandatory sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole. It’s yet another painful chapter in American history, and has renewed calls for restricted access to guns and increased urgency around combating white supremacy.
But the Tops massacre also reignited conversations about food insecurity and food access in Black communities. The closure of Tops in the immediate aftermath of the shooting left the community – already classified as a food desert – with even fewer options than before. But even as the Tops reopened in July, Buffalo residents have started to pick up the shattered pieces – and are reimagining and rebuilding their food systems with a focus on justice and community.
“We decided, either we figure it out right now, or, this is never going to change,” said Dakarai Singletary, founder of the local non-profit Candles in the Sun. “This is the most togetherness I’ve seen. We’re really trying to be a community, hold each other all accountable, and think about the wellness of our community by simply trying to make sure our community is OK.”
A Buffalo native with extensive roots in volunteerism dating back generations, Singletary founded Candles in the Sun in 2019 to serve the Buffalo’s underserved youth, most of whom are Black and Latino. In the fall, just months after the shooting, Singletary stood on the front lawn of Ike and BG’s, a soul food restaurant that he partners with to bring food and resources to underserved communities. As part of a monthly resources drive known as the “Stop and Shop”, he and his team were offering bagged household resources like tissue, detergent and soap.
Singletary’s efforts run the gamut – mentorship, food service, local activism – food has become a centerpiece of the organization, and of Black Buffalo’s recovery efforts. On any given weekend, Singletary might be handing out plums during halftime at high school football games, or stacking canned goods, or delivering meals to local senior citizens.
Sometimes he works with Steven Butler, the current owner who took over Ike and BG’s from his parents, to prepare deeply seasoned plates of barbecued chicken, baked macaroni and cheese, and collard greens for Black residents who appreciate a hot meal that’s relevant to their culture. For years, Butler and Singletary have watched Buffalo’s Black residents struggle with access to quality groceries and meals.
“We can’t keep just stacking poverty on top of poverty,” Butler said. “Whether it’s jobs or retail stores, or food stores, bringing this [successful Black-owned businesses] here allows the Black community to see something other than what they’ve been seeing.”
On 13 August 1843, writer and abolitionist Frederick Douglass spoke at the National Convention of Colored Citizens, a gathering of esteemed Black leaders in the US. Standing at what was then Court House Park on Washington Street, Buffalo, Douglass delivered fiery calls to actions, and advocated on behalf of freed and enslaved African Americans. Nearly 200 years later and less than three miles away from where Douglass made his speech is Tops, the site of one of more than 600 mass shootings in the US during 2022.
Buffalo is one of the most racially segregated metropolitan cities in the country. Black people account for more than 35% of Buffalo’s population, about 85% of whom live east of the city’s Main Street. Like many cities across the US, between the 1940s and 1980s, zoning laws and intimidation kept a growing population of Black Americans away from suburban home ownership on the city’s West Side, effectively creating a color line and exacerbating segregation. Buffalo natives say that, long before the shooting, the city’s East Side has only become more impoverished, more neglected, and increasingly undervalued. This sort of inequality is perhaps most visible within the city’s food systems.
East Buffalo has long been considered a food desert, areas with less access to fresh produce, leaving many locals to rely on corner stores or having to drive to whiter parts of town to buy food. For years activists and community leaders like Massey had to nearly beg the city and retailers to put a fully operational grocery store in the community, in contrast to the city’s West side, which has a range of grocers like Wegman’s Price Right and Tops. On the East Side, the Jefferson Avenue Tops has been open for at least 20 years or so – where it was the sole full-service grocery store in the area – and many residents, including scholar and historian Psyche Williams-Forson, remembers the store as a centerpiece of the community.
“I grew up in Buffalo and Tops was our market; that was our grocery store,” says Williams-Forson, professor and chair of the department of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park.
Like many Black natives and residents, Williams-Forson lived within five minutes of the grocery store. Williams-Forson has written extensively about food access in Black communities, has advocated for more affordable shopping options – such as general or dollar stores and corner markets – in Black communities.
Noting the Jefferson Tops’ inclusion of culturally-relevant items, such as Black hair products, Williams-Forson says the Tops “cemented itself a hub,” for Black residents. While there was a place where people could largely get what they needed, it being the only place – while white residents had numerous options – was still a form of inequity. (The neighborhood has several immigrant-owned shops, but longtime Black residents have said that they often don’t carry the products that they need or that they’re not welcoming spaces for them.)
“This should have been a wake-up call for a lot of policymakers – because there’s some folks, elderly and otherwise – who will never be able to go back to that space, because their loved one was violently murdered,” he said.
“In a perfect world, after an event like this, we will say, ‘Oh, wait a minute, we’ve been neglecting these people, and treating them not treating them as whole human beings,’” Wilbert Green II, a director of school and community partnerships at Canisius College and a product of Buffalo’s public schools, said. “That’s why this young man felt so comfortable coming into our community and killing elders.”
After a few sleepless nights following the shooting, Singletary started making plans. He knew the Massey family; he knew some of the victims’ friends and family members; he knew Buffalo. And more than anything, he knew that this couldn’t be the end of the city’s story. Singletary tried channeling his grief and anger into action, and increased volunteerism in the nonprofit.
At the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Bills arena, Singletary runs Heroes Kitchen, which aims to teach children how to cook. A weekly event, Singletary recalls making tacos with a group of kids, roasting the cumin seeds all the way down and adding red pepper, salt and black pepper to make their own taco seasoning. They made banana pudding and Rice Krispies for sweet treats, and have also made Alfredo pasta sauce and a baked mac and cheese finished with a custard sauce instead of a cheese sauce.
“We’re teaching them soft skills through the process of cooking,” says Singletary. “While learning how to make your own food, you’re learning patience, you’re learning timing, you’re learning critical thinking. It’s really expanding their entire thought process of culinary work.”
He connected with Ike and BG’s to host Stop and Shops. The restaurant also prepares packaged hot meals, which Singletary will deliver to seniors in need. He also does grocery store runs for these same elders and adults with special needs, working to stop the cycle of food insecurity in vulnerable populations. Singletary recreated the Black fish fry – an enduring tradition in Black communities across America – a version of which the Tops location on Jefferson had recreated weekly for its largely Black customers. Just after the shooting, Candles in the Sun purchased hundreds of fish and hosted fish frys for several weeks in a row. “That was a big thing for folks, and I didn’t want people to have that part of their week taken away,” he said.
The organization also takes children to Senek Farms, about 30 miles north of Buffalo, where they get to learn about the farming process, and plant and pick their own produce. He connected with coaches at Black high schools, many of which are understaffed and under-resourced, and began coming out with some of his team to slice fruit and hand out healthy snacks to the players, offering mentorship and encouragement alongside a few apple slices or Mount Royal plums.
And Singletary isn’t the only one doing this kind of work in the community. Feed Buffalo, a Black woman-owned, halal food pantry, helps vulnerable residents – particularly those who are Muslim – access quality food. And Buffalo’s West Side Bazaar, serves as an incubator for the city’s new, immigrant-owned food businesses.
It is important to provide healthy food to Black Americans in underserved communities, says Singletary, who wants to undo the message that the community has been sent that they are undeserving of the same sort of care and value that white people in the city receive.
“People always look down on people that are less fortunate, and always try to give them less because they feel like they are less. I’ve always wanted to change that narrative.”
For Singletary, this work is less about what happened at Tops, and more about fighting for the future. But he says that doing that work requires a deep reflection on that tragic day. Reopened in July, much to the chagrin of many residents who felt it was either too soon or should solely be a memorial, Tops now has a new coat of paint and fluorescent lighting to demonstrate an attempted new chapter.
But the rapid opening, which some like Adrienne Massey saw as essential to bringing real food access back to locals, has led to a store that feels more like a site of historical, unimaginable horror, rather than a place to leisurely shop for fruits and grains.
Green says it speaks to a community forced to choose between two needs: access to food and supplies, and time to grieve and heal, and redesign a grocery store on their terms.
“The Tops massacre was just another punch in the darkness that Black people in Buffalo have felt,” said Greene. “To me, it is the perfect descriptor of the lack of powerlessness that the Black community has.”
And, for Singletary, it’s why the work is so important.
“Moving forward, people will probably become more sufficient,” Singletary said. “We’ve stopped relying on systems to take care of us. We can take care of ourselves and save our own neighborhoods, and not have to rely on others to come from the outside and do better for us.”
Massey hasn’t returned to the store and has no plans to anytime soon. A memorial fountain indoors draws attention to the tragedy with no mention of victims. Outside of the store, to the right, a mural painted in shades of blue that remembers the 10 victims overlooks the city. Along the exterior, candles, teddy bears, and flowers encircle images of those who lost their lives.
At her home, Massey has constructed her own form of healing.
She talks about her Aunt Kat’s life. She ate two breakfasts, and would often be up throughout the night writing letters to local newspapers about gun violence, creating plans to address food insecurity in the neighborhood, and thinking about how to support the city’s Black youth.
As a teenager, Massey remembers her aunt taking her to a march about civil rights, Adrian’s first foray into Black activism. She played a role in redeveloping the expressway in Buffalo, and fought for women’s rights.
“We’re losing a lot. We’re losing our family, our community; we’re losing our history, we’re losing the wealth of a generation of people that we can learn so much from and grow from.”
Today, the mother of three says she is living with joy and gratitude alongside anger and fear, the sort of duality many Black people have had to experience since the founding of this country.
“The healing process is that we keep going,” Massey said. “We keep moving, we stick together, and we stay united, because she would’ve wanted us to continue to be.”
For Black Buffalonians, this progress begins at the ground level. Laughing with two of his organization’s young heroes and they chomped down on chicken tenders while cheering on Bills players, Singletary pointed to the experience as an opportunity for the kids to develop friendship, community, and a love for the city he and so many others continue to fight for.
“Seeing a smile on somebody’s face means a little bit more than it used to.”