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Thursday, January 11, 2018

Roller Skating Craze and the Freedom to Participate

By Richard White

In the 1880’s, a roller skating craze prompted the openings of rinks in central New York for recreational skating for the public as well as exhibitions by professional skaters. According to NYS’s civil rights statute of 1873, all races were guaranteed equal access to public venues. In fact, depriving equal admission was a misdemeanor punishable by a $150 fine. Yet in 1884, this law faced racism’s challenges at skating rinks in Norwich and Owego. African Americans in those villages were determined to defend their freedom and equality that resulted in two divergent legal outcomes.

In Norwich on Friday, June 13, residents were anxious to attend the new roller rink’s grand opening at the Wilson Opera House. In spite of the law, co-proprietor Calvin King left instructions at the ticket booth to bar admission of blacks. Excluded were George Breed, William Wycoff, Charles Robbins, and others—a few accounts also name Hannibal Molson and Thomas Randall, two of the region’s leading civil rights activists. The New Berlin Gazette succinctly summarized the next act in this racial drama. On June 16, there was a widely attended “indignation meeting” at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church which was chaired by Rev. Loren (1) T. Rogers whose words captured the assemblage’s emotions and anger. He declared that not since “darkest days of slavery no such outrage had been perpetrated in Norwich.” Wycoff and Robbins were appointed secretaries. Molson then inspired the audience with a reading of the 1873 law. Finally, the group adopted resolutions including one that contended that they appointment “a committee to consider the propriety of instituting legal proceedings against the management.”

The unnamed committee members recommended a legal course of redress, and Robbins, a local constable, arrested King on a complaint from Randall, according to Greene’s The Chenango American on July 3. After the grand jury’s indictment, his trial strategy in court of sessions was examined by historian David McBride. First, counsel maintained that the 1873 statue was “unconstitutional and void” because it compelled owner(s) of private property for use by blacks. Second, “the rink owner argued that according to [another court ruling] he could refuse to serve blacks as long as he did not deprive this group of establishing similar rinks of their own.”(2)

King was found guilty and fined starting with a trial in Chenango County Court later in the year but he appealed. In early 1889, New York’s Court of Appeals affirmed King’s conviction. Research does not show whether, or when, blacks could skate at the Opera House. Owego’s civil rights case ended much quicker.

Unlike the situation in Norwich, admission tickets were purchased by local blacks at the door of the new rink in Owego on June 26. The group which included Enoch Spaulding, Lincoln White, Mr. and Mrs. Peter G. Kennedy, and John Williams attempted to put on the skates but the manager, Melvin Compton stopped them. He stated that his rules prevented them from skating, and offered to refund their money whereupon Messrs. Kennedy and Williams put on the skates, and skated until closing without incident. According to the Owego Evening Blade the next day, the manager had stated that “his objections to having a colored man skate was not personal, but simply to protect his patrons who might have such objections.” Later, Compton would suggest that the banning of blacks was the same as barring “objectionable women.” But would blacks be barred the following night for being “objectionable?”

Compton awaited a potential confrontation with black civil rights activists on June 27 but while they sought admission to the rink, they did not adopt a confrontational posture. Compton was adamant—he would not admit Kennedy and Williams at all while other members of the group agreed to be admitted into the hall but not the rink. According to The Owego Gazette (3), “Mr. Compton is willing that colored people shall enter the hall as spectators, but says he will resist any further attempts on their part to go upon on the floor. The law is without question on his side….” According to the Blade’s coverage of these events on the 28th, “Manager Compton announced that he was ready for a test case….,” and that was the next step.

On July 19, the Blade reported on Compton’s arrest based on the 1873 law on a warrant pursued by Francis M. Spaulding -- apparently misidentified on June 26 as his relative, Enoch—but unlike a month earlier in Norwich, there was no indignation meeting, although the black community must have been in an uproar. Compton was released on bail until his court appearance on July 23 when there was a surprise. Again, the Blade provided the details—Compton was given a choice of court settings of either the Court of Special Sessions apparently without action by the grand jury, or the County Court of Sessions where he would “answer and stand trial upon whatever may be prepared against him by the grand jury.” Compton was released on bail to await the grand jury’s action the following September. The Compton Case ended when the grand jury refused to indict the rink manager, and Spaulding’s complaint was dismissed. Grand jury proceedings are secret, and there was no speculation in the Blade on this decision. At this point, it cannot be determined if, or how, race relations in Owego were addressed concerning the skating rink after the grand jury’s inaction.

The events in Norwich and Owego in 1884 aptly illustrate W. E. B. Du Bois’ assertion that “the North had never been thoroughly converted to the idea of Negro equality.”4 In two small towns in central New York in 1884, though, African Americans showed their resolve in their struggle for equal rights.


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

Notes:

(1) Some sources give his name as Lorenzo.

(2) Fourteenth Amendment Idealism: The New York State Civil Rights Law, 1873-1918, New York History, April, 1990

(3)As reprinted in The Montrose Democrat on July 18, 1884. Compton’s hometown was near this Pennsylvania village south of Binghamton.

(4) See Black Reconstruction in America (New York, 1962, p. 631)

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Wright Brothers of Rome

by Lawrence S. Freund

The American Civil War split both the nation and many of the nation’s families, none more so than two descendants of one of the pioneer families of Rome in upstate New York. Theirs was a political and social division that exemplified the countervailing attitudes of North and South as well as the values and pathways that led to the conflict.

The Wright family arrived in what would become Rome, New York, from Connecticut in 1789, staking out land still known today as Wright Settlement. Joseph Wright, a descendant of the founders, fathered six children with his first wife, Martha, three with his second wife, Fanny. Phineas Camp Wright, born in 1816, was the oldest surviving son of Joseph and Martha. Phineas was raised in Rome, studied and practiced law, and in 1844 married Rosina Martin, a Virginia-born widow with a young son.[1] They soon moved south to New Orleans, to which Wright was drawn by the extended litigation of the Myra Clark Gaines case, a multi-year lawsuit in which a woman of uncertain ancestry sought to establish her inheritance rights.[2] It was a lawyer’s dream. For Wright, according to some sources,[3] the legal arguments and the documents he discovered led to an ambitious reverie, the creation of a semi-secret organization, the Order of American Knights, which would attach itself to the increasingly bellicose states rights sentiments of the South. [4]

In 1854, Wright was appointed chairman of a Committee of Arrangements for the impending visit to New Orleans of former U.S. President Millard Fillmore. Fillmore, who left the White House in March 1853, embarked on a tour of the southern states a year later, with stops from Louisville to Savannah. It was a sort of victory lap with high praise from local officials for the chief executive who had signed into law the congressional bills making up the controversial Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Act. Wright, speaking to a crowd gathered in front of New Orleans City Hall, the former president at his side, lauded Fillmore, and spoke of “Events which demanded on the part of the chief magistrate especially unyielding firmness, patriotism, and signal ability in maintaining the principles upon which the fabric of our constitution rests, when, for the first time, men dared to calculate the value of that constitution and of the Union itself. But, sir,” Wright continued, “you were found equal to the emergencies, and your country will honor you.”[5] Phineas Wright, a slave owning[6] attorney in antebellum New Orleans, was also a New Orleans alderman, judge and elected member of the Louisiana House of Representatives. But he nonetheless saw his future elsewhere following the financial panic of 1857. In 1859 he moved his family north along the Mississippi River to St. Louis.[7]

Monday, December 11, 2017

A Ghost of American Patriot Colonel Jacob Griffin Haunts Hopewell Junction, New York

by Michael Mauro DeBonis

He is one of the great patriots of the American Revolution, and he is barely known outside of his native Dutchess County, New York. Born in the Fishkills area of the State of New York circa 1729-1730 (sources vary), Jacob Griffin was a staunch Yankee Presbyterian, who wanted a clear and a complete parting of the ways with King George III of England and the rest of Empire of Great Britain. From the mid to the late 18th century the Thirteen Colonies of British North America experienced one huge wave of social upheaval after the other… the reasons of these societal changes being many and very subtly related to the other.

The political and philosophical fervor of this time period called The Enlightenment (or, also The Age of Reason) was to set the entire century of the 1700’s ablaze with new thinking that debunked superstition, religion and monarchical government and focused itself instead on rationalism, science and free and independent thinking. John Locke and Isaac Newton’s mathematical and logical ideas of looking at the world were quickly replacing “archaic” philosophies of the late Renaissance. Locke and Newton spearheaded England’s intellectual departure from older intellectual doctrines and were joined by other influential European thinkers such as the French Descartes, Voltaire and Rousseau.

In America, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson pined for personal liberty and socio-economic equality with an unmatched and definitive eloquence and wit. But with this new freethinking came radical notions that sought to overturn and (finally dump) the feudal system of mediaeval Western Europe and to replace it with an authentic remodeling of classical Greek and Roman democratic ideals. These defined themselves by a total doing away with kings and queens and entailed re-modifying parliaments with congresses. America had been caught up in this philosophical firestorm.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Decades in the Life of a Village as seen through its Historical Documents: Cherry Creek NY 1893 to 2017

By Sharon Howe Sweeting


Preface and context:

The New York State government has endeavored to assist lower levels of government in reducing layers of political entities. Several villages in Western New York have voted to dissolve including the Village of Cherry Creek in view of high taxes and diminishing population. The vote occurred in February 2017 and the dissolution is to be complete by December 31, 2017. The Town Historian was asked to prepare a history of the Village as it dissolves.
___________

The Village, within the Town of Cherry Creek which dates from the early 1800s, was incorporated on May 20, 1893, held its first election on June 17, 1893 and selected C.A. Mount president; I.S. Benton, W.R. Shepardson, and H. Clinton Mount as Trustees. Other officials included G. LeRoy Martin, clerk; G.W. Brown, treasurer and H.E. Safford as collector. “For many years lumbering was the principal business until the greater part of the neighboring forest had been cut down. But there has never been a lack of useful and profitable industries. Cherry Creek has never gone to sleep, or lost the active impetus given by the first enterprising settlers.”

“Among the progressive men of Cherry Creek, there stands no more prominent figure than that of Cyrus A. Mount. He is a descendent of an eminent family who were early settlers here. He was born here April 4, 1849, and laid the foundation of his early education in his native town and later graduated from the Forestville Free Academy. In early life he developed those qualities of mind and character which have since given him success in politics, in business and in social life.” He served as Postmaster (1874-1886); Justice of the Peace from 1872 for many years; president of the Business Man’s Association; president of the Board of Education and was Deputy Sheriff for several years. From: Historical and Biographical Sketch of Cherry Creek, Chautauqua County, New York by Chas. J. Shults, 1900.

The decade of the 1900s is represented by Poll Lists, official documents identifying dates, subjects of election and enumeration of the voters and endorsement by local officials. On March 15, 1904 23 votes were cast for Charles L. Wheeler, village president; Ernst Dye and C. LeRoy Edwards as trustees; Charles L. Frost, treasurer and Lewis E. Master collector. Verification signed by: A.H. Curtiss, president; Erwin and Champlain as trustees. On March 19, 1907 20 votes were cast for President Edson Skiff and Trustee William Bartlett. Chas L. Frost was elected treasurer and Clifford T. Skiff as collector. Election endorsed by President C.A. Mount, Trustees Rood and Gillett and Clerk Holcomb. On March 17, 1908 61 votes were cast for President Hiram Haskin, Trustee Geo. O Wilcox, Treasurer C.L. Frost and Collector C.T. Skiff. All Questions were declined related to Village Hall, Fire Chem. Engine, reimbursement of Hess and pay master (no further details mentioned). On August 23, 1910 a Special election was held for the purpose of raising $5000.00 extra for completing water works system in accordance to lowest bid. Passed 41 to 32.

Jacob Griffin and the Tavern of Time

By Michael Mauro DeBonis 
11-02-17


“I sat down and drank here, two hundred years ago,
the moon was young and silver, while fallen on the snow.

Green flames full with fire,
(freed from holy hearth)
lit my blue attire,
stained red by bloody earth.

This was the chair I sat in
during war with old King George.
Cold could get this cabin,
with no beer to gulp and gorge.

But these walls were strong and sturdy,
upon our Yankee ground.
Now what’s left is dirty,
and piles itself around.

The roof has crumbled into dust
long ages and ages ago…
the sun returned and brightly burned,
and smoked away the snow.
What has made my memory bust?

Freedom and liberty I do sing,
whether winter, or light of spring.
This is the place my dreams were born,
as my soul climbed up, and was moved by morn.

Mark these ruins not a grave,
but a cradle to an immortal cause.
Is a man’s living is all he will have?
While alive, does he deserve applause?

In being in our very own bones,
we walk far from graven stones.
Yet, within these windows,
I saw my best.
And it’s here my mind
has come to rest.”




About the poet: Michael Mauro DeBonis is a poet and a historian from Long Island, New York.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Busting Buckles: How Captain Caleb Brewster Broke The Devil’s Belt
and Mariner By Moonlight

By Michael M. DeBonis

The greatest patriots of the Revolutionary War are innumerable and nameless. Most were soldiers and some were statesmen and diplomats. But to students of the American War for Independence, one name stands out as an undisputed paladin in the Yankee cause for liberty. His name is Caleb Brewster. Brewster was truly a jack-of-all-trades, as well as the proverbial master of many. A native Long Islander and a highly talented sailor and soldier, Caleb Brewster confronted Death countless times to bring success to the infant nation he was helping to create. Mister Brewster did such on land and sea. And more to the point, this outstanding member of Washington’s Continental Army was part of the most secret component of the American war machine against their British enemies. Caleb Brewster was a spy and he has a tale to be told.

Caleb Brewster was born in the month of September (1747) at Setauket, NY (Rose, 82). On the north shore of Long Island, and positioned on the Sound, Setauket was (and, to a large extent, still is) a small fishing and agricultural community, belonging to the Township of Brookhaven. Brewster was descended from a family who emigrated from England to the Colonies in the 1660’s (Rose, 79). The Brewster clan had been living in the village of Setauket for many generations, prior to the birth of Caleb (Rose, 79).

And it was to the sea that the young Caleb Brewster took to early in his youth (Flockerzi, 1). Dulled by farming life, Brewster enlisted as a sailor on a whaler, bound for Greenland, when he was just nineteen years of age (Rose, 82). Within a few years of becoming a whaleboatman, Caleb Brewster, already accustomed to a harsh life at sea, joined on a merchantman, which was headed for the English capitol (London). He gained further significant maritime expertise in his role aboard this vessel as mate (Rose, 82). Adding to Brewster’s nautical insights, this experience of his on the high seas would become very useful for Caleb later on. This was especially the case when Brewster was steering through the stark black evening skies and waters of the Long Island Sound to ferry (fellow Culper spy) Abraham Woodhull’s intelligence reports (intended for Benjamin Tallmadge and General George Washington) to and fro Setauket and the Connecticut coast.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

The National Negro Business League in New York City, Niagara Falls, and Other Cities and Towns in New York State

by Michael Boston

In 1900 Booker T. Washington founded the National Negro Business League (NNBL), which was an organization designed to “stimulate” and “promote” business development among African Americans throughout the nation.[1] As a national leader, Washington consistently received numerous requests to speak throughout the country. En route to many of his engagements, he had the rare opportunity to observe many African Americans single-handedly engaged in business ventures. According to Washington, “the number of successful business men and women of the Negro race that I was continually coming in contact with during my travels throughout the country was a source of surprise and pleasure to me. My observations in this regard led me . . . to believe that the time had come for bringing together the leading and most successful colored men and women in the country who were engaged in business.”[2] Washington felt that if he could have these businesspersons meet and interact with one another, they would be further encouraged and inspire others in their respective communities to undertake entrepreneurial ventures. Moreover, during the winter of 1900, Washington, T. Thomas Fortune, the owner and editor of The New York Age[3], the leading African-American paper of the day, Emmett J. Scott, Washington’s official secretary, and other friends discussed strategies for bringing together African-American entrepreneurs and for promoting business development among African Americans.[4]

These men agreed that a meeting should be held in Boston, Massachusetts on Thursday and Friday, August 23 and 24. They viewed these dates as a good time for a meeting because they were considered slack periods for businesspersons, as well as for Washington, who had a demanding executive role at Tuskegee Institute. Moreover, during the summer of 1900, steamship lines and railroads had reduced rates to Boston.[5] To bring the meeting to fruition and promote business development, a list of business persons that resided throughout the country was compiled, and a circular was generated, inviting them to come to Boston for the first meeting. The requirement for actively participating was that an individual “be engaged in business.” Washington’s goal for the first meeting (and all ensuing ones) was to allow businesspersons to gain knowledge and encouragement from one another and motivate the delegates to establish local business leagues among African Americans in their respective communities.[6] Being a practical man, Washington would take pride in this because he felt that African Americans actually engaged in business ventures and expressing their “ups and downs” was more helpful than theoretical advice. Expressing himself further concerning the intent of the first meeting, Washington wrote:

It is very important that every line of business that any Negro man or woman is engaged in be represented. This meeting will present a great opportunity for us to show the world what progress we have made in business lines since our freedom. This organization is not in opposition to any other now in existence but is expected to do a distinct work that no other organization, now in existence, can do as well.[7]