"To Them That Has Brot Me Up": Black Oneidans and Their Families, 1850 to 1920

Article excerpt

"To Them That Has Brot Me Up": Black Oneidans and Their Families, 1850 to 1920

INTRODUCTION

Research on New York black history beyond New York City continues to reveal increasingly detailed understanding of this long-neglected subject. General overviews of upstate African American history now outlined the contours of the region's black experience.(3) Local community studies have proliferated for such communities as Syracuse, Saratoga, Rome, Buffalo, Elmira, Ithaca, Poughkeepsie, Utica, and others.(4) Despite the richness of this work, much remains to be done.(5) This is a study of unexplored historical territory, black families in Oneida County, New York.

Until recently very little was known about black Oneidans, least of all their families. Nothing could be gleaned about them from the county and city histories of the area.(6) Sernett's work on Beriah Green and the Oneida Institute and Richards' study of Utica's anti-abolitionist riots of 1835 document Oneida County's role in the struggle against slavery.(7) Jermaine Loguen briefly described his experiences in the black community of the 1840s, finding it "an intelligent and spirited colored population."(8) Sernett's overview links black Oneidans to central upstate New York African American history.(9) Local researchers have looked more closely into their lives. Wisnoski has discovered those black Oneidans who served in the Civil War and has also compiled the letters of William Labiel, a black soldier from Vernon. Studies of black Romans and Uticans(10) provide more information about daily life. Most of this research has been done in the last 20 years.

However, we still know very little about their families. When Sernett explains that "the church was second only to the family in importance...", he discusses the church, not the family.(11) Haley's call for more research on upstate black history includes specific questions about family life: did most black children live in 2-parent nuclear households; and did most black women work outside the home?(12) This is a closer look at the families of black Oneidans from 1850 to 1920.(13)

Oneida County family structure is interesting for several reasons. Upon emancipation, the family was the fundamental social institution for African Americans, and it remained so for much of the period under study. We know little about the stability and organization of these families as they emerged from enslavement. The dominant beliefs about blacks, as revealed by the newspapers of the day, encourage a view of black Oneidans as irresponsible buffoons and petty troublemakers.(14) Does the historical record support such a view? What were these families actually like? Did local black families resemble those of whites or families elsewhere? For instance, did people drift into casual employment as individuals or as broken families, perhaps female-headed families at that? Did patterns of 19th century family chaos bring us to the point of family destabilization today?

Studying the families of the past can perhaps help to explain the serious problems facing many black families today, and particularly in Oneida County. In 1990, 56% of Oneida County's African American households were headed by females; only 2 out of 5 children had 2 parent families. Women headed 2/3 of all poor black households with children. Seven out of 10 black children were impoverished. Moreover, Oneida County's African Americans faced greater rates of single-female families, poverty, and unemployment than in the nation in general.(15) Many believe that the cause of black impoverishment is the absence of a stable male presence in the family. Some believe that female-headed families are a cultural preference among black Americans. Is the modern black family a continuation of black family patterns of the 19th century? In particular, does the extraordinarily high rate of female-headed households in Oneida County reflect a continuation of a pattern stretching back at least 150 years? …

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