Although his father was said to have been born as a slave, and was later a junk dealer in the Augusta, Georgia area, Sumner H. Lark came to be a trend-breaking black leader in New York State who worked to establish an African-American community in Putnam County.
Sumner Lark was born in in 1874 to a father later described as “a pioneer race business man in his home town and accumulated a considerable fortune at one time.” He grew up in the Augusta area, and attended the Haines Institute before attending Howard University, graduating in 1897. He then returned to Georgia, taught Chemistry and Physics at Haines and ran a local newspaper for about a year, having edited a student-run newspaper in college. After marrying he relocated to Brooklyn, New York just after the start of the 20th century. There, he ran his own printing business, and started The Eye, a newspaper which reported information of interest to African Americans.
Breaking with many of his fellow African-Americans, Lark became a supporter of the Democratic Party. A Howard University publication, in a column “Alumni You Ought to Know,” said that Lark deplored sentiments expressed by southern Democrats, but he supported “some of the fine things which the Democratic party has done in the interest of the Negroes of the State of New York.” These included the creation of the Fifteenth Regiment (which later became the 369th Regiment, in which Henry Johnson served during World War One). New York Democrats were also responsible for what had become a very effective Civil Rights law. The Brownsville Affair, in which President Teddy Roosevelt dismissed dozens of black soldiers in connection with incidents in Brownsville, Texas, served to turn many African Americans away from the Republican party. In their switch to the Democrats, they followed in Lark’s steps.
Lark had a major involvement with a committee created to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in 1913. Differences of opinion among members of the committee, and efforts by some to politicize it, became distractions. Lark even filed a libel lawsuit when he was the subject of a perceived insult from Prof. W. E. B. Dubois, who served on the committee. Despite the problems, the committee’s work culminated in an exhibition at the 12th Regimental Armory in New York City held from October 22 to 31 in 1913.
Lark understood how the law could be used to support the rights of African Americans (he had
successfully sued while running his printing business). He enrolled at the Brooklyn Law School, and completed the program despite personal family struggles exacerbated by the off-and on estrangement of his wife. He graduated in 1916 and was admitted to the bar.
Lark’s involvement with the Democratic Party’s Tammany Hall may have helped him get appointed as Assistant District Attorney in Kings County in 1923. (Though it is sometimes stated that he was the first black member of the District Attorney’s office in Brooklyn, he was actually the second, because notable black lawyer Rufus L. Perry had briefly served as an assistant D. A. there in 1895.)
As an entrepreneur, Lark purchased the foundering Putnam Theater in Brooklyn, revived it, and, after operating it for about three years, sold it at a profit. He also invested in two apartment buildings and an office building.
In 1922, Lark began purchasing real estate in the Putnam County town of Putnam Valley, in the vicinity of Barger Brook. His holdings eventually amounted to about 200 acres. He had several plans for this property. A bill was introduced in the state legislature in 1923 that sought to establish an industrial and farm school on property donated by Lark. Though open to anyone, the main objective of the planned school was to provide training for young African-Americans. There was some opposition to the project however, and it never materialized.
Lark also had a dream of creating an African American community in Putnam Valley. This project was mentioned in a profile of Lark that appeared in the May 1923 issue of W. E. B. Dubois’s periodical, The Crisis. Lark hoped that Larksburg, as it came to be called, would become a thriving community. The venture was important enough to him that in the spring of 1924 he resigned his position at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in order to devote more time to the project The Larksburg Development Corporation was incorporated as a construction company in 1925, with “S. H. Lark” its attorney.
Lark also dedicated some of his land for use as a cemetery for African Americans. Larksburg Cemetery Corporation was formed in 1927. The New York Age newspaper noted that “religious, fraternal and business interests” in Harlem had taken title to a tract of land in the town of Putnam Valley, with the intention of creating a mausoleum that would provide for interments in a “concrete and marble tomb,” instead of graves in the ground. The article explained that because the state legislature had forbidden land in the New York metropolitan area being used for new cemeteries, it was anticipated that before long there would be no more room in the city for burials.
The cemetery in Putnam Valley consisted of 30 acres, and work had already been started “clearing the land, building fences, and otherwise beautifying the property.” One member of the cemetery’s board of directors was Elder Robert C. Lawson, who would later have a great deal to do with Larksburg.
Ads for the cemetery promoted the new “Emanuel Cemetery,” and listed Sumner H. Lark as its director. Family plots cost $125 (paid in monthly installments) and included eight interments, “thus settling for yourself and your children this necessary matter.”
Lark’s plan hit a snag in 1931 when he became ill. On June 20th, the New York Age reported that while Lark was at “his country home at Larksburg” near Peekskill, he had become so sick that his doctor felt he would not recover, and his family was told he would not live more than a few days. (The article noted his interest in the “residential colony” at Larksburg, and that some of the 200 acres had been made into a cemetery.)
Lark passed away on June 26, 1931, at the home of a brother in Brooklyn. His funeral, held at the Siloam Presbyterian Church, was attended by “many prominent colored and white citizens,” as well as by many of his friends from his Elks Lodge. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle mentioned that Lark had never sought to “emphasize or embitter racial controversies” and had earned the respect of white lawyers. Larksburg, it said, had never been a commercial development, but was one that he had “operated for the benefit of the negro race.”
His body was taken back to Putnam Valley. Nine limousines transported family and friends to Emanuel Cemetery where he was buried at a spot he had selected – at the graveyard’s highest point. At the time, about 200 graves were already filled there, according to the New York Age. A graveside service was conducted by two of Lark’s friends, the Rev. Dr. Henry Hugh Proctor and Bishop R. C. Lawson. In his will, Lark left his property to his children (his bitterness toward his wife resulted in her getting only one dollar) and expressed his desire that three of his sons would “work to further build up Larksburg.”
About a month after Lark’s death, Bishop Lawson was selected as president of the Larksburg Cemetery Corporation, succeeding Lark. Emanuel Cemetery, owned and controlled by the corporation, had been in operation for four years, and it was reported that 246 residents of New York City were buried there. Over time, Lawson took control of much of the Larksburg property, and began making improvements.
Eventually, Larksburg (which became known as Lawsonville) became a resort that offered African Americans a respite from the grind of life in New York City. A profile of Lawson that appeared in the New York Age on August 28, 1937 described his various enterprises in New York City, and said he “has not confined his material endeavors to Harlem,” but also “maintains a hotel and three cottages” at Larksburg. The cottages and the 20-room hotel were part of what became a complex that also included a cattle barn and grocery store.
The 1940 Census for Putnam Valley lists a handful of African Americans among residents along Barger Street. They lived in three households, headed by Maude Lee, Bernard Wilson, and Bishop Lawson. (Lawson’s children and a maid lived there – a notation made by the census-taker says that the clergyman and his wife resided in New York City.)
Apart from Larksburg/Lawsonville, Lawson achieved great notoriety as a preacher. He had had a syndicated radio program in the 1930s, and in 1957 was a part of an event alongside the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Lawson died in 1961, and he and his wife Carrie lie in the cemetery at Larksburg (which is also called the Lawson Cemetery). Their graves are the most prominent ones in the graveyard, with a columned edifice marking their resting places. Not many other gravestones are present, and a list of interments gives the names of only a few dozen of the nearly 300 people who were laid to rest there.
Over the years, the cemetery suffered from neglect. In 2014, Eagle Scout, James Gummerson raised funds, rounded up volunteers, and pitched-in himself to improve the appearance of the cemetery.
Portrait courtesy the Howard University Record.