For Black History Month, the Adirondack Almanack presents a list of stories of African-American history in the Adirondacks.
The first slaves arrived in New Netherlands in the 1620s and before slavery was finally, albeit gradually, abolished in New York in 1827, we have numerous examples of slaves in the Adirondacks. Several were taken captive by French and Indian raiders who attacked the Schuyler plantation (then Old Saratoga, now present day Schuylerville) in 1745. They were transported along the Lake George, Lake Champlain corridor to Canada. Black slaves (and some free blacks) were at the siege of Fort William Henry by Montcalm in 1757 and at the Fort George in 1780. At Whitehall, slaves owned by Philip Skene (who had a daughter that was half African American) probably mined the iron for cannonballs used by Benedict Arnold at Valcour Island in 1776. William Gilliland’s diary frequently mentioned “my negro Ireland” who cleared Gilliland’s land and planted his crops. Census records of the poor house in Warrensburgh noted two former female slaves were residents in 1850.
Though his father had been a slave, Solomon Northup was born free in Minerva, Essex County in 1808. He worked as a hack driver and played the violin in hotels in Saratoga Springs until, while visiting Washington DC in 1841, he was kidnapped by James H. Burch and sold into slavery to Theophilius Freeman of New Orleans. Freeman sold Northup to William Ford for $1,000 and Ford later sold him to John M. Tibeats who in time threatened to have him executed for the “crime” of resisting being whipped. Ford intervened and Northup was sold to Edwin Epps. After a chance encounter with a Canadian named Bass, Solomon Northup’s situation was related to his wife Anne and by her to Henry B. Northrup, a lawyer from the family which had owned Solomon’s father. Citing a New York State law passed on May 14, 1840 that required that a free black New York residents unlawfully forced into slavery must be returned to freedom, New York’s Governor appointed Henry Northup to proceed to Louisiana and bring back Solomon Northup, which he did on January 4, 1853. Solomon Northup later wrote a narrative of his travails, Twelve Years a Slave.
In 1846, the prominent New York land speculator and abolitionist Gerrit Smith decided to give away 120,000 acres in Essex and Franklin counties to African-Americans. The acreage was settled between 1846-1853 and named for the West African capital of the 15th and 16th century. The scattered settlements were granted to 3,000 black New Yorkers and although dismissed as a dismal failure by later Adirondack historians, census records indicate that black families held land in at five Adirondack counties. A community at Vermontville was settled by African Americans until the 1940s, a settlement near Loon Lake was called Blacksville into the 1870s. The largest community at North Elba sent three men to fight in the Civil War, one of whom – William Appo – was killed at Bull Run. One settler and local guide, Lyman Epps, cut one of the first trails to Indian Pass and was present at both John Brown’s funeral, and at the transfer of the Brown farm to the state in 1896. Epps’ son lived in North Elba until his death in 1942.
The Undergorund Railroad and Adirondack Abolitionists
The Adirondack region was a primary route for escaped slaves fleeing to Canada. Abolitionists who helped them in their passage on the Underground Railroad were scattered throughout the region in places like Chestertown, Warrensburgh, Thurman, Essex, Peru (then called Quaker Union), Crown Point, Elizabethtown, Keeseville, North Elba, New Russia, Ogdensburg, Malone, and Saranac Lake. Plenty of other Adirondackers supported slavery – the local opposition to the Anti-Slavery Convention of Clinton County in 1837 in Plattsburgh is just one example – but a large number of Adirondackers were either abolitionist or had abolitionist leanings. There was a well known Champlain steamboat Molineaux, named for Tom Molineaux, a southern slave who won his freedom in a boxing match and then went on to England to box for the World Heavyweight Title in 1810. James G. Clark, of Dresden in Washington County, was well known for his 1856 song “Ho! For the Kansas Plains” an antislavery song dedicated to Henry Ward Beetcher that Clark wrote after the burning of Lawrence, Kansas by William Quantrell’s Raiders in May 1856.
Isaac Johnson was born in Kentucky in 1844 and spent his youth in slavery on a farm on the banks of Green River. His father’s name was Richard Yeager, but in later life he took his mother’s maiden name – his grandfather, Griffin Yeager, was a slave trader who captured and enslaved his mother in Madagascar in 1840. When Union soldiers arrived near the farm where Johnson was being held during the Civil War he fled into their protection and later enlisted. After the war he returned to work for his old master for wages and eventually found his way to St. Lawrence County where he worked as an accomplished stonemason and in Ogdensburg in 1901 he wrote his own life story – Slavery Days in Old Kentucky.
The Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad
“This city resembled Washington during war times,” the March 29, 1892 Boston Globe reported, “hundreds of penniless and destitute Negroes are camped out tonight in the temporary places of shelter given them, and the citizens of Utica are consulting as to the best means of returning them to their homes.” The Globe told readers that all night, “runaway slaves” had been coming into Utica. One hundred and fifty of them, mostly southern black hand laborers from Tennessee and the Carolinas, had walked the nearly one hundred miles from the crude railroad work camps of the Adirondack & St. Lawrence Railroad then being laid north of the Bog River near Tupper Lake. They wore “the thinnest of covering to protect them from the chill winter blasts” and arrived skinny, hungry, and tired. Town leaders in Utica decided immediately to send the men home at public expense, but already their arrival had signaled a great controversy about the Adirondack & St. Lawrence – namely, that African American men were being practically enslaved to build the railroad. Hundreds of them fled the Adirondack & St. Lawrence work camps but when the New York State Board of Arbitration investigated their claims of torture, murder, and virtual enslavement, it dismissed them all, save for the conduct of one Kentucky born contractor who was found to have been “cruel” to the men.
Lake George Segregation
In the 1920s, when Lake George was a segregated town, African Americans unable to find lodging at the resorts many hotels could find a place to stay at the black-owned Woodbine Hotel. Samuel and Dorothy McFerson were host to the famous like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Sammy Davis Jr., but also to the many African American tourists, waitstaff, and servants of all sorts who worked the white hotels of Lake George. The McFerson’s daughter Shirley, later served as a librarian in the Lake George library. Segregation persisted with the help of local racist such as those who
gathered in July of 1928 on Route 9 to hold a Klan rally, complete with burning cross.
African American Miners
Republic Steel brought more than 100 African American miners from Greenville, North Carolina to the Essex County iron ore mines in the early part of the 20th century. Mostly former sharecroppers, they found life in Port Henry and Witherbee wasn’t much different than it had been in the south. They reported being abused by their bosses, and frequently shorted come payday for the dangerous and difficult work. At Port Henry they were refused service in the town’s restaurants Jim Crow style. A daughter of one of those miners is Alice Paden Green, now Director of the Center for Law and Justice in Albany. Now known in the Essex County area for her sponsorship of The Paden Institute and Retreat for Writers of Color and her work with the progressive / radical historical activist group John Brown Lives!, Alice was instrumental in getting the NY Green Party ballot status when she ran for Lt. Governor with “Grandpa” Al Lewis some years ago. In 2005 Alice Green received nearly 25 percent of the vote in her run as candidate for Mayor of Albany on the Green Party line.
Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years A Slave
Isaac Johnson’s Slavery Days in Old Kentucky
Tom Calarco’s The Underground Railroad in the Adirondack Region