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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.


(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]