Re-writing the history of Black families in the Adirondacks

Curt Stager holds an 1870s land map of Bloomingdale, Vermontville, Wilmington and Keene that he used to help locate where the Black families he researched lived. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Another truth, this about Blacks living in the Adirondacks, was shared Sunday afternoon, March 26, to a packed hall on March 26 at the Whallonsburg Grange by Curt Stager, the author, North Country Public Radio co-host, musician and professor of natural sciences at Paul Smith’s College.

Over the past several years, Stager has used his considerable talents to drill into the lives of mid-19th century Blacks living in Bloomingdale and Vermontville.

Knowing Stager had been researching Walden Pond several years ago, John Brown Lives! Executive Director Martha Swan invited him to share a statement at a John Brown Day commemoration by Henry David Thoreau praising Capt. John Brown following his Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859. Swan’s invitation opened Stager’s eyes to the amount of Adirondack land abolitionist Gerrit Smith gave to free Blacks, enabling them to vote. Noting that some of that land was in Bloomingdale and Vermontville stimulated Stager to research who got parcels and what became of them. The answers stunned him.

In Donaldson’s “A History of the Adirondacks” and popular lore, Blacks that came to the Adirondacks to take advantage of Smith’s land grants in the years before the Civil War were lazy and didn’t have the skills and talents to survive in this region.

Stager’s research put the lie to that false narrative. More than developing successful farms, several Black men volunteered to fight in some of the most brutal battles in the latter part of the Civil War, accomplishing extraordinary deeds of great bravery and fortitude. Some died and are buried in the South; one met a woman he married and brought home to Vermontville; others returned to their wives and children; one worked for Paul Smith in his hotel. Many were buried in the local cemeteries, and several have families still living in the region. The epitaphs on the gravestones of Black men and women extolled the great respect their fellow townspeople held for them.

“If they were alive today, for all the challenges we face, they would see enormous progress,” Stager said. “It’s important to acknowledge progress. We see the problems we have, and it can make us feel like it’s overwhelming. But if you look behind you and see the distance we have traveled due to hard work, you know that if you do it, your efforts will help pull us forward.”

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