New plaque honors Black pioneer at site of renamed brook in Onchiota

More than 100 people assembled on the side of a remote road in Onchiota Saturday, Sept. 16 to see the unveiling of a new plaque commemorating the renaming of John Thomas Brook from Negro Brook. From left, Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager, Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center Director David Fadden and Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Tiffany Rea-Fisher unveil the plaque. (News photo — Aaron Marbone)

ONCHIOTA — More than 100 people gathered on the side of county Route 60 Saturday, Sept. 16 to see the unveiling of a plaque commemorating John Thomas Brook, formerly Negro Brook — a name many locals have found “shameful and embarrassing” for years.

Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager, who filed to have the name changed, read the yellow lettering on the blue sign out loud: “‘John Thomas escaped from slavery in (Maryland) and lived near this brook in Vermontville as (a) prosperous farmer and’ … I can’t say it.”

He swelled with emotion and got choked up.

The last two words — “respected citizen” — are an official acknowledgement to Thomas’ existence as an American, finally coming 129 years after his death. The words refer to a letter Thomas wrote to the abolitionist Gerrit Smith, who first granted him land in the North Country, giving him the right to vote in a time when Black men faced barriers to participating in democracy.

“I have breasted the storm of prejudice and opposition until I begin to be regarded as an American citizen,” Thomas wrote.

More than 100 people assembled on the side of a remote road in Onchiota Saturday, Sept. 16 to see the unveiling of a new plaque commemorating the renaming of John Thomas Brook from Negro Brook. (News photo — Aaron Marbone)

He had found a home in the Adirondacks where he was no longer in danger, but where he still didn’t feel fully accepted. This can be seen in the beautiful brook with an ugly name and a complicated history. Up until this year it had been named Negro Brook.

Many maps leave it unlabeled rather than printing the offensive word. The brook used to be known by an even more offensive name — “N***** Brook.” It was changed from this slur to “Negro Brook” in 1963. Now, it has changed again.

John Thomas Brook is a 15.3-mile long stream that flows from Onchiota to Bloomingdale, runs under the Bloomingdale Bog Trail at times and connects with Twobridge Brook, Sumner Brook and Ricketson’s Brook.

The brook was labeled with the slur because around a dozen Black families lived along its waters between the 1850s and 1870s, farming the land. They were granted that land by Smith, and because they owned land, that allowed them to legally vote. Around half of Franklin County was Black-owned at that time, Stager said. These “Black Adirondack pioneers” were a part of the Adirondack community, but were treated by some with disrespect.

“Words matter”

Adirondack Diversity Initiative Director Tiffany Rea-Fisher was at the brook with her 2-year-old daughter on Sept. 16.

“This was a place that I would never, ever, ever bring anyone to,” Rea-Fisher, who is Black, said. “And now I feel pride and I feel privileged to be here.”

People have long talked about the offensive brook name and she said it is a very challenging thing to take something in theory and make it a reality. Oftentimes there are good ideas, but the logistics of changing a name can be so intimidating that people lose steam.

“Words matter,” Rea-Fisher said. “They speak to what our cultural values are. When this brook was originally named, that was the value. That was not a fluke. That was not by mistake. That was intentional, and intentionally hurtful.”

She said the offensive former name was reflective of the culture here, that it was deemed acceptable for so long, but she added that the name change is also reflective of a changing culture.

Rea-Fisher is the great-great granddaughter of a woman who was born on a plantation in Mississippi.

“So when people talk to me and tell me that we haven’t progressed, I know that’s not true,” she said. “Because this story that is here of slavery, of bondage, of bounty hunters, there is no Black American in this county whose life has not been tapped by that, in a very real way.”

She said Stager’s efforts have changed the course of Black history in the Adirondacks.

The renaming was officially approved by the U.S. Board of Geographical Names on April 13. The plaque installed Saturday was paid for by the Draper-Lussi Endowment, which supports Stager’s faculty position at the college.

The sign is placed near a bridge over the brook, on land owned by Paul Smith’s College on county Route 60, around 150 yards east of the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center.

Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center Director David Fadden said an “Ohen:ton Karihwatehkwen” or “words before all else.” It is a native thanksgiving address delivered before events, thanking the many parts of the natural world which make life possible and whole.

This included a thanks to the waters of the brook which run behind the museum. But for years, that brook has been a place of shame for Fadden.

“It’s always been an embarrassment,” he said. “We just call it ‘the brook.'”

Maps and official records still always held the hidden name.

“Names are so important,” Fadden said.

As the museum expands, he said new maps now say “John Thomas Brook.” Fadden said he hadn’t known the history of John Thomas before. The Black pioneers are a part of history that many people don’t know of because their stories have only recently been uncovered. Fadden said he knows of a camp down the road from the museum where Black people who worked on the railroad camped because no one would take them in at the time.

Thomas, his wife Mary, and their son, Richard, are buried in Union Cemetery in Vermontville.

Some of Thomas’ decedents still live in the North Country. Susan Hendrie Morrow, who lives in the Plattsburgh area is John Thomas’ great-great-great-granddaughter on her mother’s side and has grandchildren and a brother who live up here. They were not able to make it to the unveiling, but Stager said they sent their full approval.

Community effort

Rea-Fisher said Stager told her he struggled with being at the center of this Black story. But she told him not to. He was the one who got the name change and he did it because it was the right thing to do.

Stager said it was a community effort that changed the name.

While he spent months collecting everything he needed for the application to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, he collected signatures of support from the community.

Elected officials like town of Franklin Supervisor Dot Brown and Franklin County Legislator Lindy Ellis wrote in support; Paul Smith’s College students and faculty wrote letters; organizations like Historic Saranac Lake, ADI, the Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center and the North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association gave their support; and numerous other locals documented their support for the change.

“That unanimity of support is remarkable,” Stager said. “I attribute it in large part to local perception of the story, not as one of grievance or culture wars, but rather that of a fellow Adirondacker who is worthy of recognition.”

This wide support could be seen in the sizeable crowd gathered on Sept. 16, which spilled well into the road. A line of cars wound far down the road, and many had ridden there on bikes. Attendees gathered for a reception afterward at The Station.

Stager said a few people have told him he’s “erasing history.” He disagrees.

“We’re recovering history that had been erased,” he said.

He said the naming of the brook with a slur about the color of the people’s skin who lived there, not about their names or their contribution to the community, erased their history.

Stager said this renaming is consistent with nationwide efforts to replace or update racist and offensive names, markers and statues.

Rea-Fisher called it a “historic moment” and said she hopes the brook to be a place of “intergenerational healing.”

There’s still work to do. She said before she brings Black friends from elsewhere around the Adirondacks she scouts out places. It’s not always as overt as Negro Brook, but she sometimes gets a feeling that she is not welcome.

And the renaming work is not done yet. Stager said he’d like to set his sights on the nearby “Negro Hill.” But more research needs to be done before he can apply for a name change there.

To read more of John Thomas’ story, and the story of how the brook’s name changed, go to tinyurl.com/4hzn9vzd.

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