Tuesday, February 26, 2008

African American History – Essex County Expulsions?

It’s February and that means a post on some aspect of African American history in the Adirondacks.
Here is last year’s popular list of stories.

I recently discovered that one of the Almanack‘s posts, The Ku Klux Klan in the Adirondacks, had been used for the companion website of the new PBS documentary film Banished: American Ethnic Cleansings. As a result of the attention, I thought I’d dig a little deeper on the issue of racial cleansing and the Adirondacks.

Expulsions and Sundown Towns
In Banished, filmmaker Marco Williams covers the expulsions of African Americans from towns and counties across America in the period 1865-1930. The film is based on the original research of Elliot Jaspin, whose work I based my original blog post on.

Suffice it to say that African Americans were driven from their homes and land (by harassment, violence, or pseudo-legal means) by local whites for a variety of reasons. After they had fled local whites took possession of their property, often using the legal tool of Adverse Possession.

Another aspect of racial expulsion are Sundown Towns, so named because non-whites (often Asian, African-Americans, and Native Americans) were not allowed to remain in town after sundown. There were thousands of American Sundown Towns whose residents worked hard to keep their communities all-white.

James Loewen, who wrote a book on the subject, defined sundown towns as “A community of more than 1,000 people that has excluded blacks for decades to such a degree that they have made up less than 0.1 percent of the population.” Using violence, local laws, and even posted signs like “nigger, don’t let the sun go down on YOU,” townspeople systematically kept non-whites from living in or passing through after the sun went down – which still allowed for unskilled labor during the day. According to Loewen, census records may show a number of blacks in a town – but they’re mostly single adults (usually female domestic servants).

African Americans in Essex County
After the Civil War, African Americans moved just about everywhere in the country. Some places in the North actually recruited former slaves to live there. You’ll recall our post on New York land speculator and abolitionist Gerritt Smith who offered 120,000 acres in Essex and Franklin counties to African-Americans before the Civil War – many settled there, mostly well-educated New Yorkers and their children.

Although it has been dismissed as a dismal failure by later Adirondack historians (particularly Albert Donaldson, who portrayed them as lazy) census records indicate that black families held land in five Adirondack counties – at least for a time.

The African American settlers made homesteads in North Elba (near the White Church-Grange Hall) naming their settlement “Timbuctoo” – for a number of years, Lake Placid was generally known by the name Timbuctoo. Others settled (along with some whites) near Averyville, at what would become Newman – one spot long known as “Nigger’s Clearing” on the Chubb River apparently contains an African American cemetery.

Their names were Lymon Epps, Thomas Jefferson, Sam Jefferson, the Robbins, Morhouse, Ware, Lyon, Craig, and Frazier families, to name a few.

Below is a chart of the numbers of people identifying as negro/colored on the census from 1820 to 1970. Obviously, there are some anomalies. The Timbuctoo Grants were settled during 1846-1853, which reflects the 1850 numbers. By 1870 many (perhaps half) of those settlers had abandoned their grants. The numbers began to rebound by 1880 reaching a high point in 1890, reflecting the growth of existing black families and the movement of north of new ones after the civil war.

However, it appears as though the same phenomenon described above that occurred elsewhere, may have also occurred in Essex County – the home of John Brown. Between 1890 and 1920 African Americans both left Essex County in large numbers, and failed to move into Essex County. Whats more, the population make-up shifted from families to adults, who presumably were largely servants and laborers.

Census records indicate that the African Americans living in Essex County in 1890 were largely families and that by 1920, most were adults. In 1890, 51 percent of African Americans in Essex County were over the age of 20. By 1920, 75 percent were over the age of 20.

Simply put, the 30 -year period from 1890 to 1920 saw a dramatic decline in the number of African American families living in Essex County.

What Happened?
Beginning in the period around 1890, as Wikipedia puts it, “social fears aroused by rapid changes in many major cities as they absorbed immigrants from southern and eastern Europe, Southern blacks of the Great Migration and whites from rural areas” led to increased racial tensions. This was evidenced most directly by revival of the Ku Klux Klan in 1915 and the popularity of the film The Birth of a Nation, so much that:

At its peak in the mid-1920s, the [KKK] organization included about 15% of the nation’s eligible population, approximately 4–5 million men. The second KKK typically preached racism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Communism, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Some local groups took part in lynchings and other violent activities. [Ed. Note: In 1922 there was a U.S. Senate filibuster against an anti-lynching law.]

At the same time wealthy white urbanites began to take up land in Essex County in increasing numbers organizing themselves along racial and religious lines. The Lake Placid Club, for instance, was organized in 1898 and came to define the Lake Placid/North Elba area as a theme park of the wealthy protestant elite.

According to the Lake Placid Club’s bylaws published in their 1928 yearbook,the club excluded all non-whites, Jews and “every person against which there is social, race, moral, or fiscal objection.” “Except as servants,” it was noted, “negroes are not admitted.”

At the same time, open racism and xenophobia were on the rise in Essex County. In 1915, a “fearsome body” of Ku Klux Klan arrived in full costume at a masquerade ball held at the Happy Hour Theater in Lake Placid. Resorts throughout the region banned people of color and Jews from their grounds.

We’ve already noted the “Gentile trade solicited” message in a 1910 advertisement for Taylor’s on Schroon, but there were many others. For example, a 1920s cover of a brochure for Morley’s at Lake Pleasant read:

We refuse no one on account of religious belief. But we have a large regular patronage [who] constitute the society of the place. For reasons which we cannot understand, they are averse to association with Hebrews. Under the circumstances we feel it is our duty to advise those of that race that we cannot be responsible for their entertainment at Morley’s.

By the mid-1920s Klan activity was prevalent enough in Lake Placid that even tourist could get into the act. One meeting was attended by two English tourists, John and Cora Gordon who wrote about their experience in On Wandering Wheels: Through Roadside Camps from Maine to Georgia in an Old Sedan Car (1928).

In August 1923 the Klan began to organize in earnest in North Elba. There was a cross burning with about 40 attendees at Eagle Bay, another was held on Christmas Eve, and at least three more reported in local papers. According to the Wilmington resident Judy Bowen, the old Wilmington Town Hall was built by Klan members in the early 1920s to serve as a meeting hall; the group took the name HEO [Help Each Other] Club, to disguise its true motives. The building was taken over by the American Legion after World War II.

In November 1924 burning crosses were reported to be “almost nightly occurrences on the hills around the city” of Glens Falls. The Klan held organizational meetings and burnt crosses on at least two consecutive nights in Ticonderoga.

Local Violence
There are no reports of mass exclusions of African Americans or race riots in Essex County like the 25 that occurred in the first six months of 1919, a period John Hope Franklin called “the greatest period of interracial strife the nation had ever witnessed.”

Still, there are indications that harassment, burnings, beatings, and killings based on race did occur in Essex County. We received the following story after our first report on the Klan in the region from a Wilmington woman (she thought this story dated from the early 1930s):

My mom had told me how when she was a little girl the kkk had burned a house down just up a ways on the Whiteface Memorial Highway, and had run the family out of town.

Although most stories like these probably went unreported in the local press, here are a few that did make the papers:

In 1930, William Treadwell, a 28-year-old black chauffeur, was beaten to death on the West Valley Road near the junction of Oneida Avenue. His offense was attempting to date a white woman that his assailant Lewis Severance, 30, also admired. Severance was charged with second degree manslaughter even though Treadwell’s skull had been fractured, apparently with a blunt instrument.

In 1931, 23-year-old John Jones was shot near Alder Camp at Averyville by William Wilcox II in what Wilcox described as a hunting accident; he said he believed he was shooting at a woodchuck.

In 1932, a “negro hermit” about 35 years old was killed near Long Lake by “a posse” that included members of State Police Troop B (C. B. McCann) and locals. According to local press reports the posse was responding “because trappers in the vicinity of Newcomb had been frightened by the appearance of a negro hermit living in the woods, officers attempting to capture the man, killed him and brought his body in to Indian Lake on a sled.” At the time killed he was living in a cabin north of Newcomb. He was wearing rabbit skin clothing and his shoes were wrapped in deer hide – he wore a a shaggy beard and had long hair; in his pockets were a $6.00 in Canadian money and a harmonica. His body was buried in Union Cemetery in North Creek after “hundreds of morbidly curious persons filed past” his open coffin as it lay at a North Creek undertaker. Because the man lived “just within the borders of Essex County,” that county paid the bill for his burial. It was noted that he had an old wound over his temple “deep enough for a pencil to lie in it.” Ernest Blanchard and Lester Turner were awarded a bounty after the killing. [Obviously, we’ll have to write more about this story in a future post!]

They didn’t end in the 1930s:

In 1942 the synagogue in Lake Placid and the Jewish Cemetery in Saranac Lake were both vandalized in the same week.

In 1947, William Grant, a 52-year-old employee of the Monopole restaurant in Port Henry was dragged into a car, driven into the woods and beaten by three men who had used racial slurs: Carl LaDue, Peter Potskowski, and Martin Capuano. LaDue received probation and the other two men were sentenced to time served. Grant was beaten so severely he was unable to work again.

A Note on African American Tourism
The historian Cotten Seiler noted in an essay for American Quarterly (2006) that “African American’s desire and fitness for citizenship were tethered to, and divined in, their participation in automobility – a practice that fused self-determination and self-representation, mobility, consumption, and social encounter.”

This appears to be borne out in African American tourism in Essex County. For example, African Americans journeyed to the region annually in caravans of touring cars in the 1920s and 1930s to remember John Brown’s contribution to American progress. In 1922 (the year before the Klan’s North Elba revival) the John Brown Memorial Association was organized and annual automobile trips of African Americans were begun from Philadelphia to Brown’s grave. Over the years the Lake Placid News‘ coverage of these ever larger events were generally disparaging by subtly suggesting that African Americans had ignored John Brown since he was buried there in 1859, that organizers of the Association and the Brown grandchildren were motivated by profit, and even suggesting that the “pilgrims” to the “shrine” were un-American, or were at least disingenuous. The paper praised Florida at the time for having “few negroes” and heaped praise on rich white portrayals of “negro exaltations” at the Lake Placid Club and elsewhere.

Upon arrival in North Elba members of the caravans often met with sympathetic locals, and presented public programs in the Lake Placid area. In 1928, the John Brown Memorial Association even presented that bastion of racist respectability (and home to annual all-white minstrel shows) the Lake Placid Club a painting of John Brown famously kissing an African American child as he left jail to be hung. Does anyone know where is it now?

Of course tourist travel by car for African Americans could be difficult. At least two guides for black drivers were published: The Negro Motorist Green Book [full text] and Travelguide: Vacation and Recreation Without Humiliation (these were published from 1937 to 1957). They listed safe accommodations for African Americans “to save the travelers of the race as many difficulties and embarrassments as possible.”

In a 1999 article for The Journal of Negro History, Mark S. Foster noted:

Nevertheless, for inexperienced black motorists, “pleasure” trips could quickly turn into unpleasant ordeals. In addition to numerous mechanical breakdowns and flat tires, poor roads, frequent detours and uncertain ferry schedules, black motorists encountered obstacles and challenges unknown by their white brethren. One of the most unnerving was figuring out local racial customs and etiquette in unfamiliar locales. Even in the Deep South, segregation practices varied considerably from town to town. Behavior which was acceptable in one town might plunge the unwary traveler into deep trouble five miles farther down the road. Purchasing gasoline was a brief, impersonal transaction; most white service station operators willingly accepted cash from black motorists. But securing decent food and lodging on the road was more problematical.

So the question that remains is: Where did these African American automobilers stay while in Essex County? In 1930 members of the Association stayed at the Mapledale Cottage, on Main Street, opposite the North Elba Town Hall – notable speakers included Clarence Darrow, and A. Philip Randolph. Before then, who knows?

Why is this important?
Not only does it reveal that the sundown town/expulsion phenomenon may have occurred in Essex County, but it also reveals that race relations in Essex County changed over time (also indicated by the rise of Klan activities). It also poses new questions: What was the role of segregated institutions such as the Lake Placid Club in fostering local change in race relations? What happened to the land owned by African Americans? [Not a single African American was listed as a farmer in the 1910 census.] Did the tourist industry perpetuate dislocation of African Americans and, if it did, what about poor whites?

Help Explore This Issue
If anyone has access to town level numbers for African Americans in Essex County, I’d love to hear from you. It’s known that in 1930, there were just 29 blacks in North Elba out of a population of 6,472 (including 478 foreign born). Three local towns contained no African Americans: Crown Point (pop. 1,468), Schroon (932), and North Hudson (235); Ticonderoga contained just one (population of 5,105). Moriah, the second largest town in Essex County, had 45 black residents out of 6,191 (189 foreign born). I suspect, that a look at the North Elba and Ticonderoga town numbers would reveal an even more startling and dramatic change. The experience of African Americans in Essex County likely varied to some degree depending on where they lived.

If you know of black-run accommodations in Essex County before 1970, drop me a note.

Josiah Hasbrook – An African American settler at North Elba who knew John Brown and fought in the Civil War before returning to North Elba in about 1866. What happened to persuade Hasbrook to move he and his wife from their 80 acre farm to Wesport in 1871 and then later to Massachusetts?

Here is a look at the numbers of people identifying as negro/colored on the census from 1820 to 1970:

1820 1830 1840 1850 1860 1870 1880 1890 1900 1910 1920 1930 1940 1950 1960
Essex County 28 60 78 50 123 80 112 108 60 82 36 82 78 115 122
% of Co. Total .22 .31 .33 .16 .44 .28 .32 .33 .20 .25 .11 .24 .23 .33 .33
Franklin County 0 24 3 62 19 27 37 52 62 53 47 81 70 110 62
% of Co. Total 0 .21 .01 .25 .06 .09 .11 .14 .14 .12 .11 .18 .16 .25 .14

Suggested Reading

James Loewen’s Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism

Elliot Jaspin’s Buried in the Bitter Waters: The Hidden History of Racial Cleansing in America


John Warren

John Warren has been exploring the woods and waters of the Adirondacks for more than 45 years. After a career as a print journalist and documentary television producer he founded Adirondack Almanack in 2005 and co-founded Adirondack Atlas in 2015.

John's Adirondack Outdoors Conditions Report can be heard Friday mornings across the region on North Country Public Radio and on WSLP Lake Placid.

He is also on the staff of the New York State Writers Institute and edits The New York History Blog. He is the author of two books of regional history.




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