By Chessie Monks-Kelly, Historic Saranac Lake
Following Black History Month, we have been thinking about something we’re often asked about at the Saranac Laboratory Museum – were there Black TB patients in Saranac Lake, and where did they stay? We know that as long as people came to Saranac Lake and the Adirondacks for their health, Black patients were among them. One early health-seeker was Henry Ossawa Tanner, who was one of the first Black artists to be internationally famous. He first came to Rainbow Lake for his health in 1878, five years after Dr. Trudeau.
Due to accidental loss or intentional destruction of records from the sanatoria, cure cottages, and public agencies following the closure of the TB industry, there is a lot that we don’t know. We have large gaps in our knowledge about the names, hometowns, race, and more of patients coming to Saranac Lake and where they stayed. This is true for patients of all races. But it is also true that Black patients were excluded from certain sanatoria and cure cottages, and did not have access to the same resources that white patients did.
Many Black patients—some well-known and some never identified by name—came to Saranac Lake throughout the years, including Hunter C. Hanyes, inventor and producer; Bill Bailey, vaudevillian and tap dancer; Evelyn Ellis, actress; and Lucius Eugene “Bud” Aiken, jazz trombonist and coronet player. Race and ethnicity were taken into account when patients were placed within cure cottages and sanatoria, as was their occupation and financial status.
We know of a handful of cure cottages that catered specifically to Black patients, such as the Ramsey Cottage, which was run by Viola and John Ramsey. They operated their house on Lake Flower Avenue as a cure cottage from 1923 until the closure of the TB industry in Saranac Lake. Afterward it was a boarding house and tourist home for Black visitors to the area.
We have not found any evidence that Black patients were ever accepted at Trudeau Sanatorium, but Black patients did stay at Reception Hospital (AKA the Prescott House), Stony Wold Sanatorium, and eventually Will Rogers Memorial Hospital and Ray Brook Sanatorium. According to the 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940 censuses there were no Black patients at Ray Brook, so we do not know exactly when the hospital was integrated. This photograph from 1947 is one of the earliest we have identified at Ray Brook that includes Black patients. Most of the Black patients in photographs in our collections are unidentified.
Sally Svenson’s research for her 2017 book, “Blacks in the Adirondacks,” has connected us to a tremendous amount of history of Black patients in Saranac Lake. Her research has uncovered patients that were previously unrecorded in our understanding of local history, and we look forward to uncovering more about them. If you would like to learn more about Black patients and the places they cured, our wiki is a good starting place, but Svenson’s book is a valuable resource and can be found at your local library, as well as in our gift shop (historicsaranaclake.org/store).
In our work to catalog our collections and transcribe the remaining TB patient records that we hold, we are making more discoveries that help tell the stories of Black patients in Saranac Lake. We see these stories as vital to our understanding of the cure, and the community around the TB industry. We look forward to sharing more stories of Black patients and their experience taking the cure throughout the year, and especially during Black History Month.
To learn more on Black patients and the cure cottages and sanatoria that catered to them, visit our wiki: www.localwiki.org/hsl
[Photo courtesy of Historic Saranac Lake Collection, TCR 125. Courtesy of Harriet Lupino.]
Chessie Monks-Kelly is the museum administrator at Historic Saranac Lake