ON THE SCENE: New book explores Black history in the Adirondacks
Growing up in Lake Placid, I heard stories about why the mid-19th century Blacks who came into the region attracted by abolitionist Gerrit Smith’s land grants failed to succeed in farming and increase the value of their land that would enable them to vote. Fundamentally, the stories centered around them not having the smarts and work ethic to succeed; they were fresh from Africa, where their experience was hunting wildlife with spears.
On Friday, Nov. 10, historian Amy Godine clearly articulated why those and other long-held rumors were far from true. In reality, despite their challenges, many succeeded in becoming beloved members of the communities where they lived. Godine, at times reading from her new book, “The Black Woods: Pursuing Racial Justice on the Adirondack Frontier,” presented the results of her extensive research into the intentions and outcome of Smith’s grants at Northwood School’s The Hub on Main Street.
Bookstore Plus and Northwood organized the well-attended presentation; the audience included students from Northwood and North Country schools.
Independent scholar, historian, and Adirondack Life contributor Amy Godine has published 50 articles in the magazine about the history of marginalized communities and social injustice in the Adirondacks. Godine has also curated several exhibitions, some for John Brown Lives!, the friends group of the John Brown Farm Historic site. Her first for them was “Dreaming of Timbuctoo,” about Gerrit Smith’s founded settlement in North Elba. Godine has lectured widely in the area about ethnic neighborhoods, immigrants, migratory laborers, paupers, peddles, and other “non-elites.”
Godine, who lives in Saratoga, was looking for a scholarly niche that she could research and write about that would enable her to live here, a region she has come to love. Delving into the lives of the marginalized has provided her a treasure trove of stories that have helped residents and visitors alike to gain a fuller picture of this region. Martha Swan, reaching out to her to curate the Timbuctoo story, led Godine to discover how rich and vital the Black experience in the North Country has been.
“This is a scheme of benevolence and justice,” said Godine. “Smith brought Black New Yorkers into the Adirondacks with gifts of free land to the tune of 120,000 acres that he gave to 3,000 Black men. There were certain eligibility rules; they had to be poor, non-drinkers, of good character, and landless. Smith did this at a time when Black New Yorkers could not vote in the state unless they could prove ownership of $250 in real estate, a rule imposed in 1821 and been in effect for 25 years to thwart a potential Black voting block that might vote the anti-slavery ticket.”
Ending slavery in New York was a big concern of white businessmen in New York City; anybody who did business with southern markets wanted to keep that trade going. They tried to crush that potential electorate before it could form; this restriction was imposed, which hardly anybody could meet, and, as designed, wiped out any possibility of voting. Thus, Smith’s land grants were a gesture of goodwill and solidarity with the Black reform community.
Smith had about three-quarters of 1 million acres inherited from his father. In addition to his desire to help the Blacks, giving away so much land helped reduce his taxes, which was an added incentive. His offer was very popular. Smith picked 13 volunteer activists, some white, most Black, spread across the state to promote his offer and identify and recommend grantees. Smith had determined that the communities where the land grants would be offered, such as Franklin, North Elba, and St. Armand, were well-seeded with abolitionists, people potentially willing to assist the grantees.
“The base story you will read in any history is that it failed almost immediately, a tiny percent of the men given land came north, it was a bust from the beginning, and Gerrit Smith was crazy to think this could even work,” said Godine. “Most histories declare the failure was due to the lack of motivation, capacity and resourcefulness amongst the grantees themselves. To put it bluntly, they didn’t have the ‘right stuff’ to make it work; they couldn’t organize themselves, didn’t know what to do, and were not interested in learning about farming. In one book and after another, the blame fell on the grantees. The story became radicalized: Black people don’t fit in this climate, this region; they don’t belong here.”
Unfortunately, Smith did not provide the grantees with seed money that would enable them to purchase tools, seeds, horses, warm clothing, and food for the first year. John Brown and his family, brought up to assist them and bring oxen to help clear their land, didn’t arrive until two years after the initial grantees came. Further, the agents didn’t let Smith know of the need, perhaps not wanting to discourage his largess. Yet, many Blacks stayed, especially in the town of Franklin, and many succeeded, many more than people would admit.
When the colored troops formed late in the Civil War, several grantees signed up and served with distinction. Many worked in the burgeoning hospitality industry when the region opened to tourism. While the numbers living in the North Country were not huge, they had overcome tremendous difficulties to get established as they did. Godine shared many examples of positive neighborly relations and support for the Blacks, including how many served on town committees and one family helped establish the public library in Lake Placid.
Godine went into detail about who came, who didn’t and why, the successes and challenges of those who came, the differences in terms of how the land grant experience was viewed by the White and Blacks, and what Smith’s social justice experience can teach us today. Godines’ talk was followed by a rich Q-and-A led by Annie Stoltie, editor-in-chief of Adirondack Life.
“I was fascinated by her research process, how conducting research has changed, and the difficulties of humanities mid-nineteenth century life,” said Northwood teacher John Spear. “When you find something, it makes the story pop.”
“I didn’t know that Black people were here before because when you are up here, you see mostly white people,” said Cambrie, a Northwood student. “The presentation was very informative. I am excited about returning home and researching my family’s history.”
“We don’t have presentations like this in China,” said her classmate Willow. “It was a new experience for me.”
“I thought the presentation was fantastic, very informative,” said Matt from North Country School.
Amy Godine’s book is available at Bookstore Plus and other venues where books are sold.
(Naj Wikoff lives in Keene Valley. He has been covering events for the Lake Placid News for more than 15 years.)