Fresh, well-researched, readable — and important
When I first learned about publication of Sally Svenson’s book “Blacks in the Adirondacks” (Syracuse University Press), I found myself a bit surprised no one had tackled this important subject before. Now that I’ve read this extensively researched volume, I realize others will follow in its footsteps. Still, she will have earned credit for being the first.
Even when addressing the North Country, any book on blacks in America has to begin with slavery. Indeed, there were a few slave holders in this region, most notably around Plattsburgh. Slavery was outlawed in New York state in 1817. A few slaves may have remained in the area, but most left for urban environments elsewhere.
Gerrit Smith, a philanthropist from central New York, made offers of land in the North Elba area to African-Americans so as to provide them a way to meet voting qualifications. His efforts brought a fair number of black families to the region. His largesse also attracted John Brown, who sought to help the new arrivals succeed in farming. Still, very few became long-term residents. Stations for the Underground Railroad brought some escaped slaves through northern New York. Again, not many of them lingered.
Ultimately it would be jobs that had the most impact. Some were stereotypical. Black men became fixtures on hotel staffs, and also as coachmen and barbers. Women took on domestic assignments. The opening of mines meant employment opportunities, especially in Standish and Moriah.
There were also a few unique niches. One man became the head glassblower at the glass works in Redford. Several carved out a living raising horses in the Crown Point and Port Henry communities. In Saranac Lake, a few women who had worked caring for tuberculosis patients opened their own boarding houses to serve those of their race.
Many appearances of blacks in the Adirondacks proved quite transient, however. Hotel workers often traveled between northern New York and Florida, depending on the season. Entertainers passed through to perform but rarely were attracted to stay. Railroads brought Pullman porters, but these men, too, merely passed through.
Most of the text proved quite readable. Occasionally the author’s pages fall back onto listing lots of people; such is the case in describing men who fought in the Civil War, and veterans returning to the Adirondacks after its end. That’s probably unavoidable, as the small numbers of blacks in the region lends itself to some dependence on anecdotes. Yet these, too, lead to many interesting stories.
An afterward was written by Alice Paden Green, a woman whose family came to the Mineville area early in the 20th century from South Carolina. She adds additional useful perspective on the more recent arrival of African-Americans to the Adirondacks.
This book proved well worth the time spent reading it. It necessarily marks only a beginning to scholarship on the topic, but most will find it a very effective start.