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Diversity in the North Country

Black authors share differing perspectives of growing up in the Adirondacks

Donathan Brown, left, and Cindy Rodriguez co-founded Adirondack Diversity Solutions in response to a series of observations and conversations they had about a lack of diversity and inclusion in North Country businesses. (Photo provided)

Every New Yorker funds the protection and maintenance of the Adirondack Park, but not all New Yorkers enjoy it, particularly people of color.

Two black authors who have written about their experiences growing up in the North Country tell different stories of inclusion, community and racism, providing perspective into the kinds of experiences people of color have had in the Adirondacks.

The North Country is not a very ethnically diverse area. Ten of the 12 Adirondack counties have populations that are 90% or more white, according to the 2010 census. The exceptions are Franklin and Oneida counties, which are 84.2% and 87.1%, respectively. That is compared to 66% of residents statewide.

This includes visitors, too. The Regional Office of Sustainable Tourism’s 2017 Leisure Travel Study of tourists to Hamilton, Franklin and Essex counties showed that 95% of tourists to the High Peaks are white.

There are countless reasons for the demographics of an area being the way they are. Employment opportunities, recreation, transportation, climate, perception of the area and the community each play a role. For people of color living in a country not far removed from a bigoted past and currently in a bigoted present, those last two reasons can be some of the most influential ones.

Alice Green grew up in Port Henry and said increased diversity in the Adirondacks needs to be paired with increased inclusion of diverse people. (Photo provided)

Alice Green, who lives in Albany and has a summer home in Essex, is an author and executive director of the Center for Law and Justice. She says she knows people in the Capital Region who are interested in moving north to the Adirondacks, but always have the same reservations.

“People have this belief or this feeling that it’s not a friendly area to go to,” Green said.

She said downstate, the Adirondacks are often only known as the green spot at the top of the state with all the prisons.

“It’s a beautiful country and I don’t think a lot of people know about that,” Green said. “Down here they only know about the negatives.”

The state budget, passed at the beginning of this month, allocated a quarter-million dollars of the Environmental Protection Fund to help increase the diversity of Adirondack people. Green said simply raising numbers can only do so much. Diversity is great, but inclusion is necessary.

Jonathan Jefferson becomes a 46er in 1997, six years after his first High Peaks hike. (Photo provided)

“It’s not enough to attract hundreds of people and not really be welcoming,” Green said.

“We oftentimes find ourselves repeating the belief that diversity is not enough if inclusion is absent from the equation,” Adirondack Diversity Solutions co-founder Cindy Rodriguez wrote in an email. “It goes without saying that we, as a society, have longstanding tensions with issues pertaining to diversity, inclusion and access, so from our perspective, one step forward later amounts to one step back.”

Adirondack Diversity Solutions is an Ithaca- and Lake Placid-based organization started to improve diversity and inclusion in non-profit and for-profit businesses.

Jonathan Jefferson, a teacher and author, said he was surprised when he read about the initiative. He believes diversity has already increased over the past few decades and believes it will continue on that path.

“How do you deliberately diversify an area?” Jackson asked. “I see it over time becoming more diverse.”

Green said the main change that needs to occur along with a diversity increase is to ensure people of color are included in the life of the community.

She told a story of a family who attended an Adirondack trip with the Institute and Retreat for Writers of Color.

The people were nice and the area was beautiful, and the family decided to move to Willsboro. Green said they bought a home and loved the area, but always felt isolated. They eventually sold the house and moved away.

Green said this was the same reason most of the black families in Port Henry in the 1950s and ’60s aren’t there anymore.

Social segregation

Green appreciates the uniqueness of the area more now than when she was growing up. When her family lived in Port Henry to work in the iron ore industry it was not a very welcoming place, she said.

Though she grew up in the north during the Civil Rights Movement, there was still social segregation. All the black families working at the iron ore facility lived on the same street, they would not be invited to friends’ weddings and jobs were harder to come by for high school age kids and graduates.

“The resort industry was not accepting of blacks at that time,” Green said.

People were friendly, she said, but not really accepting into the social life of the community.

“People were kind of hypocritical. On one hand they’re friendly; on the other hand they don’t REALLY want to associate with you,” Green said. “People need a social life too.

“The people (of color) who were really accepted were the guys who were athletic,” Green said. “Everyone would accept you if you could play sports.”

Her brother Ralph was a stand-out athlete, president of student council and junior prom king. However, he was the only one at the prom without a date.

When it came to dating, “It was much more dangerous for my brothers,” Green said.

Green said when black kids would graduate, they would “be on the next train” out of town.

“We all experienced terrible times when we went to look for jobs, both the men and the women,” Green said. “We were not allowed to live with the other workers. That history is still there.”

Hiking in harmony

For Jefferson, growing up on a farm in St. Lawrence County with his seven siblings from Queens in the 1970s was a much more positive experience.

“My experience has been so opposite of what most people would think,” Jefferson said. “Here it is, we are one of the few, if not the only African-American family in those years outside of Fort Drum. And we were received so well.”

Jefferson said he could count the number of slurs, insults and uncomfortable stares he saw in his 12 years living there on one hand.

Jefferson made his first hiking trip in the Adirondacks in 1991. He was 21 and on a three-day camping trip in the High Peaks with a dozen 11-year-olds, hiking Gothics, Armstrong and Upper Wolfjaw mountains.

“That was the first time I was introduced to the Adirondacks and I’ve pretty much never left. I fell in love,” Jefferson said. “It blew my mind. The peaks and the views and the expanse of it. I was like ‘Whoa, this is incredible.'”

By 1997 he had become a 46er. Back then, he said he would often be the only person of color on the trails. Now, he says he sees many more.

Jefferson said it is hard to explain the experience of hiking in the Adirondacks to someone who has never been, adding that the only thing he can do is show them himself.

He said he regularly brings family and friends of color up to hike in the area. Back in 2012, he hiked Giant Mountain with a senior from Long Island who had never been north of Albany. He expected the student whose family was from El Salvador to enjoy the views, but instead he said he was stunned by the smell of pine in the air.

Jefferson now lives in Long Island but has had a second home in Black Brook for the past 25 years. He said he recently bought a fixer-upper in Jay, and he plans to one day retire in the High Peaks.

Racism now and then

Jefferson said he feels like the majority of people in the Adirondacks are kind and accepting, with only a few being outwardly racist. However, not every person of color who has lived in or visited the Adirondacks has had as positive an experience. First impressions matter, and Jefferson’s was much more positive than Green’s.

Racism certainly exists downstate as well, but in an area with as small a population as the Adirondacks, and an even smaller diversity of population, these incidents stand out.

The Adirondacks also have a history of abolitionism. John Brown from Lake Placid, and Andrew Goodman from Tupper Lake, who was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi while working to increase black voting in the 1960s, are two of the well-known examples.

Two articles written by Lawrence P. Gooley for the Adirondack Almanac in 2013 detail the history if the Ku Klux Klan in the North Country. They detail the Klan’s success in recruiting several thousand members in the early 1900s, as well as how other North Country residents fought back.

“The KKK was active, but mostly anti-Catholic,” according to Sally Svenson, author of “Blacks in the Adirondacks.” Nevertheless, cross burning and meetings with hundreds of attendees are places for hatred of all kinds.

The KKK was started by six Confederate officers who didn’t want the war they lost to be over. They apparently did not believe the conflict to be over “states rights.”

At a meeting of around 2,000 in Glens Falls in the mid-1920s, speakers were heckled and protesters broke windows with rocks, sending shattered glass among the attendees. Afterward, the anti-KKK waiting crowd beat several of the people attending the rally.

This frequent rejection of Klan meetings in the area make it hard for them to assemble and raised public perception of what was going on. Eventually, the Klan’s presence died out.

Jefferson suggested that a diversity initiative should work both ways, providing ways for North Country kids to visit New York City and get a downstate experience. He compared his first view from Gothics Mountain to someone’s first time stepping out of a subway at night and seeing the Times Square lights, feeling that unique energy.

He has always been a sort of middleman for experience, explaining city life to his North Country friends and rural life to his city friends.

He said that visiting other, diverse, places reduces the possibility of being influenced by racist ideas.

“You’re not going to change entrenched attitudes,” Jefferson said. “You’re not going to do much to change someone whose already been taught to be fearful of difference.”

However, he said it is hard to teach someone who has experienced diversity at a young age to hate.

“They’re not going to buy it,” Jefferson said.

For individuals and businesses wanting to learn more about what they can do to make the Adirondacks a more diverse and accepting place, Adirondack Diversity Solutions staff suggested asking the people affected.

“Ask and seek to understand what the barriers to entry and success are in your local community, organizations, and industry,” Rodriguez wrote in an email.