Friday, February 28, 2014

The Reids of Elmira

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

When young John came to Elmira around 1840, he was being pursued by a man who was both his owner and his father.  He found shelter in the hayloft of William Reid, livery stable owner and abolitionist.  It turned out John was quite a hand with the horses so Reid not only offered him a job, but a new last name to make him harder to track down.  John Reid’s original last name has since been lost to time, but the generations of descendants born and raised here have done just fine with the borrowed one.

Unfortunately, not all that much is known about John Reid’s life in Elmira.  He worked as a hostler, someone who manages horses, and raised a family on Dickinson Street.  At the time Dickinson was at the heart of the city’s African American community.  It was also home to a number of poor, white immigrant groups as well.  John and his wife had a number of children one of whom, James, continued to live in the area and work as a laborer. 

Photographic pillowcase with picture of James Reid

James had a son, Thomas, who served in the Navy during World War I on the troop ship USS Leviathan.  After the war, he married Vila Elcha and held a number of jobs in Elmira including clerk at the American Bridge Company, Deputy Sheriff and delivery driver for Remington Rand.  He was an active member of the Elmira branch of the NAACP and served on the Mayor’s Commission on Human Relations. 

Thomas had four children; Jennie, Sarah, Thomas Jr. and Wilbur.  Sarah eventually married and settled in Corning, but her other siblings remained in Elmira.  Jennie attended the Elmira Business College and, during World War II, took the Civil Service exam to work as an elevator operator at City Hall, one of the few jobs for which a black woman could apply at the time.  She also volunteered with the Women’s Ambulance & Defense Corps where she learned first aid, among other things.  After the war, her job was taken by a returning veteran so she put her medical skills to use, first as an x-ray technician at Arnot Ogden Hospital and then later with the Visiting Nurses’ Association.

Jenny Dunmyer and the WADC

The two brothers, Thomas Jr. and Wilbur, both helped to break down racial barriers within the city.  Although there had been a black police officer on the force in the 1870s, none had been permitted to apply since his retirement in 1888.  In 1947, the local NAACP filed a petition to allow blacks to take the civil service exams for the police and fire departments.  In 1950, Thomas Reid Jr. became the first African American to serve in the Elmira Fire Department.  He worked there until his retirement in 1985 and took up inventing a series of skates and scooters in his spare time.  Wilbur, meanwhile, joined the Elmira Police Department in 1953.  He left in 1959 to pursue a career as a medical technician, but helped open the way for other black officers. 

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

History and the Humane Society

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

The Chemung County Historical Society is lucky to have the opportunity to partner with the Chemung County Humane Society and SPCA for our upcoming Catstravaganza event.  At first glance, our two groups may seem to have little in common.  However, it turns out that the Historical Society and the Humane Society have a lot of shared interests after all.  First, we are both educational organizations.  Whether it be historical or humane education, we are both trying to actively engage with and teach our community. 

Also, our Humane Society has a very long history (and as a Historical Society, we should care about such things).  The Elmira Humane Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and Animals was incorporated on January 12, 1891.  The early humane movement aimed to protect animals and children as they were both seen as groups vulnerable to mistreatment.   The first animal shelter in Chemung County was established in 1926 on Pinnacle Road, Elmira.   In 1942, the shelter moved to Lowman where it remained until 1977.  Upon the move to its current location, the society officially changed its name to the Chemung County Humane Society and SPCA.
1891 Humane Society Membership Card

Catstravaganza: A Feline Festival, will combine the interests, strengths, and passion of both groups.  The event will feature a Mark Twain’s cat look-alike contest (he was a major cat lover, you know), cat-themed crafts, a cat video screening, and more.  One of the major highlights of the event will be our display of the cat-themed artwork of nearly 1,700 local students!  Join us February 22, 2014 from 12-3 at CCHS to take part in the feline fun.  The event is free and open to the public.
Mark Twain's Cats

Catstravaganza will not be the end of the collaborations between CCHS and the Humane Society.  For starters, we’ll be installing an exhibit in the lobby of the Humane Society that will be up by the beginning of March.  The exhibit will examine the history of the SPCA and local pet keeping.  Stop in and see it (and all of the wonderful animals looking for homes).

Tintype of a man and his dog

Monday, February 10, 2014

A Big Change Coming: Update

by Erin Doane, Curator

Back at the end of December, I wrote about our plans to redesign the exhibit in the Museum’s bank gallery. Now, more than halfway through the process, it’s time for an update and a peek at what’s been happening.

For the last several weeks an army of student interns and volunteers have been removing all the old images and text from the gallery walls.  Now we have a clean canvas, so to speak, for the two new exhibits going into this gallery.

We have also completely rearranged the exhibit space.  In half of the gallery we will tell the story of Chemung County and in the other half we will explore Mark Twain's Elmira.  With the help of Naglee Fine Arts, we shifted walls, reset cases and moved some major artifacts including the billiard table and two very large mirrors that came from the Langdon Mansion.

Over the next couple of weeks we will be refilling the gallery with images and artifacts dating from the earliest days of Native American settlement to the end of the 20th century.  We are also adding new, hands-on interactives so visitors can get closer to history.

Members of the Chemung County Historical Society will be the first to see these new exhibits at a special members only opening on February 27.  If you are a member, keep an eye out for your invitation in the mail.  If you are not already a member, join now so you can be part of this exclusive event!

Monday, February 3, 2014

The River Runs North: African Americans and the Great Migration

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

During the first quarter of the 20th century, Elmira’s African American population was quite small, numbering in the hundreds.  Most were the descendants of people who had been here since before the Civil War or who had arrived soon after.  Beginning around World War II, their numbers grew rapidly.  The number of blacks in the city jumped from just under 1,000 in 1930 to around 3,000 in 1960.  These newcomers represented part of a larger trend known as the Great Migration. 
At the turn of the 20th century nearly 90% of African Americans lived the South.  1910 was the beginning of a radical population shift now known as the Great Migration.  Millions of African Americans left poor, rural areas in southern states and headed to Northeastern, Midwestern and west coast cities.  From 1910 to 1930, nearly 1.3 million African Americans moved north.  Most of this first wave headed for larger cities like New York, Philadelphia, Chicago and Detroit.  There was a lull during the Great Depression, but in the end over 5 million people took part in the Great Migration from 1910 to 1970. 
Why did so many people leave their homes?  Pushing them out of the south were an oppressive system of Jim Crow laws and the constant threat of lynching and other forms of violence.  Meanwhile, northern business including railroads and some larger manufacturers were actively recruiting black workers.  The lure of northern cities where blacks could actually vote, not to mention send their children to good, integrated schools, was strong 

Elmira largely missed out on the first wave of the Great Migration.  It had recently experienced an influx of white immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe which had easily filled local employers’ needs.  Additionally, most local unions refused to allow blacks which meant that they couldn’t get certain types of skilled manufacturing jobs.  World War II was a different story.  There were no less than 8 local manufacturers involved in around the clock war production and all were desperate to fill their shifts.  These businesses recruited not only African Americans from down south but also groups of blacks from Jamaica and Barbados to assist in war production.  Here, they made more money than they ever could back home.  Still, not everything was sunshine and roses.  Black workers were consistently paid less than whites and often excluded from the more social aspects of factory life.  The war workers flooding the city caused a serious housing shortage and no one was willing to rent to blacks outside of the city’s pre-existing neighborhood on Elmira’s east side.  

Bendix-Eclipse workers from Barbados, 1944

After the war, most of the Caribbean workers were sent home, but the American-born blacks not only stayed, but encouraged their friends and relatives to come.  In a recent interview, one African American man talked about coming to Elmira to stay with his older brother.  The brother had gotten a job at the G.E. Elmira Foundry and agreed to put him up so he could attend EFA and get a better education than he could have hoped for back in Kentucky hometown.  Another interviewee talked about living with relatives in South Carolina until his mother earned enough money to bring him to Elmira.  Both men spent the rest of their lives and raised their families here.  

Tom Reed at Bendix-Eclipse, 1944

Unidentified worker at the G.E. Foundry, ca. 1950s