Slavery and New York State have a long history together. Indeed, the history of slavery in New York predates the birth of New York as an English and originates in the days of New Netherland, part of the extensive international slave trade.
As we are regularly reminded by events today, slavery has not disappeared. The current issue of Time includes an article on the worldwide continuance of slavery today, especially targeting young women and girls.
What does this have to do with New York history today?
The following comes from the website of NYSOPRHP for John Brown Farm State Historic Site.
High in New York State’s Adirondack Mountains is the home and grave of abolitionist John Brown. Many Americans know the song “John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,” but most do not associate the words with this simple farm at North Elba, New York….[After his hanging, h]is body was returned to North Elba and was buried in front of his home on December 8, 1859. The remains of several of Brown’s followers, who fought and died at Harper’s Ferry, were moved to this small graveyard in 1899.
His spirit lives on in New York in a continued crusade against slavery. According to Martha Swan, “John Brown Day dates back to a tradition started in the 1930s of making a pilgrimage to the North Elba gravesite of abolitionist John Brown and his sons and other Harpers Ferry Raiders who sacrificed their lives in the struggle to end slavery.”
I met Martha Swan several years ago at a Conference on New York State History where she had a display table for John Brown Lives! Martha, a Spanish teacher in Newcomb, helped found John Brown Lives! in 1999 “to engage Adirondack communities in the freedom history of their region and to promote social justice and human rights.”
John Brown Lives! programs include the traveling “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” exhibit and the mission of the organization is to free the 27 million men, women and children held in some form of slavery in the world today, something everyone should be more aware of due to Boko Haram’s recent kidnapping of hundreds of girls and the declaration that they would be sold into slavery.
For John Brown Day in 2014, a special screening of the new film 12 Years a Slave was held. Although the NYS historic marker is in Saratoga Springs, Solomon Northup’s story involves the Adirondacks as he was born in what is now Minerva (then in the Town of Schroon Lake). Martha’s program also included a book discussion of 12 Years A Slave, speakers, a workshop for educators, and an outdoor commemorative event at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid.
If a tree falls in the woods and it is not on YouTube, has anything happened? If a history event occurs outside the designated Path weekends, does it count? Can the Governor brag about it? Civil rights is one of the themes of the Path through History. The website even mentions John Brown’s farm in the text describing the state’s commitment to civil rights. The site is listed along with many other sites throughout the state related to the theme but there is no mention of John Brown’s Day or John Brown Lives! Which are not destination sites because they are not sites.
In other words, if you wanted to attend the conference, meaning bringing heads to beds in upstate New York, the ostensible goal of the Path through History, you wouldn’t know about from the Path through History website. Obviously Martha did not get the memo about scheduling events on the designated June weekends or they don’t count. While one can enter events on the website for other dates, there is no connection on the website between the listing of itinerary sites and the events which may be held at those sites. So even if the event was listed as a Path weekend listing, someone searching on the itinerary sites wouldn’t know. And since John Brown Lives! isn’t a site, it would not be listed anyway.
John Brown Day this year also reminds us of the impact of Solomon Northup due to the movie. It has generated interest in other incidents involving the kidnaping of blacks, Sue Eakin, the historian who broke the story through her research, David Fiske, who co-authored the book that brought the printed story to the public, Renee Moore who has labored 15 years promoting the story in Saratoga Springs. Bob Cudmore who writes about the Mohawk Valley, wrote about the connection to Fulton County through the lawyer who aided him was from. Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar, Montgomery County Historian, held a book discussion and there were many other talks and discussions throughout the state.
A search for Solomon Northup on the Path website turned up the following:
Search: Solomon Northup
Title Civil Rights
Description New York was a national center for abolitionism, where the NAACP was created and the birthplace of the modern gay rights movement. Sites across the state bring this heritage to life for
Title Arts & Culture
Description New York’s writers, artists, musicians, dancers, performers, fashion designers and architects have been at the forefront of American culture. Visitors can explore the dazzling array of N
I am not sure exactly what this means, what one should do next, or why the descriptions were truncated. Lakes to Locks Passage has created the “12 Years a Slave” online itinerary based on folklore, local legends and oral sources including the John Brown Farm State Historic Site. The next steps would be to take it to tour operators and to revise the Path website to show itineraries which have been created.
In a previous post, I wrote about the Freedom Trail project of Governor Pataki in which Cordell Reaves was involved. When Pataki left office the project died and Reaves was reassigned to NYS Office of Parks Recreation and historic Preservation where he works now. No one in a central position in New York State has assumed the mantle of leadership for telling the story of slavery in New York. Besides the people mentioned above, others have sought to tell story, often like Martha, in addition to their day jobs. For example, Paul and Mary Liz Stewart, Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region, Inc. (URHPCR), now affiliated with Sage College, Ulster County historian Anne Gordon who led the effort to erect a statue dedicated to Sojourner Truth last fall in Ulster, Cliff Mealy who has added Solomon Northup to his repertoire as a re-enactor, Rebecca Edwards, Vassar College who created the Mid-Hudson Antislavery Project now based at the Congregational Church in Poughkeepsie, Edythe Ann Quinn, Hartwick College, who writes about the blacks in the Hills from her stint as Harrison Town Historian near where I live, Dot Willsey and others in Peterboro, home of abolitionist Gerrit Smith, and Seneca Village in Central Park and Weeksville in Brooklyn, honoring the New York Regiment Colored Troops (USCT) and on the list goes on of the stories of slave and free blacks in New York. The effort to tell the story of slavery in New York is one embraced by many hardworking people engaged in a labor of love and duty and obviously not for money.
I attended a Memorial Day commemoration at the Town of Rye African Cemetery. I asked Dave Thomas of the Town of Rye, who spearheaded the rescue of the segregated cemetery from its decrepit and overgrown state, to submit a post on the subject here at The New York History Blog. The point is there are many such stories to be told throughout the state. These sites are often small, understaffed, and aren’t even always sites but people who gather today to promote events so we remember our history, we remember what happened in the communities where we now live, that our sense of place, our sense of belonging includes these stories too.
These are the type of events, people, and organizations which would benefit from leadership from Albany and why I encourage your support the creation of the New York State History Commission.
Photo: Participants emerge from a talk at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site on John Brown Day 2014 (courtesy John Warren).