ABOUT JAY WALLJASPER
A frequent visitor to BMC over the past twenty years, Walljasper edits the BMC Commons e-magazine and website. Editor of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, Walljasper has written widely on political, social and cultural subjects for publications ranging from The Christian Science Monitor and Washington Monthly to Mother Jones and Alternet. Former editor of the Utne Reader and Contributing Editor to National Geographic Traveler, he is also the author of The Great Neighborhood Book. He lives in Minneapolis.
It’s no secret the Adirondacks is less racially diverse than most parts of the United States. Here’s what is really secret: the region’s unexpected history of African-American settlement, abolition activity, the underground railroad and people of color still passing through on the road to safety.
Few folks south of Albany, west of Utica, east of Essex and north of Malone know that African-Americans escaping slavery hid here on their way to Canada, and that legendary abolitionist John Brown plotted anti-slavery campaigns on his farm near Lake Placid. Nor is it widely known that hundreds of black farmers settled here in the 1840s, and today that immigrants in the US worried about losing their refugee status are now following the same underground railroad route to Canada.
Some Adirondackers don’t know this either, despite the presence of the John Brown Farm State Historic Site near Lake Placid, the North Star Underground Railroad Museum in Ausable Chasm and Plattsburgh Cares, a group coming to aid of refugees.
(Photo by Jimmy Emerson DVM under a Creative Commons License)
John Brown Lives!
Martha Swan—founder of John Brown Lives!—stumbled across this history on a lunch-break walk in Elizabethtown. She saw a historical plaque, noting that John Brown’s body laid in the nearby courthouse, guarded by local citizens, on the way to his burial at home after being hanged in Virginia.
“I thought John Brown! Here?” she remembers.
That prompted Swan, now a high school Spanish teacher, to dig deeper into local history, and form John Brown Lives!, which helps promote, program and sustain the John Brown Farm State Historical Site, which the group helped save from being closed in 2011.
“It’s a human rights destination to many,” Swan explains, “and a good place to walk your dog or have a picnic to others.” A young couple posed for engagement photos on the afternoon she toured me through the site—which includes an exhibit on New York’s 19th Century African-American farming communities and nature trails as well as the farmhouse and burial site.
The John Brown Farm and burial site was named a historic site in 1896, and from the 1920s to 1960s civil rights activists, organized by members of the Philadelphia NAACP, made annual pilgrimages there. John Brown Lives! revived the tradition, and this year 150 people were on hand for presentations and music on John Brown Day in early May.
(Photo by Mikayla Ploof)
(Photo by Martha Swan)
John Brown’s Farm State Historic Site near Lake Placid
The organization honors Brown’s heroism by promoting social justice and human rights in the Adirondacks and beyond. “We are dedicated to using the lens of the past to inspire civic engagement today,” Swan says.
Each year they award the Spirit of John Brown Freedom Award to activists who follow in the footsteps of the Abolitionists. This year’s winners were: Jen Kretser, Director of the youth climate program at the Wild Center in Tupper Lake; Latino poet Martin Espada, who teaches at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst; and Soffiyah Elijah of Alliance of Families for Justice, which works to reform New York State’s criminal justice system, and provide support to families of the incarcerated and people who have been released from prisons—19 of which are located in the Adirondack and North Country regions of New York, Swan notes.
John Brown Lives! has held a number of retreats at BMC over the past 20 years.
“We really have to ask ourselves why we don’t know more about John Brown, a white ally in the black freedom struggle,” Swan stresses. “Why we have this vision of him solely as a violent man, when we don’t discuss slavery as violence. We need to excavate our history, especially what’s been overlooked, willfully neglected and distorted.”
In 1821, the New York state legislature blocked African-Americans from voting unless they owned $250 worth of real estate—a daunting investment at that time. Twenty five years later philanthropist Gerrit Smith offered 3000 free black male New Yorkers a chance to gain equal voting rights by granting them 40-acres of Adirondack wilderness. Frederick Douglass, one of Smith’s advisors on the project who lived in Rochester, rejoiced that “the sharp axe of the sable-armed pioneer should at once be lifted over the soil of Franklin and Essex Counties.”
While most of the largely urban African-American families never actually moved to their farms due to lack of start-up capital, concerns about poor soil, worries about a hostile reception from white residents and strong roots in their existing communities, historian Amy Godine celebrates this experiment in black agrarianism in the “Dreaming of Timbuctoo” exhibit, which she curated for John Brown Lives! Permanently installed at the John Brown Farm, the exhibit is also currently on display at the New York State Fair in Syracuse and available for exhibition at other venues. Godine extols “the hard work of the grantees who took up new lives as pioneers, and who, alongside their white neighbors, raised crops, barns, and families.”
The concentration of 200 African-American farmers in the eastern Adirondacks— known to some as Timbuctoo, after the legendary city in Africa—is what drew John Brown and his family to the region in 1848.
North Star Underground Railroad Museum
At the same time some African-Americans were planting roots in the Adirondacks, others were trekking through the region’s woods under the cover of darkness on their way to Canada. The North Star Underground Railroad Museum, located in a historic house near Ausable Chasm, documents this chapter of history in absorbing exhibits.
The museum uncorks more surprises. Slavery was legal in all 13 states in the early days of the United States. In 1777, Vermont—then an independent republic—started a process for the gradual elimination of slavery, which was followed by Pennsylvania and New England states in the 1780s, and later New York State in 1799. However some black New Yorkers remained in slavery until it was abolished entirely on July 4, 1827.
The Underground Railroad actually ran in both directions through the Adirondacks. After passage of the 1882 US Chinese Exclusion Act, Chinese immigrants entered the United States for several decades at a border crossing at the north end of Lake Champlain, notes Jackie Madison, president of the organization that runs the museum. An African-American who moved to the Adirondacks to work for a pharmaceutical company, she delights in showing the multicultural history of the region.
Today’s Underground Exodus?
A modern version of the underground railroad is picking up steam through the Adirondacks as growing numbers of people cross into Canada near Saint Bernard-de-Lacolle, Quebec—the same spot African-Americans passed in the 1850s—seeking refugee status.
As many as 15-30 cross each day, according to Plattsburgh’s Press Republican newspaper, many of them immigrants from Haiti, El Salvador, Honduras and other strife-torn countries for which the Trump Administration is reducing or eliminating refugee protection policies.
And just as Adirondackers took in African-Americans on the road to freedom, a group of more that 250 people have joined Plattsburgh Cares to offer humanitarian aid to people in need passing through their community.