Black history in the Adirondacks has an anecdotal quality, maybe because the numbers of black Adirondackers have been so few. Here’s a story of a black homesteader who was good friends with John Brown. There’s a barn that may have sheltered fugitives on the Underground Railroad. Outside Warrensburg is a place in the woods where a black hermit lived. And so on.
The temptation – and I should know; I’ve been a lead offender – is to make a sort of nosegay out of these scattered stories, pack them all into a story by its lonesome, a chunky little sidebar, and let this stand for the black experience.
It makes a good read, and it’s efficient. And it’s wrong. It reinforces the idea that the black experience in this region was something isolated, inessential. It ghettoizes black Adirondack history, and this wasn’t how it was.
Context counts. The black experience in the North Country rode the same high tide of trends, migrations, and events that affected all of New York history. It was in it; it was of it; it was no thing apart. In 1745 during the French and Indian War, a band of French-led Abenaki raided Fort Saratoga on the Hudson (Schuylerville today) and took about a hundred captives who were force-marched north into Quebec; over half of them were black. During the War of Independence, patriot veterans were awarded land grants in upstate New York, and one black veteran, a farmer named Prince Taylor, ran a tavern in Ticonderoga, said to be first such hostelry in Essex County. The Civil War convulsed the scattered black community in the Adirondacks no less than the white; fathers and sons of black Adirondack pioneers and went south to fight, some with black detachments, and a few with white.
When better roads opened up the Adirondacks to the extractive industries and the long-distance speculator-capitalists, and jobbers commenced to hack, saw, mine, melt, burn and mill their way across the woods, black labor stepped-up. The first meltmaster at the Redford Glassworks was a black man; the first miners to dig for ore in the iron-rich seams around Port Henry were the black slaves of Sir Philip Skene. Black laborers from the South, underclothed and underfed, laid track for William Seward Webb’s Adirondack railroad; black workers stoked the giant furnaces in Standish; black road gangs rolled out the tar in the Boquet Valley; black miners in Witherbee and Port Henry found union jobs with Republic Steel.
In that hopeful spell when land-loving Americans dreamed of turning northern New York into a “New Vermont,” black homesteaders tried to scrape a living out of stony Adirondack soil with all the zeal of their white neighbors – and they weren’t all clustered in Timbuctoo, the much-speculated-over evanescent farm settlement in North Elba not far from the Adirondack home of the militant abolitionist, John Brown. The notoriety of John Brown’s failed bid to seize a federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry in 1859 has resulted in uncommon interest in the black settlers of North Elba, but really, black homesteaders were scattered in every county in the North Country. Solomon Northup, the celebrated subject of the recent Oscar-winning film and the author of the acclaimed slave narrative, Twelve Years a Slave, was the free-born son of a black Adirondack farmer, Mintus Northup, who made out well enough on his Minerva farm to meet the $250 property requirement a black man needed to cast a vote. East of Minerva in Silver Bay, Benjamin Van Buren and his wife Jane were thirty years on their lakeside Adirondack farm, and in the northern foothills of Fulton County, an enclave of black farmers eked out a living in the remote hamlet of Scotch Bush. And the Town of Franklin in Franklin County was home to at least as many black farm families as North Elba – resilient and adaptive people who, as Adirondackers have done for some three centuries, did much more than farm. Income was wrested from a range of sources. Hence, Lyman Eppes was a farmer-guide; William Carasaw farmed and made maple sugar too; Samuel Jefferson was a farmer-teamster, James Henderson a farmer-cobbler, and Josiah Hasbrook a farmer and day laborer on the farms of others.
The emergence and eventual ascendancy of the resort and recreation industry in the Adirondack region was a long time building up, but even before the founding of the Adirondack Park, a regional service economy scrambled to capitalize on the throngs who came north by stage and boat, coach and rail, to revel in the glories of the woods. And in this industry as well, black Adirondackers found employment as hotel cooks, groundskeepers, laundresses, coachmen and chauffeurs, housekeepers, and musicians. Much of this resort-related labor force was seasonal, and hitched to the annual arrivals of the snowbirds who roosted in the Adirondack’s private camps, clubs and more upmarket lakeside resorts. The Whiteface Inn drew its black employees from a sister hotel in Florida. South Carolina was the home place for the all-black wait-and kitchen staff who worked at the Tahawus Club when it was still in Newcomb, during the Depression. The old Prospect House in Blue Mountain Lake, the Loon Lake House – they all had black southerners on their pay rolls.
And not every Adirondack getaway was white-owned or whites-only. In Schroon Lake, Annie DeFley Brown ran the Claver Villa for black employees of white summer folks; in Lake George, Sam and Dorothy McFerson’s tucked-away home-style Woodbine Hotel drew the black summer crowd from Saratoga with its southern kitchen. Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr. rested there, and farther north in Chestertown, Paul Robeson decamped at the long-gone, proudly integrated, surveilled-by-the-FBI, Crystal Lake Lodge. In 1947, the North Carolina-born Dewey Brown, who honed his skills caddying in New Jersey, bought and developed the Cedar River Golf Course and hotel outside Indian Lake (his meticulously hand-crafted clubs, the pride of movie stars and Presidents, have been displayed at the Adirondack Museum).
In any of these villages, vocations, trades, job sites, or Adirondack scenes, did black faces dominate? Absolutely not. Black votes swayed no North Country election, black enclaves never blossomed into hamlets; black children never monopolized an Adirondack classroom; black neighborhoods were never wholly black, or close – the modest miners’ homes on Elizabeth Street in Port Henry held as many white families as African Americans. But I’m not talking about population trends and influence. I’m talking about a long-attenuated presence, a trail of proofs that show black Americans in the region responding to the same events and opportunities as whites. Few as they were, African-Americans grew up with Adirondack history, belonged to it and did their part to make it.
That’s not to argue for the interchangeability of black and white experience. Black laborers endured an Adirondacks a world apart from anything their white friends and neighbors and co-workers could imagine. The enslaved miners who were forcibly denied the right to selfhood; the black pioneers of early North Elba compelled to deal with thieving guides and racist merchants; a black farmer in Vermontville, a self-emancipated slave, who lived in dread of being captured and re-enslaved by bounty hunters; a black hermit outside Newcomb who was tracked and killed by an armed posse; the black high school valedictorian for whom a casual social discrimination was a daily fact of rural life; black families who had to put up with race dialect jokes in the local newspaper and the insults of blackface minstrelsy at the movie house; the black aspirant due for a promotion, raise or line of credit, whose skin color blocked him from advancement – what could white Adirondackers know of this?
Just as wounding have been injuries visited on black memory by a succession of written accounts – county histories, local histories, regional histories, biographies of Adirondack luminaries – which either deny the black experience altogether, or frame it in a way that suggests its irrelevance and the unsuitability of black Americans for the Adirondack way of life. Only sample the blithely racist early accounts of Gerrit Smith and his black Adirondack farm settlements; only consider the absence of black names and families from early local histories.
It would seem those days are done. In the last few decades, traveling and permanent museum exhibitions, novels, a slew of newspaper and magazine stories, concerts, scholarly round-tables, genealogical research, social activist initiatives, local grade school curricula, and an ambitious archaeological dig in a former black-owned farmstead, have all conspired to put black Adirondack history on the map. Not as a freak show, a side dish, an extra added attraction, but as something rooted, inextricable, and lasting. And something far from settled, whose depth and dimensionality gain from new discoveries all the time.
This article is one in a series on diversity in the Adirondacks, an outgrowth of the August 2014 “Toward a More Diverse Adirondacks” symposium.