OLEAN, NY – When Della Moore walks down the street, she greets everyone she passes and makes sure to ask, “How are you doing?”
From the moment I joined her at the 7-Eleven on a cloudy, cold December morning until we finished making our stops along State and North Union streets, she remained concerned that I wasn’t dressed warmly enough and that I would catch a cold.
And she admitted that her sister told her before we met up, “I hope you don’t wear her out.”
Dressed in a yellow St. Bonaventure sweatshirt and gray sweatpants from her morning trip to the gym, Moore believed she had the attire necessary to keep warm while walking downtown.
I tagged along as she scouted out vacant buildings that could house the African American Center for Cultural Development, which she directs.
A vibrant, warm personality, Moore has devoted her life to helping others through volunteerism. Her mission since the center’s official creation on June 4, 2010, has been to promote cultural awareness in the Cattaraugus County area.
With a standard silver digital camera in hand, Moore took pictures of the buildings that caught her interest. Often, she photographed information on the for-rent signs so she could contact real estate agents later.
Moore displayed an impressive knowledge of the history of many of the buildings we passed. First, she showed me one on North Union Street that used to be a Sears and told me she thought it had too open a floor plan for the center. And, she added, someone bought it before she could consider it further.
She also showed me a former butcher shop purchased by people who plan to turn the space into a massage and facial business.
Finding a place for the center has been a challenge.
“Downtown Olean is changing so fast,” Moore said. “Probably by next year everything should be settled with the center.” That building has an open window, which Moore likes for its potential for showcasing center displays. And she couldn’t help but smile when she looked through the window at all the open space on the inside, already imaging where she would put pieces from the center’s collection.
We also stopped at the mayor’s office so Moore could speak with Michiko McElfresh, who is secretary to Olean Mayor William J. Aiello. As she entered the municipal building, Moore continued to greet everyone she passed with a “Hi, how are you doing?”
When Moore walked into McElfresh’s office, the first thing she said to her was, “Your husband was awesome.”
She continued commenting on the lecture cartographer Earl McElfresh of the McElfresh Map Company LLC gave, in which he described how his father attended school with President John. F. Kennedy.
“He was fantastic,” she told Michiko McElfresh. “It was so, so cool.”
And then Moore inquired about additional vacant buildings in the city, and McElfresh helped by pulling up online properties that she knew were available.
Moore also showed me another potential property on North Union, which used to house the Mental Health Association in Cattaraugus County. Noting it might be out of the center’s price range, she commented, “This is a nice, beautiful place.”
Moore always had something positive and optimistic to say, never focusing on the bad parts of a situation for long, never allowing her contagious energy to waver.
Because of her extensive knowledge of the area, it is difficult to believe she was not born or raised in Olean. She comes from Philadelphia, and she and her husband, who was born and raised in Olean, moved to his hometown in 1972 because they felt it was a good place to raise their children.
Her energetic dedication to finding a new home for the center goes beyond scouring Olean for potential locations. She is busy writing grant applications to fund the purchase and planning events.
While she searches relentlessly for a new place, the center does have a temporary home at Trinity United Methodist Church on North Ninth Street, where Moore is an active member.
Having to carry a box with her grant papers and brochures from the backseat of her car to her temporary office, Moore looks forward to being able to take displays and more out of storage. Moore is ambitious about the center’s future and keeps an optimistic frame of mind and faith in God as she writes to or calls building owners.
Her responsibilities as the center’s director encompass a wide range of tasks, including banking, emailing, managing the website and securing and setting up events. Moore also conducts lectures and tours and set up displays. She also is a member of the Cattaraugus County Historical Advisory Committee. And her goal for the center when it’s back in full form is to involve more schools because she thinks it’s important for students to know the history of the area they grow up in.
“Most of my black history came from home, since it was not taught in schools when I was growing up,” Moore said.
Her Aunt Gladys emphasized the importance of learning about their historical past, and “my mother was a great source of information,” she added.
After listing some influential figures in black history, such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, Moore noted, “I am concerned with the iceberg underneath. We are all history in the making.”
Moore said she hopes to receive grants that will allow the center to purchase a higher quality camera for creating a documentary that will be reminiscent of the cable TV show on black history that she hosted on Channel 6 in the early 1990s.
“When I proposed the idea to Channel 6, I just wanted somebody to talk about black history for a minute,” Moore said. “I worked up materials and they liked it so much, they said I could do a half-hour show.”
Recalling how she draped a black curtain over her window and used two VCRs and a tape recorder to present her show, she said, “Wow, that was a lot of work.”
And Moore still has so much more she wants to show.
When she’s not doing something for the center, Moore might be playing guitar and flute, which, she said, gives balance to her hectic life of service. She began taking lessons from area musician Terry Bellamy and has performed with him as a part of the SBU Blues Ensemble. Moore also sings and plays guitar on her own every week at the Hickey Tavern.
On the morning we met, the last thing Moore did before heading back to her temporary office at Trinity United Methodist Church to work on grant paperwork was to drive to the Burger King. Twice before we arrived at the Burger King drive-thru, she asked if I wanted coffee or tea. I declined.
Moore ordered two small decaf coffees for herself because, as she told me, “it was that kind of morning.”