ON THE SCENE: Kindness resonates for John Brown Day pilgrim
Chicago native remembers Lake Placid’s warm welcome during visit 60 years ago
Sixty years ago, Cordelia Nunn, a 12-year-old Black girl from Chicago, came to Lake Placid with her mother to attend John Brown Day, an annual pilgrimage to honor the man who gave his life to end slavery, an event once led by her great-grandmother Inez Carter.
In addition, they wanted to see the cottages on McKinley Street where Carter lived, operated a tuberculosis sanatorium for African Americans and worked as a hairdresser.
Today, the cottages, then known as Dreamland, no longer exist; instead, in its place is a village park. What does live in Nunn’s memory is how she was treated by the school children out playing during their lunch break in what is now the Olympic Speedskating Oval.
Back then, under the auspices of the Troy and Philadelphia branches of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), busloads of Black Americans came to Lake Placid each May to attend John Brown Day, which was originally held on the abolitionist’s birthday, May 9.
My parents, Jack and Gretel Wikoff, then owners of the Sun & Ski Motel, arranged housing at our motel and those nearby like the Northway, the High Ridge, and Redwood, with overflow at Art Devlin’s Olympic Motor Inn, an experience I remember well. The Sun & Ski, by the way, became listed in “The Negro Traveler’s Green Book,” a guide for safe and welcoming spaces for Black travelers to dine and stay before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The people coming to honor Brown in the 1960s were welcomed by then John Brown Farm State Historic Site Manager Ed Cotter, Lake Placid-North Elba Historian Mary MacKenzie, Middle School social studies teacher Gertrude Powers, and Charlie Walker and his wife Doris. Walker, a figure skater who became the first African-American figure skating judge, was active in the community and beloved for his abilities as a singer. He sang spirituals graveside as part of John Brown Day.
On Friday, May 13, Cordelia Nunn and her cousin David Manson were welcomed by Middle School Principal Teresa Lindsay and social studies teacher Keith Clark and his students, an experience that Nunn said equaled her earlier visit.
“I came to Lake Placid in 1968,” said Nunn to the students. “I was in eighth grade. My visit to Lake Placid showed me something I had never experienced before. Chicago, where I grew up, was a divided city. They had every nationality you could think of, but each group had its own area. When I was growing up, what they called “White Flight” was taking place. Because of it, I was aware that we could go to school together, work together, but at day’s end, we all had to go back home to our own little cubby holes.
“When I came to Lake Placid with my mom, we went to the top of the hill, where this school is located. When we went to your school, my mom was treated with so much respect and kindred spirit; everyone treated her like she was their long-lost daughter they feared they’d never see again. Remember, I’m 12. Sometimes, you step next to your parent when you get a little anxious or nervous. But the teachers said, come with us, let us show you the school like nothing has happened, but something was happening to me.
“My two sisters and I went with them. The school had a huge playground out front (where the Olympic Speedskating Oval is located). The kids came up to us and welcomed us like we were their long-lost sisters. It was the most transparent place I had ever experienced in my life.”
That desire for Blacks and other people of color to also feel that same sense of transparent welcome and embrace, with respect and as valued members of society, as Nunn experienced 60 years ago, was the vision behind the creation of the NAACP.
One hundred years ago, the NAACP Philadelphia chapter commissioned Dr. Jesse Max Barber and Dr. T. Spotuas Burwell to lay a wreath on John Brown’s grave. Barber, a founder of the Niagara Movement, dedicated to racial equity for Blacks, had long advocated for an annual tribute to Brown, who he considered the most “fearless of abolitionists.”
While in Lake Placid, they met Alice A. Walker, a Black woman who ran a sanatorium for Blacks. They were further astonished to learn that the Lake Placid school had closed for the day as part of an effort to enable as many local people as possible to attend the wreath-laying, which included a delegation representing the chamber of commerce.
Returning to Philadelphia, Barber founded the John Brown Memorial Association and served as its first president. Walker became the first president of the Lake Placid chapter in 1934 and, in time, was replaced by Nunn’s great-grandmother, Inez Carter.
On Saturday, May 14, the centennial of John Brown Day, John Brown Lives! hosted the 22nd Annual celebration under its auspices, a program reestablished in 1999 by author Russell Banks, John Brown Lives! Executive Director Martha Swan, and others. This year, the commemoration was dedicated to Larry Lawrence, founder of the John Brown Society, who died this past year, and to present the 2022 Spirit of John Brown Freedom Awards.
The awards were given to recognize the contributions by three artists in the fight for social justice: local graphic designer Ren Davidson Seward, dancer-choreographer Tiffany Rea-Fisher, and musician Tom Morello. The a were wards framed by songs presented by Akwesasne singer-songwriter Theresa “Bear” Fox. While heavy rain, hail and strong winds battered the region, the conditions at the farm were relatively mild through the presentation and following graveside wreath-laying.
“All of my heroes have been hated by racists,” said Morello, accepting his award. “John Brown has always been a hero of mine because of his uncompromising stance for the liberation of humanity, his demand for total equality of all people, and his unwellness to take half measures.”
Nunn experienced that full welcoming embrace 60 years ago. That experience led her to devote her life to expanding civil rights for all people, including working with Martin Luther King Jr., Jessie Jackson and many others.
“Going back to the school felt like it did a long time ago,” said Nunn. “Though there have been changes, it felt the same. The school mostly looked the same; the people looked and acted the same. Everything I felt inside the school was positive; they were very personable to me then and were personable to me now. In addition, having the chance to visit the park where the Dreamland Cottages were located was a blessing in disguise. There is quite a lot of history here; I’d love to come back.”
If Nunn returns, open arms will welcome her once again.
“I think it was awesome having Cordelia Nunn and her cousin visit the class,” said Middle School Principal Teresa Lindsay. “Students hearing real-life stories being told is moving for our children, and we loved having them.”
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the News for more than 15 years.)