Category Archives: Historic Sites

“Grand Old Fort: but alas Manned by Colored Troops…” Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Ontario

When a U.S. Army regiment of African American soldiers arrived at Fort Ontario in the spring of 1908, it was in the wake of a racially-charged incident in Texas that had sparked a national controversy for President Theodore Roosevelt.

What happened at the historic fort in Oswego County during the next three years was part of the long American journey from racially segregated military units to the end of the practice in Korea in 1951.

The nearly three hundred men of the 24th Infantry Regiment arriving at the lakefront community were a unit of “Buffalo Soldiers,” which was the nickname given to segregated units of African American troops formed after the Civil War ended in 1865.

According to popular lore, Native Americans who fought the units used the term either because the soldiers’ dark curly hair resembled a buffalo mane or because the soldiers fought like the fierce Great Plains buffalo.

Just returned from military service in the Philippines, the soldiers of 24th Infantry were coming home to a political controversy still simmering around Buffalo soldiers from the infamous Brownsville Affair less than two years earlier.

At a time of Jim Crow laws, racial prejudice against African American military units remained strong in the U.S., most particularly in the South. After fatal violence in Brownsville, Texas was blamed on the 25th Infantry Regiment of Buffalo Soldiers who had just been stationed there from the Philippines, President Roosevelt had all 167 Black soldiers of the three companies involved summarily discharged, despite protests that evidence did not support the charges. Tellingly, Roosevelt did not discharge the unit’s white officers, who testified that all their soldiers were in barracks at the time of the incident.

That event was still fresh in the summer of 1907, when the U.S. Army announced it was stationing Buffalo soldiers east of the Mississippi for the first time by bringing the 24th to Fort Ontario. The unit found itself in a political firestorm, with some local residents and political leaders objecting to the move.

During the early 20th century, the situation for Black soldiers in the U.S. Army was deteriorating rapidly.  Four decades after their formation, the Buffalo Soldiers were no longer needed far from the general population to fight against Native Americans in the west. Their overseas service in Spanish-American War (1898), the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) was at end as well.

Buffalo Soldiers on duty in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. (Photo Credit – U.S. Army)

A newspaper account describes Congressional efforts to disband all African American military units after the end of the Spanish-American War and in the wake of the Brownsville Affair. (Cleveland Enterprise, Jan. 4, 1907)

So, as these African American U.S. Army regulars returned to garrison life in the United States, the proponents of segregation and domination were pursuing their racist goals more fervently than ever. The Ku Klux Klan was approaching its pinnacle of strength and numbers, racist members of Congress tried to purge the four Buffalo Soldier regiments from the regular army, and in some states black National Guard regiments were eliminated and others relegated to labor duties.

Mindful of the professional pride, discipline, and assertiveness of African American soldiers, and perhaps of their access to weapons, white civilians in the mid-west and south vehemently objected to them being posted near their communities.

At Brownsville where Jim Crow laws were enforced, the black soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 25th U.S. Infantry Regiment immediately encountered racial discrimination, physical abuse, and threats from local businesses, civilians, and customs collectors.  After being accused of going on a midnight shooting spree on Aug. 12-13, 1906 that left a civilian bartender dead, the entire regiment was dismissed by President Roosevelt over numerous objections that the accusations may have been unjust and racially motivated by the townspeople.

Roosevelt’s reaction to Brownsville shocked his Black civilian constituency and the Constitution League, a national interracial civil-rights organization, which along with many whites decried his action. But the decision stood until 1972, when the Army reinvestigated and reversed Roosevelt.

A 1906 political poster criticizes President Theodore Roosevelt for his mass discharge of the Buffalo Soldiers after the factually-disputed Brownsville Affair. (Photo Credit – U.S. Library of Congress)

President Roosevelt’s decision on the Buffalo Soldiers after Brownsville drew criticism from African American religious leaders at a time when they were reliable Republican political allies. Syracuse Post Standard, June 10, 1907

Perhaps seeking a northern posting for other returning Buffalo soldiers as a way of cooling racial tensions after Brownsville, the U.S. War Department announced in the summer of 1907 that when the 24th Infantry left the Philippines, it was being assigned to Fort Ontario and Madison Barracks in nearby Sackets Harbor in upstate New York.

Earlier, in rejecting a Texas senator’s demand to reassign Black troops before they arrived at Fort Brown, Secretary of War William H. Taft (who later became President) wrote that “sometimes communities which objected to the coming of colored soldiers, have, on account of their good behavior, entirely changed their view and commended them to the War Department.”  Taft added: “The fact is that a certain amount of race prejudice between white and black seems to have become almost universal throughout the country, and no matter where colored troops are sent there are always some who make objections to their coming.”

Before the Civil War, Oswego had been a hotbed of the abolitionist movement and active in the Underground Railroad, which was a a vast network of churches, safe houses, and community sites in New York and other states to help emancipate enslaved people reach freedom. The Oswego region later sent thousands of men to fight with the Union Army.  After the war, Oswego’s representatives in Congress were strong supporters of Reconstruction and civil rights for former slaves.

However, Taft’s observation that racial prejudice prevailed throughout the nation sadly rang true even in abolitionist Oswego. When news of the 24th coming reached the North Country, it prompted hysterical fears by some of disorder and lawlessness. 

A July 10, 1907 article in the Evening Times-Republican, of Marshalltown, Iowa, outlines the political opposition to the stationing of the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Ontario in Oswego.

The fallout from the Brownsville Affair still occupied public attention when plans were announced to send the 24th Infantry Regiment to Oswego. The Scranton Tribune, Sept. 13, 1907.


Some residents sent petitions to the War Department and appealed to their Congressman, Charles Knapp, from Lowville, Lewis County, and State Republican Committee Representative and Oswego banker John T. Mott, who were both close friends of Roosevelt. Local newspapers paid closed attention to the firestorm.

Congressman Knapp didn’t file an official protest but instead attempted to have the white 9th U.S. Infantry substituted for the Black 24th.  He claimed motivation from the 9th having previously been garrisoned at Fort Ontario and Madison Barracks and containing many locally recruited soldiers whose families wanted them near home.


A headline in the Buffalo Morning Express, Sept. 13, 1907 questions why Black soldiers who fight for the U.S. are met with protests at home.

Having Knapp, Mott and local citizens object to the black soldiers drew fiery criticism from the national press and civil rights advocates, as well bitter resentment from Assistant Secretary of War Robert Shaw Oliver, an Albany resident buried in Albany Rural Cemetery. The apparent hypocrisy also drew the delight of southern racists.  But Oliver angrily declared that the “War Department knows no color line…” and sent the 24th to Oswego and Sackets Harbor as planned.

A article plays up the hypocrisy of Northern resistance to the presence of “colored” troops. July 11, 1907, The Daily Palladium, Oswego.

By fall, Shaw had settled the matter. The 24th was coming to Oswego, as these newspaper accounts of the time made plain.


In late March 1908, as the black troops arrived at Oswego, community leaders and the press had taken a wait-and-see attitude.  Little notice of the 24th’s arrival appeared in newspapers, but Oswego’s Daily Palladium newspaper reported that some restauranteurs discussed raising the price of food and drink to keep out Black troops; others said that they would maintain regular prices provided the troops conducted themselves decently.

For their part the 24th reacted to initial hostility with quiet professional pride and dignity; they quickly became active and beneficial members of the Oswego community.

First to benefit were the tailor shops who received orders to replace clothing lost when the 24th’s stored baggage was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The men had arrived with literally all the tropical climate clothing from the Philippines on their backs or in knapsacks. The 24th spent their pay and participated in community activities, ceremonies, parades, sporting events, veteran’s funerals, and the post orchestra performed regularly in the city.

This penny postcard (shown below) is an iconic artifact in the collection of Fort Ontario State Historic Site.  It coldly documents racism in the early 20th century U.S. Army officer corps.  Postmarked August 24, 1911, after the Buffalo soldiers had been in Oswego for several years, an unidentified colonel addressed it to a sergeant at the recruiting station in Trenton, N.J.  He wrote of Fort Ontario:   `Grand Old Fort but alas:   Manned by “Colored Troops” for which as you know I have no use. Well & happy, leave for VT. Friday.  Report for duty Sept. 6th. Absence of two ? mos.  Hope you are well.  Colonel.’  


The “Colonel” who wrote this was likely on leave visiting white officer friends at Fort Ontario and traveling to see others at Fort Ethan Allan, Vermont, garrisoned by black troopers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment who had arrived a year after the 24th arrived at Oswego.

This officer reflected a belief held by some commissioned officers who avoided assignment to black regiments, transferred out at the first opportunity, and refused promotions to such units. Some officers urged the united be eliminated or relegated to menial manual service. Many in the army believed that only southern whites knew how to command Black troops, and discouraged, harassed, and sought to drive out the few Blacks who sought to become or became commissioned officers.

Yet the Buffalo Soldier Regiments also attracted white commissioned officers without racist beliefs who were proud to serve in them.

By November 1911, the 24th was reassigned to the Philippines for a third time, with Fort Ontario and the community having each played its role in dealing with the contentious issue of racial segregation in the U.S. military at the turn of the 20th century.

While not without its tensions, Oswego managed to avoid the extreme displays of Jim Crow racism that had stained Brownsville with blood and led the 24th to be based in the north to prevent a possible repeat of it.

In Oswego, initial hysteria against the unit disappeared as white citizens fears towards the Black soldiers went unrealized.  The soldiers conducted themselves as gentlemen and were courteous towards civilians, but unlike white troops they were forced to prove themselves beyond any doubt before being trusted.

As Secretary of War Taft observed before the Brownsville Affair, once some communities gave black troops a chance, they praised and commended them to the War Department. After a uneasy and rocky start, Oswego became one of those communities.

In this colorized July 1908 postcard, the officers and men of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment appear in full-dress for either inspection or parade at Fort Ontario. White officers are on horseback in the front, with other officers on foot at the rear and sides, while the Black enlisted me are on foot in double ranks. All are wearing white gloves. Another colorized postcard from July 1908 (below) shows the 2nd Battalion encamped in tents on the grounds as the post orchestra plays and spectators line the banks


For some of the Buffalo soldiers, Fort Ontario was their final post. One of the four members of the 24th Infantry buried at the fort is Sgt. Juneious Caldwell, a Kentucky native who had enlisted in 1901. He served in the Philippines, where he contracted a tropical disease that took his life at age 26 in July 1908 shortly after the unit’s return from the Pacific.

The marble headstone at the grave of Sgt. Juneious Caldwell at Fort Ontario State Historic Site.

Learn more about the history of the 24th Infantry Regiment in this 1983 report by L. Albert Scipio II, a U.S. Army officer and a faculty member at at Howard University, the Tuskegee Institute, University of Minnesota, Cairo University, University of Puerto Rico, and University of Pittsburgh. Scipio’s father was a member of the 24th from 1915 to 1942.


Cover Photo- Members of the 24th Infantry Regiment in the Philippines in 1902. (Photo Credit – U.S. Army) All other images NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

Post by Paul A. Lear, Historic Site Manager, Fort Ontario State Historic Site

The General of Hearts

While the Grant Cottage State Historic Site marks the final days of a renowned Civil War leader and U.S. President, it also was the final chapter of a long love story, which seems appropriate to share with readers around Valentine’s Day.

Lying in bed inside the cottage as he drew his final breaths, only days after finishing wartime memoirs that he hoped would support his family after he was gone, Ulysses S. Grant held the hand of his wife as they shared a final gaze.

It was decades from the spring of 1844 when the 21-year-old U.S. Army lieutenant first met 18-year-old Julia Dent, the sister of his West Point roommate Fred Dent, while visiting the Dent family in St. Louis. There was an instant attraction between them that was fostered by time spent together. Julia remarked that “Lieutenant Grant… became a daily visitor… He was always by my side walking or riding.”

A young Ulysses S. Grant at about the time of the Mexican-American War.
Julia Dent, the object of the young officer’s affections.


On their way to a wedding in St. Louis, the couple encountered a rain-swollen creek. Julia was ready to turn back, but Ulysses was characteristically confident that he could navigate it. The nervous Julia said as they pulled up their carriage to the submerged bridge, “Now if anything happens, remember I shall cling to you, no matter what you say to the contrary.”

Once safely across the creek, Ulysses turned to Julia and proposed by asking if she would cling to him for the rest of her life. While the proposal came as a surprise for the young Julia, Grant’s boldness paid off as she agreed to wear his class ring as a symbol of their engagement.

But the coming Mexican-American war would separate them for four long years, inspiring the young officer to express his love in numerous romantically tinged letters to his faraway fiancée. Ulysses shared a sentiment that would echo across the rest of their lives, writing to his future bride: “In going away now I feel as if I had someone else than myself to live and strive to do well for.”

This sentiment would define their relationship but perhaps no more so than during his final weeks on Mt. McGregor as Ulysses fought to finish his memoirs to provide for Julia and their children.

In some ways Ulysses and Julia were like Romeo and Juliet, representing young people from different worlds on a collision course. Ulysses had grown up in an abolitionist ripe area of southern Ohio with antislavery parents. Julia, on the other hand, had grown up on a slave-holding plantation near St. Louis, Missouri. Neither of their fathers were keen on the match and for their entire lives there would remain some tension between the two families.

When Grant was in Mexico, he wrote young Julia often with a heartfelt yearning. “You can have but little idea of the influence you have over me Julia, even while so far away… absent or present I am more or less governed by what I think is your will.” Pining for their reunion he wrote, “I am getting very tired of this war and particularly of being separated from one I love so much.” And frequently he ended his letters with sentiments such as “Adieu dearest Julia. A thousand kisses for you. Dream of me” as shown below.


With the war finally over, in the summer of 1848 the couple were wed in a small ceremony at the Dent home in St. Louis. Among the groomsmen were three other soldiers who would later fight for the Confederacy, including Julia’s cousin James Longstreet. (Two decades later, Grant helped obtain a Congressional pardon for Longstreet, a prominent former Confederate general who supported Grant in his successful 1868 bid for the U.S. presidency.)

During the next 12 years of marriage, the Grants would endure the trials and separations of an army life, which included postings in upstate New York. His playful romantic gestures including a letter sent from a nearby town stating, “I find that I love you just the same in Adams [NY] that I did in Sackets Harbor [NY].” But frequent moves and a separation of almost two years strained Ulysses to the breaking point, prompting him to resign from the Army in 1854 to reunite with his wife and two young sons, Fred and Ulysses Jr. The couple would have two more children, Nellie and Jesse, before the end of the 1850s.

Conflict again claimed the devoted husband when the Civil War began in 1861. As fighting raged, the rising military star would not forget his wife and children, sending for them to join him in the field whenever possible. Ulysses strained to be the consummate family man and was a devoted husband and father. Julia would be his confidant and supporter through the trials of war.

The Grants pose for a formal portrait during the Civil War.

Ulysses, in his general’s uniform, Julia, and their son, Jesse, pose together at City Point, Va., the site of a major Union military installation and a headquarters for Grant during the Civil War.

As Ulysses assumed command of all Union forces and his fame grew, Julia began to feel as if she was too plain. She approached her husband on the subject of corrective eye surgery for her cross-eyed (strabismus) condition. He responded with the charming sentiment, “Did I not see you and fall in love with you with these same eyes? I like them just as they are, and now, remember, you are not to interfere with them. They are mine, and let me tell you, Mrs. Grant, you had better not make any experiments, as I might not like you half so well with any other eyes.”

After the war, Grant served as U.S. president from 1869 to 1877, and Julia would stand by her husband through those tumultuous years, offering advice on important matters at times. At their New Jersey cottage, known as the “Summer White House,” their playfulness would again emerge.

After watching his son Ulysses Jr. bound over the porch railing Ulysses. teased his wife, “If you were sitting here alone…and the cottage caught fire, you must be rescued or burn.” “You think so!” Julia replied playfully as she defiantly bounded over the porch railing as easily as her son had done.

President Ulysses S. Grant, and Julia, the First Lady.

The couple’s affectionate manner was always at the surface and was illustrated in another incident on their U.S. and world tour in 1879, when Grant was one of the most recognized Americans in the word. They had returned to the U.S. from abroad and were visiting a mine in Virginia City, Nevada.

At the entrance, the General made a wager with another gentleman that Julia would not make the harrowing descent deep into the mine. The gentleman secretly informed Julia that her husband bet money she would back out. She resolutely stepped up on the platform surprising Ulysses who questioned whether she really was going down into the mine. Julia uttered a simple “Yes” and Ulysses lost his bet.

Ulysses and Julia pose for a photograph after Julia (center, in light jacket) with Ulysses (right) cost him a bet by agreeing to descend into a Nevada mine.

The dedicated couple was able to enjoy a few years of happiness with their children and grandchildren before Ulysses entered his final struggle after being diagnosed at age 62 with terminal cancer in his throat. The couple had lost most of their money through a corrupt business partner, and Ulysses was determined to write a book about his wartime experiences in hopes that sales would support his family after he was gone. He was aided by his friend, famous American author Mark Twain.

To complete the book, Grant came to an Adirondack cabin in Wilton, Saratoga County, to accomplish his final mission. Throughout his six-week ordeal, Julia was by his side. Pushing through his pain, he finished his book and died on July 23, 1885, only four days after final proofreading of his manuscript.

A terminally ill Ulysses S. Grant at Grant Cottage in Wilton, Saratoga County, where he completed his memoirs shortly before his death. Julia sits by his side.

His resolve secured financial security for his family, who were supported through $450,000 in proceeds from what became a best-seller.

Years later, the widow of the great American hero would state, “For nearly thirty-seven years, I, his wife, rested and was warmed in the sunlight of his loyal love… and now, even though his beautiful life has gone out, it is as when some far-off planet disappears from the heavens; the light of his glorious fame still reaches out to me, falls upon me, and warms me.”

According to Ulysses’ last wishes, Julia would be placed in a matching red granite sarcophagus within Grant’s Tomb after her death in 1902. The two who loved each other so truly in life would now be together for eternity.

Grant’s Tomb, officially called the General Grant National Memorial, located in the Morningside Heights Neighborhood of Manhattan.

Post by Ben Kemp, Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage Operations Manager


More About Grant Cottage


Located immediately below the summit of Mount McGregor in Saratoga County, the cottage and 43-acre site was recently named a National Historic Landmark by the National Park Service.

The cottage is kept as it was during the Grant family’s stay. Open to the public seasonally by the Friends of the Ulysses S. Grant Cottage, visitors can tour its first-floor original furnishings, decorations, and personal items belonging to Grant.

Tours are scheduled to resume for the season in May 2021. Artifacts on display include the mantel clock stopped by Grant’s son Fred at the moment of his father’s death, and original floral arrangements from Grant’s funeral in August 1885.

Grant Cottage first opened as a historic site in 1890 when it was supported by funds raised by veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic.

The grounds surrounding the Cottage served as a tuberculosis sanitarium beginning in 1914, which in 1945 was converted into a veteran rest camp, until 1960 when it was repurposed and annexed as the Rome State School for disabled children until 1976. The Friends of Ulysses S. Grant Cottage was formed in the fall of 1989 to provide programming and tours, and partner with New York State Parks on site stewardship.

Learn more about the Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant which are available online here.

Grant’s preface to the memoirs:

“Man proposes and God disposes.” There are but few important events in the affairs of men brought about by their own choice.

Although frequently urged by friends to write my memoirs I had determined never to do so, nor to write anything for publication. At the age of nearly sixty-two I received an injury from a fall, which confined me closely to the house while it did not apparently affect my general health. This made study a pleasant pastime. Shortly after, the rascality of a business partner developed itself by the announcement of a failure. This was followed soon after by universal depression of all securities, which seemed to threaten the extinction of a good part of the income still retained, and for which I am indebted to the kindly act of friends. At this juncture the editor of the Century Magazine asked me to write a few articles for him. I consented for the money it gave me; for at that moment I was living upon borrowed money. The work I found congenial, and I determined to continue it. The event is an important one for me, for good or evil; I hope for the former.

In preparing these volumes for the public, I have entered upon the task with the sincere desire to avoid doing injustice to any one, whether on the National or Confederate side, other than the unavoidable injustice of not making mention often where special mention is due. There must be many errors of omission in this work, because the subject is too large to be treated of in two volumes in such way as to do justice to all the officers and men engaged. There were thousands of instances, during the rebellion, of individual, company, regimental and brigade deeds of heroism which deserve special mention and are not here alluded to. The troops engaged in them will have to look to the detailed reports of their individual commanders for the full history of those deeds.

The first volume, as well as a portion of the second, was written before I had reason to suppose I was in a critical condition of health. Later I was reduced almost to the point of death, and it became impossible for me to attend to anything for weeks. I have, however, somewhat regained my strength, and am able, often, to devote as many hours a day as a person should devote to such work. I would have more hope of satisfying the expectation of the public if I could have allowed myself more time. I have used my best efforts, with the aid of my eldest son, F. D. Grant, assisted by his brothers, to verify from the records every statement of fact given. The comments are my own, and show how I saw the matters treated of whether others saw them in the same light or not.

With these remarks I present these volumes to the public, asking no favor but hoping they will meet the approval of the reader.

U. S. GRANT

MOUNT MACGREGOR, NEW YORK, July 1, 1885.

Black History Month In New York State Parks

There is a rich heritage of New York history all around us to explore during Black History Month this February.

While the stories of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., his march at Selma, Alabama, and 19th century abolitionist Fredrick Douglass are well known, these people and places represent only a small part of our common cultural landscape.

Some of this fascinating African American history is closer to home, right here in New York State. This year, how about delving into New York’s own aspects of Black history by learning more about our own unique people and places?

Using the state’s parks, historic sites, the historic preservation agency, and I LOVE NY’s Path Through History and blog, you can find nearly four hundred years of interesting stories effortlessly, on such topics as the our state’s role in the the Civil Rights movement and the Underground Railroad, a network a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century, and used by enslaved African-Americans to escape into free states and Canada.

In the U.S., Black History Month traces its origins to 1915 and the national 50th anniversary emancipation celebration in Chicago, where African American historian, author and journalist Carter G. Woodson staged a history exhibit.  In1926, Woodson selected the second week in February for Negro History Week as a nationwide event. It grew into a month-long celebration and was federally recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976 during the U.S. Bicentennial.

To learn more about Dr. Woodson’s life and work, and his founding of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), visit https://asalh.org.

Figuring out where to begin on such a historical journey in New York may seem challenging, but here are some ideas to get you started. We hope you enjoy your step into the extraordinary history of Africans and their descendants.

Niagara Falls State Park, 332 Prospect St., Niagara Falls, USA: On Feb. 13, the falls will be illuminated in red, black and green (colors of the Pan-African flag) starting at 6 p.m., for a 15-minute period at the top of the hour continuing through 11 p.m.

Pan-African flag (Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons)

Shirley Chisholm State Park, 950 Fountain Ave., or 1750 Pennsylvania Ave., Brooklyn: Named in honor of Shirley Chisholm, a Brooklyn-born trailblazer who was the first African American Congresswoman, as well as the first woman and African American to run for President. As 507 acres, this amazing park leads you into the life of Ms. Chisholm, and also into the wonderful world of environmental justice. Sitting on a reclaimed landfilled, the paths and views of Jamaica Bay can refresh your spirit while introducing you to one of New York’s most noted Black politicians.


Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, 87 Haviland Road, Highland: Although many people think Sojourner Truth was from the South, this former enslaved woman, abolitionist and suffragette was actually born and raised in Ulster County and grew up speaking Dutch. In August of 2020, a bronze statue of her was unveiled at the main entrance of Walkway Over the Hudson State Park in Highland. Learn more about her life, and about Vinnie Bagwell, the African American sculptor who made the statue, here.

Sojourner Truth statue in Walkway Over the Hudson State Park.

Jones Beach Energy & Nature Center, 2400 Ocean Parkway, Wantagh: The newly opened Center will be offering several programs during the month of February, including an exhibit of Black History related posters, including Heroes of the Great Outdoors shown below. The center is also hosting socially-distanced showings of  No Time To Waste: The Urgent Mission of Betty Reid Soskin. The film shares the story of an amazing 99-year old National Parks Ranger’s inspiring life, work, and urgent mission to restore critical missing African American chapters of America’s story.  The center is also hosting free online screenings of this film from Feb. 11 to 15. Registration is available here.


Marsha P. Johnson State Park, 90 Kent Ave., Brooklyn: Renamed for a transgender African American woman and dynamic pioneer who advocated for the LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS communities, this seven-acre park in Brooklyn offers a river front view of Manhattan and an opportunity to relax in a place where everyone is welcome.

Note: the park is undergoing extensive renovations including the installation of public art honoring Marsha P. Johnson and the LGBTQ+ community. Some areas of the park will be temporarily limited during construction to be completed June 2021. The north section of the park will remain accessible through neighboring Bushwick Inlet Park.


Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site, Youngstown: A Feb. 6 tour highlighting African American military service at post from the 18th through the 20th centuries, including the story of formerly enslaved Richard Pierpoint, who served during the American Revolution. The tour will also address the history of the 24th Infantry Regiment, a unit of African American “Buffalo Soldiers” raised after the Civil War. Tour size is limited to 20 persons, and preregistration is required by contacting Erika Schrader at 716-745-7611, ext. 221, or eschrader@oldfortniagara.org.

Clermont State Historic Site, 1 Clermont Ave., Germantown: A free walking tour at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 on the role of the Livingston family, as well as their enslaved people and tenants on their estate, during the Revolutionary War.

National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, 374 Temple Hill Road, Route 300, New Windsor: The mission of the newly reopened National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is to collect, preserve, and share the stories of all Purple Heart recipients. There and online you can learn about our brave service men and service women including men like Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the first African American naval aviator during the Korean War. You can also learn about registering a Purple Heart recipient for the Roll of Honor.

U.S. Naval aviator Jesse L. Brown

New York also has many sites of African American history on the State and National Register of Historic Places, including:

Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest & Ninevah Subdivisions (SANS), Sag Harbor, Suffolk County: The Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah Subdivisions (SANS) Historic District, is a mid-twentieth century African American beach community on Long Island that has and continues to serve as a retreat created by and for families of color. Famous individuals who summered at SANS included Langston Hughes and Lena Horne. The district’s stewards are the recipients of a 2019 NYS Historic Preservation Award.

Stephen & Harriet Myers Residence, Albany, Albany County: The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence was a headquarters for Underground Railroad activity in the Capital Region in the mid-1850s, as documented by a Vigilance Committee flier that has survived from that period with additional historic records. Today the site is operated by the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region as a historic site where the community can learn about the Underground Railroad, the first integrated Civil Rights movement in the United States, and its relevance to today. This site is the recipient of a 2015 NYS Historic Preservation Award and was also featured in the “We Are NY” series. and the Underground Railroad Education Center

James Baldwin Residence, Manhattan (Harlem), New York County: Prominent author and activist James Baldwin (1924-1987) lived in this building during his last decades, 1965-1987. Baldwin made profound and enduring contributions to American literature and social history, addressing the major questions America faced in those decades. Recently, portions of Manhattan park were renamed after James Baldwin to further honor his legacy. His former home is featured in the New York City LGBT sites project.

John W. Jones Museum, Elmira, Chemung County: The John W. Jones House in Elmira is listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places and is now a museum open to the public. John W. Jones became an active agent in the Underground Railroad in 1851 and continued to help enslaved individuals escape to freedom for many years. The museum explores Mr. Jones’ community involvement and his relationship with his contemporaries, as well as the location’s function as the only Underground Railroad station between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and St. Catharines, Ontario Canada.

Colored Musicians Club, 145 Broadway, Buffalo: Formed in 1917, the Colored Musicians Club was one of the oldest continually operating African-American musicians’ clubs in the country as well an office for Buffalo Local 533, an early African-American union of musicians. These organizations were part of the response to racism and segregation in Buffalo’s musical community. The Colored Musicians Club was home to performances by such notable artists as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Miles Davis and Cab Calloway.

Storefront of the Colored Musicians Club in Buffalo.


Given the need for social distancing amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NYS Parks also has an array of virtual and online events and information. Here are a few examples:

John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, Katonah: A Zoom lecture on the history of enslavement in this prominent Colonial-era family starts 7 p.m. Feb. 24. Registration available at www.johnjayhomestead.org The website also includes virtual exhibits, school programs and tours to explore the Jay family’s history as enslavers, and the dedication of later generations of Jays to the abolitionist cause.

Olana State Historic Site, Hudson: A webinar on the life of 19th century African American and Ojibwe sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, presented by University of New Mexico professor Kirsten Buick. Starting 6 p.m. Feb. 24, access to this event requires paid membership in The Olana Partnership available at www.olana.org/membership.

Mary Edmonia Lewis, from the book Child of the Fire, by author Kirsten Buick.

Jay Heritage Center, Rye: A Zoom lecture by Dr. Gretchen Sorin, director of Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, on her new book, “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights” will be held 7 p.m. Feb. 11. Registration is available here.

Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown: A Facebook Live event starts 2 p.m. Feb. 20 hosted by comic artist Emily Ree on how the Red Scare of the 1950s led to blacklisting in the comic book industry, which at the time supported a diverse workforce of people of color and women.

Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, Albany: In 1793 a good portion of the City of Albany burned down. Three enslaved Africans were accused of setting the blaze. In this fictionized drama based on historic evidence, see how the community of enslaved and free, Africans and Europeans interacted during this tense time in a legal system where the enslaved had little voice. Here is a guide to The Accused: Slavery and the Albany Fire of 1793.

Facebook posts on African American related items from Parks’ historic sites are also available, including:

Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, Fort Montgomery: This post offers a glimpse into the life of Benjamin Lattimore, one of the few known African American soldiers to fight in this 1777 Revolutionary War battle in the Mohawk Valley.

Fort Ontario State Historic Site, Oswego: This post describes the World War II training of Harlem Hellfighters, the segregated African American 15th New York National Guard Regiment who were stationed at the fort.

Formerly the 15th NYNG Infantry Regiment, the unit was activated into federal service and began training as the 369th Coast Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment at Fort Ontario in January 1941. This occurred after FDR federalized the National Guard in preparation for WWII. It was the first opportunity for blacks to serve in a technical role in the U.S. Armed Forces, a milestone in the Civil Rights movement. The regiment is now the 369th Sustainment Brigade with an armory on 5th Avenue in New York City.

Shown below is the 369th depicted in a promotion for the Netherland Dairy of Oswego which supplied the 2,000-man garrison with milk. It appeared in the May 28, 1941 issue of the Post Script, the regiment’s newspaper while stationed at Fort Ontario until September 1941.


And finally, the New York State Parks Blog also has recent posts on African American historical items, including the Dutch colonial-era African American holiday of Pinkster, 19th century abolitionist Sojourner Truth and her life in the Hudson Valley, the 19th century emancipation holiday of Juneteenth which last year became an official state holiday, and the role of African American leadership in the Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State during the Great Depression.

So, take advantage of these many opportunities to learn about the history of people and places that form a more complete story of New York State.

African American members of the Civilian Conservation Corps work on a project in New York State during the Great Depression.

Cover Shot: African American Cemetery in Montgomery, Orange County, believed to hold graves of about 100 people, mainly slaves brought to the region in the mid-18th cemetery. (Photo Credit – Lavada Nahon) All other photos from NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, Bureau of Historic Sites, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation

Tasty Homemade Holiday Treats from Historic Family cookbooks

Holiday cooking is one tradition that most people partake in, even those who normally order take-out or nuke something frozen for dinner. Family recipes are unearthed from the back of the recipe box or perhaps your junk drawer. The house fills with the nostalgic smells of favorite treats. Recipes are often our most evident tie to our heritage and historians can glean a lot from one family recipe.

Lorenzo State Historic Site in Cazenovia has their own treasure trove of handwritten recipes from the families who have lived there. Spanning the early 1800s to the early 20th century, these cookbooks contain both handwritten recipes and clippings from newspapers. In addition to food, there are also entries for home remedies for health and cleaning.

Recently, these cookbooks were digitized so that the books themselves, which are quite fragile, no longer need to be handled and so can be protected from accidental damage. Researchers will be able access the books digitally, helping us better understand generations of the Lincklaens, Ledyards, and Fairchilds who lived at Lorenzo. Established in 1807, the Federal style home of John Lincklaen, Holland Land Company agent and founder of Cazenovia, Lorenzo was continually occupied by the family and its descendants until the property was conveyed to New York State in 1968.

One of the fragile cookbooks that was digitized so it now can now be handled as little as possible. The cookbooks at the Lorenzo State Historic Site have been one of the most requested items for research. (Photo Credit – NYS Parks)

What can historians learn from recipes over the years? The foods we eat can tell us about media, transportation, technology, and trade.

For example, vanilla was used sparingly prior to the mid-19th century. This fragrant spice is native to central and South America and vanilla orchids were brought to Europe and Africa through colonizers of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, but without successful cultivation of the fruit.

That all changed in 1841, a young enslaved man named Edmond Albius, living on the island of Réunion, a French island off the east coast of Madagascar in the Indian Ocean, developed a hand pollination technique for the orchid, which only blooms for 24 hours. With the agricultural production of vanilla beans now made possible, the vanilla industry was catapulted around the world, which made the spice much more affordable. Cookbooks started to fill with this popular flavor by the end of the 1800s. Since the plants are still hand pollinated today, vanilla is one of the most expensive spices, second only to saffron. Prior to vanilla being widely available, many foods were seasoned with rose water or orange flower water.

This hand-written custard recipe comes from one of the cookbooks and uses vanilla. It is likely that this recipe dates from the second half of the 19th century. It is from a cookbook estimated to have been kept between 1910 and 1917 by Helen L. Fairchild. (Photo Credit – Lorenzo State Historic Site)

Many earlier recipes used spices that are often associated with the holidays today such as nutmeg, ginger, allspice, cardamom, and candied citrus peel. These ingredients were imported to the United States and Europe at significant expense and added interest and flavor. Nutmeg was originally imported from Indonesia. The Dutch, in addition to colonizing New Netherland, which became New York when England took control, also colonized Indonesia, primarily for the profitable spice trade. Nutmeg continues to be an important ingredient in both sweet and savory holiday recipes. How spices are used also gives a hint to your family’s heritage.

Also found in the cookbook kept by Helen L. Fairchild, “Eliza’s Gingerbread” recipe looks quite familiar to modern bakers. The earliest know gingerbread recipes originated in ancient Greece. Other recipes date to 10th century China. Europeans were eating gingerbread by the late Middle Ages, and its appeal continues to this day. (Photo Credit – Lorenzo State Historic Site)

Not all the recipes in these books seem palatable to modern audiences. There are many ingredients that have gone out of fashion. Suet, the rendered fat of beef, is an ingredient in many puddings. Tongue, calves head, and terrapin (turtle) are also present in recipes. Folks were also willing to put just about anything into gelatin including little ham balls seasoned with cayenne pepper.

Whether these dishes were daily fare or for special occasions is hard to decipher from these cookbooks, although terrapin became quite popular by the end of the 19th century until overharvesting made the creatures quite rare and expensive.

It is interesting to note that a few recipes are repeated in more than one cookbook. Perhaps each generation of women passed down the recipes to the next. The recipes might have been recopied in a new book when the old one deteriorated.

Eve’s pudding recipe is for a traditional pudding much like those still eaten during holidays in the United Kingdom. Puddings were a common desert, especially before the widespread availability of leavening agents like baking soda and baking powder. This pudding contains apples and raisins, but other examples could have included other dried or candied fruits, breadcrumbs instead of flour, nutmeg, and, of course, some brandy for a holiday glow. (Photo Credit – Lorenzo State Historic Site)

Lorenzo State Historic Site can now keep these recipes safe and accessible for many generations to come. And that is something you can do at home, too.

Which recipes will you be serving at your holiday table? What do those recipes say about your family’s heritage or status?

Recipes are considered primary source documents if your grandmother or great-grandmother was the first to write it down. How will you preserve this tradition? Share a recipe with your family and friends. Tell the stories that surround your memory of that food. This is intangible history, but just as important as your recipes. Stay safe and well fed this holiday season.

This satirical print made by George Cruikshank in 1835 is titled At Home in the Nursery, or The Masters and Misses Twoshoes Christmas Party. A popular English illustrator in the mid-19th century, Cruikshank portrayed the chaos of the nursery at Christmas that is well understood by any parent of small children. Of course, a tray of tasty treats is being brought into for their enjoyment. (Photo Credit – Rijksmuseum)

Cover Shot: The first commercial Christmas card, printed in 1843 in England and sent from John Callcott Horsely to Henry Cole, shows folks dining as a symbol of the holidays. In the same way so much of our celebrations revolve around food, with recipes often a cherished tradition passed to each generation. (Photo Credit – Victoria and Albert Museum, London)

Post by Amanda Massie, Curator at Bureau of Historic Sites, Division for Historic Preservation at NYS Parks.


Want to have some fun at home with historic recipes from Lorenzo State Historic Site? Here are some to try… And Happy Holidays to you and yours from New York State Parks!

Growing Freedom in Adirondack Wilderness

While the John Brown Farm State Historic Site is the former Adirondack home of a famed abolitionist, the farm also is part of a larger story about an ambitious, well-intentioned but ultimately unsuccessful  effort in those rugged mountains before the Civil War to help free African Americans gain prosperity and political rights.

Located just outside of Lake Placid, the 270-acre farm occupied by Brown’s  family reflects his common belief with prominent New York State abolitionist and social reformer, Gerrit Smith, as well as many others in that movement, that owning and farming land would aid people of African descent move from enslavement to freedom.

A photograph of John Brown taken in 1859.


Throughout most of human history, the ownership of property in the form of land has been greatly esteemed. During medieval times, property set apart the landed gentry from the serfs, while in colonial-era New York it meant the wielding of political power by the “Lords of the Manor” over their rent-paying tenants.

Political power after the American Revolution was narrowly held, compared to today, as property ownership was directly linked to whether a man of any color could participate in civil engagement. In the 1906 book, A Political History of the State of New York, De Alva S. Alexander noted that “The right of suffrage was so restricted that as late as 1790 only 1,303 of the 13,330 male residents of New York City possessed sufficient property to entitle them to vote for governor.”

In 1790, legal slavery still existed in the new state of New York. There also were quite a number of free men of African descent but like men of other races, they had to own property to be able to cast a ballot.

In New York, men regardless of race had to hold a minimum of $100 worth of property before they could participate in elections.  In 1821 New York state ratified its second constitution, which required Black men to have at least $250 worth of property (about $5,700 in today’s dollars) while eliminating any such property requirement for whites. This change almost completely disenfranchised the Black community.

Such discrimination was opposed by Smith, a wealthy, land-rich abolitionist and social reformer in Madison County who also owned 120,000 acres of land in the Adirondacks across Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties. In 1846, Smith offered a free piece of that land to any Black man willing to stake a claim.

Gerrit Smith (Photo Credit – Library of Congress)


Broken into 40 to 50-acre parcels, deeds for Smith’s land were granted to individuals and families, with the idea that with improvements land values would increase beyond the $250 requirement, giving not only industry and wealth to the family, but also the right to vote to the male head of household.

Throughout the 19th century, farming as a way to both sustain a family and grow financial wealth was pushed as the preferred way for free people of African descent to become valuable members of society.

Since enslaved people of African descent had worked on farms, it was a collective belief by Smith and other abolitionists that farming, husbandry, and related industries were natural bridges to civil advancement. However, he and many others pushing this idea didn’t consider that working a mono-crop plantation in the mild climate of the South was very different from clearing timbered forests in northern New York.

Nor did they think about those who had spent their entire lives in urban environments. Many viewed Smith’s generosity as truly expansive, but few, including Smith himself, took a close look at the land he’d shared or considered the substantial costs involved in getting a productive farm up and running.  The maps with their neatly drawn sections looked good on paper but the actual parcels were often filled with thin soil, rocky terrain and ancient trees in a land with poor roads, brutal winters and a shortened growing season.

Unaware of such hurdles, thousands of people from across the mid-Atlantic states applied for the free land. Men from New York City, and many Hudson River and Central New York counties, were among those who traveled north.  About 3,000 people accepted land, with initial settlers facing numerous challenges with varying degrees of success. Gerrit’s scheme and arrival of early homesteaders, especially those struggling with limited farming knowledge, caught the attention of the abolitionist John Brown, who lived in Springfield, Massachusetts at the time.

Brown had grown up on a farm and wanted to be of service in Smith’s project, by being a living example of how things were to be done and available to provide direct assistance if needed. Brown wrote to Smith, saying he’d like to support the new farmers by renting acres for himself and his growing family. Smith took Brown up on his offer, and it wasn’t long before the Brown family found themselves with their own bit of Smith’s mountain paradise near what is now Lake Placid.

The close proximity of some of the plots lent to the natural development of colonies or small villages which gave both support and protection to those living there. North Elba saw a long standing African American community as a result.

Other grantees arrived from outside of New York. Articles appeared in Black newspapers bringing people from Philadelphia and other southern cities, many taking up the plough for the first time in their lives. Sometimes plots were granted, but those seeking a new way of life never appeared. None of Smith’s acreage in Hamilton county was ever given out.

This area near Lake Placid also was home to another small colony called Timbuctoo, named for the ancient center of learning in the African nation of Mali, and was mentioned by Brown in several of his surviving letters. The presence of it in his writings gives focus to an exhibit on the historic site, sponsored by the friends group John Brown Lives! titled ‘Dreaming of Timbuctoo.’ (Click on the slideshow below) On-going archeological research keeps the memory of this colony alive, even as it and other sites of these intrepid homesteaders have long ago faded from the area.

Despite the hardships, a few grantees of Smith land prevailed to become established and active residents of the Adirondacks. Lyman Erastus Epps arrived in 1849, with his wife and two of his eight children. Epps left a rich legacy of his life in the area. Not only did he farm, but he also taught music to local residents in North Elba, was a charter member of its first church, was one of the founders and an early trustee of the Lake Placid Public Library. He also became a well-known guide in the High Peaks region of the central Adirondacks. 

Brown himself was ever on the move and spent little time at the farm, although his wife and younger children were there. He and his older sons spent time in Kansas and other locations as part of their abolitionist activities, which eventually culminated in his failed raid with three of his sons on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va. in 1859.

In addition to being the benefactor of the Adirondack project, Smith was very involved with the Underground Railroad – a network of abolitionists who helped guide escaped enslaved people to freedom – and his estate in the Madison County hamlet of Peterboro was an official stop that abolitionist Harriet Tubman and others used regularly. The remains of his estate are part of New York’s Underground Railroad Heritage Trail and a National Historic Landmark.

Putting historical figures like Brown, Smith and Epps into the full communities in which they lived allows us to see a vast tapestry. No one lives alone in a silo, they are part of a multicultural, multi-linguist world much like what we live in today. Enrich the story, look beyond the obvious tale, and see what was really going on. You’ll discover one of our most treasured secrets, what a wonderful place we live in!  


Cover Shot- John Brown Farm State Historic Site, NYS Parks Timbuctoo photographs courtesy of John Brown Lives!, exhibit curator Amy Godine and exhibition designer Karen Davidson Seward.

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, New York State Parks

Resources


Sally E. Svenson, Blacks in the Adirondacks, 2017

Leslie M. Harris, In the Shadow of Slavery, African Americans in New York City 1626-1863, 2003

Tom Calarco, The Underground Railroad in Upstate New York, 2014