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Friday, September 22, 2017

Prisoners of State

by Lawrence S. Freund



Twelve miles separated the men gathered in a Manhattan meeting room 150 years ago from the fortress where some of them had been held prisoner during the Civil War. Their gathering, a bitter protest against their wartime incarceration, received scant attention at the time although it would create a legacy that continues to reflect the nation’s conflicted attitude toward the competing demands of liberty and security.

While war raged on the battlefields of the Civil War, the Lincoln Administration maintained a quieter yet persistent and muscular campaign against perceived subversives active on Northern territory. The process was exemplified on Wednesday, April 27, 1864, when a Union Army officer arrived at the Rathbun House, a four-story hotel on Monroe Avenue in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The captain bore a slip of paper ordering him to “arrest P.C. Wright, formerly a New Orleans lawyer, whose plantation and slaves now confiscated.” The officer knocked firmly on a hotel room door, demanding entry. It would be the end of freedom for Phineas C. Wright for the next 15 months.

Wright, born in Rome, New York, had moved south with his wife and stepson in the 1850s, establishing a somewhat successful legal and public service career in New Orleans before moving to St. Louis in the months immediately before the outbreak of the Civil War. Wright’s sentiments were clearly with the South as he roamed the Midwest to recruit civilians for an organization he founded and named the Order of American Knights. In 1863, he published a florid oration on behalf of his order, with the nom de plume of “P. Caius Urbanus.” “There exists to-day,” he proclaimed, “a power which calls itself, in the unparalleled arrogance which distinguishes it, ‘the Government,' which has invaded the sacred and hitherto respected sovereignty of your several States, has disregarded the constitutions, laws, and ordinances of those States, which the people thereof have ordained and accepted … has invaded the sacred precincts of your peaceful homes …” As “Supreme Commander” of the order, Wright declared to his “Brothers”: “We will with our swords, if need be, sweep away these clouds…” The Lincoln administration was aware of Wright’s plans and declarations. In March 1864, he arranged to meet his wife in Detroit, intending to travel with her to his new base New York City with stops along the way to deliver speeches. His arrest in Grand Rapids interrupted those plans.

Alice C. Hayes: A Niagara Falls, New York ‘Talented Tenth Practitioner’ with Executive Abilities Who Built Bridges and Got Things Done


By Michael Boston

In analyzing Alice C. Hayes’s leadership, we can define it as a top-down or leader-centered style of leadership.[1] Leadership operates like a corporation, with a hierarchical structure and a clear chain of command. At the top is the corporate president, who is influenced by many factors, such as stockholders. Decisions are shaped by internal corporate factors in conjunction with external issues, and usually flow from the top down. Once decisions are made, whether subordinates influenced them or not, they are expected to be adhered to. Ella Baker, a highly experienced community leader and former executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, characterized Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s impactful leadership as leader-centered.[2] Moreover, African-American history is replete with leaders following this model (e.g., Denmark Vesey, Nat Turner, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, Mary Church Terrell, Whitney Young, Huey P. Newton, etc.). Therefore, “leader-centered leadership” here is not a critique of leadership but simply a term to describe an approach to accomplishing goals.

Alice C. Hayes’s leadership also fits W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of “The Talented Tenth.” Du Bois conceptualized this idea in the early 1900s, as a young scholar in search of an uplift strategy for African Americans.[3] He posited that the African-American community should identify its brightest and best, a top ten percent, and support their intellectual development with college and university training. In turn, these trained individuals had a duty to return to the African-American community and help uplift others. Du Bois required and expected this. These selected individuals, upon being educated, were expected to not only be intellectually formidable but also morally sound, exemplifying high character worthy of emulation. “The Talented Tenth of the Negro race,” Du Bois noted, “must be made leaders of thought and missionaries of culture among their people.”[4] Alice Hayes, described as “an elegant lady,”[5] demonstrated this decree for almost fifty years within the City of Niagara Falls in not only helping to improve the status of Black Niagarans but Niagarans in general, bridging gaps between communities and hoping also that individuals would not only improve their status but reach back and help others.[6]

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Schenectady’s Jewish Immigrants: Acculturation and Preserving History

By Dr. Harvey Strum of The Sage Colleges


Jews comprised one of the largest immigrant groups to arrive in the United States from 1870-1924 until Congress closed the doors to large scale immigration for forty years with the passage of the National Origins Act. Congress wanted to limit Jews, Italians, Poles, and other immigrants from eastern and southern Europe considered racially inferior and unfit to become real Americans. Driven out of the Russian Empire by the pogroms of 1869, pogroms of 1888-82, May Laws of 1882, the expulsions of 1891, and the pogroms of 1903-1905, one third of the six million Jews in the Russian Empire left for America in search of religious tolerance, economic opportunity, political freedom, and to escape Russian captivity. Pogroms in Jassy, Romania in 1899 and fifty Moldavian towns in 1907 encouraged 150,000 Romanian Jews to leave. Draconian laws on Jewish economic activities dating from the 1880s further spurred their departure. Because of overpopulation, starvation, and limited economic opportunities, 500,00 Jews---about one quarter of the Jewish population of the Austro-Hungarian Empire left for the United States. A smaller movement of Jews from Russia, Romania, and Austria-Hungary fled eastward to Palestine, starting the Zionist movement. However, the clear majority of Jews from Eastern Europe preferred the promised land of New York City, Philadelphia, or Schenectady.

Schenectady in the 19th century and early 20th century attracted Irish, German, Jewish, Italian, Polish, Greek, Armenian, Ukrainian, and Lithuanian immigrants. Studying how Jewish immigrants adapted to Schenectady and the United States provides us with insights into the immigrant experience in upstate New York. Historians of the Jewish experience have tended to focus on New York City and paid less attention to the settlement of Jews in the smaller American cities. Jewish communities developed the Capital District of New York in Albany, Schenectady, Troy, Saratoga, Cohoes, Amsterdam, Gloversville, Nassau, and Hoosick Falls.

Looking at the institutions and organizations created by Jewish immigrants to Schenectady allows us to understand how immigrants developed strategies to adapt to their new homeland while seeking to maintain their identity, culture, and values brought from Europe. To what degree did the children and grandchildren of immigrants abandon what the immigrant generation valued in the process of becoming Americans? To what degree did Jews seek to maintain the religious identity and cultural norms of their ancestors? Jewish immigrants constantly renegotiated how they defined Judaism and Jewish identity in America. Ever since the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 Jews have grappled with the same questions---how to maintain a Jewish identity, whether to cling to separate religious, ethnic, and social values, and how to navigate between their Jewish identity and Americanization. For Jews living in New York City or Schenectady, they faced a constant ongoing renegotiation of identity. As a tiny minority that makes us about two percent of the American population how did Jews avoid total assimilation into American society? The organizations created by Jewish immigrants and their descendants suggest how Jews in Schenectady answered this question.

“Oyster Bay’s Color Line”


 By Richard White  

“Oyster Bay’s Color Line”

This was the title of The New York Times’ article on Monday, July 11, 1904 regarding the ejection of an A.M.E Zion pastor from a local, white barbershop the previous Saturday in Oyster Bay, New York. Rev. James T. Gaskill—misnamed “Gaskin” by the much of the press—was from another church, and traveled to the Bay to preach the Sunday sermon. In fact, by September, he would be appointed church’s new pastor. He wanted a shave, but could not have imagined the civil rights commotion that would ensue. The wire service recorded in more detail what happened next.

The Elmira Star Gazette and Free Press, for example, published this wire story also on July 11. After waiting in line for his turn, the pastor was informed by the barber who declared that “your color is against you,” and was refused service. Rev. Gaskill appealed to the proprietor, saying “I insist, sir, as a Christian and a gentleman, that I be shaved.” There are two versions of what occurred next. The clergyman said that he left the shop when the owner threatened him with a club. Witnesses, on the other hand, denied this. In any case, the pastor immediately sought recourse.

The Times’ article points out that he appealed to Justice of the Peace, Walter Franklin, whose answer was not a legal remedy. He stated that the “law was on his side, but for the peace of the community and the welfare of the local [Zion] church, to drop the matter.” The Free Press’ wire service article indicates that the minister did more than seek some sort of intervention from the Justice—he asked specifically for a warrant for the arrest of the barber. No warrant was issued, and Rev. Gaskill did not mention anything about the case in his sermon the next day.

News regarding the minister’s ejection spread quickly, and there were intense feelings among Oyster Bay’s black residents. The point of view of the church’s Deacon, Thomas Leads, illustrates these emotions. The Times quotes him as saying “we are not decided what we should do, but we will not let this matter rest as it is, on the advice of Justice Franklin. However, after careful thought and prayer, Rev. Gaskill proposed a new approach, and it held sway.

The Free Press presented Pastor Gaskill’s view of the case in own words:

I regret very much that this thing happened in the president’s own town. While I do not believe in the social equality of the races—that is, I do not believe in the social intermingling of the races—I do believe, with President Roosevelt, that honesty and integrity should make all men equal, at least in public places. This affair, however, had nothing to do with the president, and I do not wish to connect him with it in any way. It is something that might have happened anywhere.


So, Rev. Gaskill was a polite man who did not want to impugn President Roosevelt—who was at his home in Sagamore Hill at the time—whose interest in civil rights was, in part, tentative. There is no record in the press of any reaction to the incident by the President.

One year later, on July 26, 1905, Rev. Gaskill did get to meet the President. On July 26, 1905, Huntington’s Long-Islander briefly discussed the meeting earlier that week. The Reverend was joined by Bishop James Walker Hood, an occasional advisor to TR. However, there was no report on their discussions.


About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

Activity, Passivity, Spontaneity:
Understanding Whig Ideology, 1836-1840


By Chris Lang

After news of his defeat for the presidential candidacy arrived in December of 1839, Henry Clay sent a letter on the final day of the Whigs’ first national convention offering his “best wishes” and “cordial support” to whatever ticket the party put together (Remini 553). As the letter was being read aloud, many delegates in the audience listened with relief and gratitude, praising the statesman’s magnanimous character. At the exact hour of his defeat, however, Clay had been drinking with several friends at the nearby Brown’s Hotel, clinging to the belief that Whigs would never actually reject him. According to one observer, the more he drank, the more he reassured himself. “Open and exceedingly profane in his denunciations of the intriguers against his nomination,” the report went, he started swearing “in words befitting only a bar-room in vulgar broil” (554).

As the night went along, Clay’s behavior became more outrageous. When two strangers entered the hotel dressed in black, Clay allegedly walked over to a well-stocked sideboard and poured several drinks for them. “Gentlemen,” Clay retorted, “for aught I know, from your cloth you may be parsons, and shocked at my words. Let us take a glass of wine” (554). Dejected, torn, and clearly inebriated, Clay walked across Pennsylvania Avenue to his boardinghouse to await the arrival of friends from Harrisburg. When they entered his room, and found him sitting in a chair, they told him of Harrison’s victory. Immediately, Clay jumped out of his seat and started cursing, swearing, and pacing back and forth. “Such an exhibition,” one reported, “we never witnessed before…and we pray never again to witness such an ebullition of passion, such a storm of desperation” (554). Stamping his feet as he paced, he finally burst out: “My friends are not worth the powder and shot it would take to kill them!” (554).

Clay’s outburst described above came after a long, hard fought campaign for the Whig presidential nomination. It was one of the first major elections to be highly organized, and it was carried out in a time when “running” for office was considered somewhat suspect, if not downright inappropriate, for a truly “republican” democracy. Throughout his campaign, Henry Clay would publicly deny having any motives of personal ambition to win his party’s nomination, yet beneath the surface, as we can see from his outburst, this was clearly not reflective of his true private thoughts and feelings.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

“Klan Condemned By Legion Post As Un-American: Endicott-Union Members Adopt Smashing Resolve Against Kluxers.”

By Richard White


This was the title of the Binghamton Press’ article on October 23, 1924 regarding the anti-Klan resolutions which were adopted the night before by American Legion Post 82. Endicott was a village adjoining the Town of Union along the Susquehanna River in the Southern Tier of New York, and Binghamton was the area’s major urban center. In the post-war era, the Legion and the K.K.K. differed dramatically on this country’s search for “100% Americanism.” In fact, it reached the floor at the Legion’s national convention in 1923 in San Francisco where Resolution 407—also called the "Michigan Resolution" --was adopted. As quoted in the November 16 issue, of The American Legion Weekly, it condemned “any individuals or organizations which create or force racial, religious or class strife among our people….” However, it deliberately did not mention the K.K.K. by name in order to
avoid a direct confrontation.

When Post 82 was organized in 1919, the “Invisible Empire” was growing nationwide but was not established in the village. In 1922, one year before the Klan formed a chapter, or klavern, in Endicott, the Post composed dramatic anti-Klan letter to its community which was addressed to the Village Board. According to a local newspaper, the News-Dispatch on December 7, the letter—which was read out loud by the Village President--- stated that the Post “stood firmly by true Americanism and declared itself opposed to the type of people who called themselves Americans and hid behind masks.” However, the Legion could not prevent the Klan from gaining a growing, and active, Klan affiliate in its hometown.

On February 20, 1923, the Endicott-Bulletin reviewed the establishment of the Klan in the village, noting that it was “enlisting members here with unremitting efforts….” Cross burnings on surrounding hills became common, as did fully robed Klansmen’s dramatic interruptions of Sunday services at selected churches to make donations. By August, 1924, the Klansmen felt strong enough to nominate two supporters to the Union-Endicott School Board which ended in a near riot, and defeat of the Klan supported nominees. By the early Fall, Post 82’s Commander Leslie Toft became determined to investigate any K.K.K. involvement within the Post. “The question of Klan influence…has been brewing for some time, and it was decided to bring it to a climax,” wrote Binghamton’s The Sun on October 23. The Commander planned to go beyond the Michigan Resolution and directly confront the local Invisible Empire.

Toft’s resolutions unleashed an attack against his Post’s adversary, declaring forcefully that ”…we condemn…as unchristian, un-American and contrary to the teachings of the Bible and the Constitution… the efforts of the Ku Klux Klan…. Therefore, we condemn such societies as the Ku Klux Klan because we believe they would try and render fruitless all the sacrifices made for the further tolerance, brotherhood and respect for the law of God and man for which the Legion stands.” In fact, when the remains of African-American Private Kenneth O. Nelson—who was killed in action in the Argonne Forest—was returned to Endicott in 1921, Post 82 provided a funeral with military honors including a volley from its firing squad, and taps. (However, local black veterans were excluded from the area’s veterans’ organizations, and formed a separate unit named after Private Nelson in nearby Binghamton in 1924).

But how would Toft answer “the question of Klan influence” in the membership? For the 75 assembled members, there would be a “rising vote”—that is, a person must stand to register his approval of the resolution. The vote was overwhelmingly supportive—only three members did not stand. But while the klavern’s direct influence on Post 82 was small, it gained momentum over the next few months.

In February, 1925, there was a regional Klan convention, or klorero, in Endicott at which there were thousands of its robed followers. However, there was no need for the local American Legion to articulate its opposition to the Kluxers and their views because of Post 82’s “smashing resolve” in October, 1924. This action aptly illustrates Californian Charles Kendrick’s words at the convention in San Francisco as recorded in the November 9 issue of the Legion Weekly: “I do not favor the Legion actively combating such movements as the K.K.K. because to do that only tends to dignify them…This, however, does not prevent a forceful denunciation on the part of the Legion, and when this is done no further action should be taken.” In the early Twenties, Post 82 expressed forcefully its Americanism.



About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, and other publications.

Samuel Blackwell: Sugar Refiner and Abolitionist

By Joelle Million

Of historical interest primarily as the father of pioneering physicians Elizabeth and Emily Blackwell, Samuel Blackwell was a New York sugar refiner and abolitionist during the six years between his immigration to the United States in 1832 and his death in 1838. During that period, he operated his own small sugar refinery and briefly managed what was “said to be the most extensive sugar refinery in the city if not the country.”1 Bringing his ardent support for the abolition of slavery from his native England, he joined New York’s nascent anti-slavery movement, became an early member of its Vigilance Committee, and succeeded, according to his own account, in experiments to produce high-quality beet sugar, which he hoped would strike a significant blow to American slavery by undermining the profitability of slave-grown cane sugar. The establishment of a refinery to manufacture beet sugar, however, was halted by his untimely death at the age of forty-eight.

Midway through Blackwell’s New York residency, as the nation was moving toward the financial crisis that would become known as the Panic of 1837, fifteen-year-old Elizabeth Blackwell and her twelve-year-old brother Sam began keeping diaries. It is primarily these diaries, supplemented by surviving contemporaneous correspondence and family records, that form the basis for understanding Blackwell family history and dynamics during this period. However, Samuel Blackwell was, as son Sam noted, “uncommunicative concerning his business affairs.”2 The children’s lack of knowledge and understanding of their father’s activities, as well as the subjectivity and incompleteness of what they recorded, have permitted scholars to make assumptions and draw conclusions about Samuel Blackwell that details in other sources, not easily discernable or accessible before the digital age, do not support.

Questionable interpretations include

— That although Blackwell had been a prosperous refiner in Bristol, his New York businesses failed, he incurred considerable debt, and he subjected his family to persistent financial insecurity, even poverty;

— That he suffered a moral conflict between his antislavery principles and a profession dependent upon slave labor, and therefore sought, or was open to, an avenue for leaving the profession; and

— That his interest in beet sugar led to no significant action or result.3

By filling in some of the holes in the puzzle of Blackwell’s business affairs, this paper attempts to clarify his intentions and the results of some of his ventures, thus presenting a basis for reviewing Blackwell’s influence on his family.