On Freedom's Threshold: The African American Presence in Central New York, 1760-1940

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On Freedom's Threshold: The African American Presence in Central New York, 1760-1940

Geography and history have conspired to give Central New York a unique place in the history of our state.(2) The region was once part of the "Burned-Over District" because of the revival fires of the 1820s and 1830s, and it has been called an "inland empire" because of its distinctive political, economic and social history. African Americans have been present in this section of New York State since the earliest white settlements, but an accounting of the black experience has been neglected. This may be due, in part, to the popular perception that African American history in New York State is of little importance outside of the populous urban centers, especially New York City. As late as 1910, the seventeen counties under consideration had a combined total of only 7,038 black residents, while New York County alone had 64,651. Onondaga County had the most black residents (1,296), while Cortland County had the least (71).(3)

Harriet Tubman is the most well-known African American to have made her home in Central New York. She is representative of the many blacks both before and after the Civil War who gave themselves over to the hope that Central New York might serve as freedom's threshold. Geographically positioned between the South's slavery and Canada's freedom, Central New York offered the promise of racial egalitarianism. But, as we shall see, African Americans remained a distinct minority in the region and encountered many obstacles as they sought to enter fully freedom's house.

FROM THE COLONIAL ERA TO 1830

"Everywhere that slavery exists," Austin Steward said of his experiences in Steuben County, "it is nothing but slavery. I found it just as hard to be beaten over the head with a piece of iron in New York as it was in Virginia."(4) In 1804 Captain William Helm brought about forty slaves, including Steward, his parents, and a sister, first to Sodus Bay and then to Bath. But many of the African Americans known to have been present in provincial New York were quite isolated from other blacks. They were themselves pioneers on the rough frontier of the Military Tract and the Phelps and Gorham Purchase out of which Central New York developed after the American Revolution.

Silas Bowker visited the Onondaga Salines in 1774, long before the Village of Syracuse was established, and discovered that "the manufacture of salt was wholly in the hands of two negro men, deserters from their master in Esopus, who used brass kettles for this purpose, and whose only customers were the neighboring Indians."(5) The salt springs on the bank of Onondaga Lake soon attracted white squatters onto the lands of the powerful Iroquois nation, and some settlers brought their slaves with them. Isaac Wales, the "property" of John Fleming, came in 1810. He learned to read and write, worked on the Erie Canal and eventually purchased his freedom. He obtained property and a home in Syracuse and advertised his services as a chimney sweep.(6)

African Americans also were present in what would become known as the Southern Tier at a very early date. Betsy Douglass, sometimes referred to as Way-Way, is said to have lived in Chugnutt, an Indian village on the Susquehanna River before the Revolutionary War. Born about 1767 to a runaway soldier from Fort Stanwix and his slave mistress, she was "given" to the Nanticoke Indians among whom she lived for nearly a decade prior to the settlement of Vestal (Broome County) by whites.(7) John Johnson's account of an expedition into the Painted-Post country (Chemung County) tells of two blacks in Assining (later Corning) about 1764, though their legal status is unclear.(8)

Some of the African American pioneers in Central New York were slaves, others indentured servants, and still others "free people of color." Their names are difficult to recover, for the 1820 census was the first to list blacks by name. …