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. 


  1. An excellent, very informative and interesting piece. Thank you.

  2. Interesting article. Always been curious about how various families that had generations of descendants came to Elmira. Discovering and document the history would preserve so much information for the area. The Reid family appear to be early settlers in the area coming from the Underground Railroad (1820-1861). Would love to learn more about other families that settled there based on other history, like recruitment for working on the Chemung Canal.