Svenson’s book breaks new ground
SARANAC LAKE — It was safer than the South, but it was lonelier. Sally Svenson’s “Blacks in the Adirondacks” tells the collective and individual history of African-Americans in the Adirondacks from slavery days to the present.
“The KKK was active, but mostly anti-Catholic,” said Svenson. “Lynchings are really a Southern phenomenon. In the Adirondacks, mostly blacks were ignored.”
Meticulously researched and dispassionately written, “Blacks in the Adirondacks” (Syracuse University Press, 2017) tells the stories of many of the individuals and families who lived for a time in the mountains.
Svenson is an amateur historian who stumbled on items in the Lake George Mirror about blacks in the Adirondacks while she was researching an earlier book. She began saving the clippings.
“I kept coming on these things,” she said. “For instance, there was a lot about the baseball teams, and I thought, ‘There’s a story here.'”
Svenson is white, but the story needed to be told, and nobody else had done it. Before finishing the book, she contacted a black friend, Alice Paden Green, who grew up in Witherbee, near Port Henry, in the 1950s.
Green’s autobiographical reflections, added to the end of the book, describe growing up in a community that alternated between accepting and rejecting black people. While Green and her siblings went to the same schools as their white peers, they were socially isolated. Her brother Ralph often lamented, “I was president of the student council, captain of the sports teams, king of the prom, but I never had a date. I used sports to keep from being depressed.”
The children of their nearest neighbors played with them and shared many life experiences, but would drop them when the oldest brother came home from the Air Force on leave:
“We were totally shunned by our closest friends while their brother was in town,” Green writes. “As we grew older, we expressed our disappointment and hurt, but their behavior never changed even into adulthood.
“We felt hopelessly locked out of the white world and confined to our own, which lacked a critical mass of black peers to sustain our need for honest and meaningful social interactions,” Green writes.
Svenson said Green’s support was invaluable, and she wouldn’t have gone ahead without it. “I insisted that Alice read the book first.”
Green concluded that the book fills a need. The footprints of the black settlers, tourists and tuberculosis patients in the Adirondacks have been mostly obliterated, making it difficult for black people with roots in the North Country to feel a sense of belonging.
Yet even in small numbers, black people have always been here. In the 18th century, when the census listed black people as “slaves,” around 400 lived in the North Country. Even then, public opinion was largely against slavery. Svenson quotes a French land agent who wrote in 1796: “It is nearly impossible to keep slaves in this region, where everyone encourages them to become free, and where the woods and people are favorable to their escaping.”
Nevertheless, legal ambivalence to slavery in New York made Canada a more enticing prospect for those fleeing slavery. The Underground Railroad largely bypassed the Adirondacks. Although New York banned the slave trade in 1788, holding slaves continued to be legal, and, as illustrated by Minerva native Solomon Northrup’s memoir — recently brought to life with the movie “Twelve Years A Slave” — free blacks could be kidnapped and enslaved in other states right up to the Civil War.
Local black men eager to fight in the Civil War joined the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry at first, since New York’s racist governor, Horatio Seymour, resisted forming black units in this state. William Appo from North Elba, who was light skinned enough to pass as white, joined the 30th New York Infantry, was promoted to corporal in 1862 and died at the Battle of Bull Run. Darker complexioned Stephen Warren Morehouse of Vermontville and Amos King of Caroga, both of whom were cited for bravery, served in the 54th Massachusetts.
“One wonders what sort of treatment Appo [and other recruits to the New York regiments] received from officers and other soldiers in their regiments,” Svenson writes. “They were undoubtedly light-skinned, and it is possible that, because they enlisted with neighbors and came from a region in which there was little outward racial conflict, they were welcomed into their units as individuals. But this was not necessarily the case.”
All-black regiments spent most of the war digging trenches, building roads, cleaning and cooking, and their members were more likely to die of disease than of combat wounds, Svenson writes. However, the Union Navy was racially integrated and offered opportunities for black cooks and stewards to earn premium pay — standard Army pay for black enlistees was considerably less than for whites.
In the century after the Civil War, black families came North to build the railroads and work as miners, farmers and hospitality workers. The highest concentration of black families was in Saranac Lake, where many came to take the cure for tuberculosis. Complexion and social status made the difference in whether a black patient received treatment at the white institutions, and some black families opened their own boarding houses.
As in the Civil War, many of the black people who visited or settled in the region were distinguished in the community, but most stayed isolated within small enclaves where they could count on the support of other black people. A few multi-unit apartment houses on Lake Flower Avenue housed most of the blacks living in Saranac Lake.
The book explores 20th-century military service and trends in entertainment, as well as the role of Pullman porters and many black entertainers and hospitality workers in the region. Black people came as tourists, sometimes as servants to white families, and sometimes independently. As an extension of the black urban community, black newspapers often carried items about the social activities of prominent blacks in the Adirondacks.
Svenson and her husband divide their time between New York City, and their summer home on Upper Saranac Lake. Living in the city gave her access to historical archives, such as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, that provided much of the material for the book.
Svenson concludes that the history of blacks in the Adirondacks reflects that of blacks in the U.S. as a whole. Her book “gives specific little instances of very general statements,” she said. “It’s the rural experience, probably like the rural experience in many other places in the United States.”
Despite the efforts of advocates such as John Brown and Gerrit Smith to welcome black settlers, the racist attitudes of the white majority drove many to seek economic and social opportunities elsewhere.
“The demographics of the Adirondack Park have not changed dramatically in the decades leading up to the publication of this book,” Svenson concludes. “Homogeneity continues to be lauded by some as a regional attribute … the Adirondacks is hardly a black Eden.”
However, her book opens the door for more research and, by telling the names and stories of many of the black people who are part of the history of the place, gives us a place to start.