Monday, February 27, 2017

John Turner’s Freedom

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

On October 30, 1904, the Elmira Telegram ran a single paragraph about a “remarkable colored man,” John Turner. That one paragraph outlined Turner's undeniably remarkable story, one that was also heartbreaking. Turner was the well-known manager of the stables at the Platt House hotel in Horseheads. Turner, who had lived in Horseheads for 18 years, started his life in the North as an escaped slave.
The Platt House
Turner was enslaved on the plantation of Turner family in Virginia, near Fredericksburg. From the little information given in the blurb, it is difficult to ascertain what plantation he was enslaved on, but it might have been Belle Grove in King George, VA. At the time of his Turner’s enslavement, the plantation was owned by Carolinus Turner.

During the Civil War, John Turner took one of his master’s horses and rode across Union lines. He asked for freedom, proving his master was an officer in the Confederate army. He was not made to return.

The article mentioned that Turner had since been working to locate his mother and brother, from whom he had been separated during his enslavement. He had written to former master George Turner (Carolinus had a son named George who would have been a child when John escaped) asking for assistance locating them. The report said that he had received two letters in response, but that neither could give him any information. It is unlikely he ever heard from them again.

Turner’s experience looking for lost family members was not unique. After emancipation, formerly enslaved people had little recourse to locate lost family. “Lost Friends” columns appeared in some newspapers and people placed ads looking for any information about loved ones. You can read some of their heartbreaking notes here:

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Orpheus Club

By Rachel Dworkin, archivist

During the 1930s, there were over a dozen clubs at the Elmira Free Academy and none of them accepted Black members. These clubs offered kids a chance to socialize, showcase their talents, perform community service, and enhance their academic studies, but EFA’s Black students were excluded from all of it. In the spring of 1938, junior Edith Smiley decided to change all that by creating the Orpheus Club. According to their statement in The Torch, the club was created “to increase the number of social activities for colored students and to give them an opportunity to exhibit their talents.” By the end of the school year they had formed a glee club and hosted a party at the home of one of the club officers.
Edith Smiley, Founder and First President
Over the next few years, the Orpheus Club became a vital part of the school. Club members performed for their classmates in various school assemblies. They regularly hosted a booth at the Annual Fall Carnival. They threw jitterbug dance parties in the gym and at club members’ homes. 1942 was a banner year in terms of programing. That spring, they brought in Rev. George F. Fauntleroy of AME Zion Church to lecture on Black history and sing traditional Black spirituals, and hosted the Double VV for Victory dance honoring the first Black fliers to receive their wings from the U.S. Army Air Corps (including former club member and Tuskegee Airman, Clarence Dart).  The 1940 EFA yearbook said “For the few years this club has been in existence, it has risen to be one of the outstanding and respected organizations in the school.”

Orpheus Club show off their dancing skills, 1942
In some ways, the success of the club lead to its disappearance in 1943. In just a few short years, the Orpheus Club had succeeded in integrating Black students into the social life of the school. During the 1940-41 school year, Blacks were finally allowed into the various clubs and the first Black student, Orpheus Club member Charles Brown, was elected to Student Council. By 1943, Black students were involved in so many different clubs it must have been hard to schedule Orpheus Club meetings around them. 

Original Orpheus Club, 1939

Thanks to the Orpheus Club, Elmira Free Academy’s Black students now had many opportunities to participate in the social life of the school. Once the club was gone, however, they lost the very group that had allowed them to organize and work together for social justice.

Orpheus Club in their final year, 1943

**As a side note, if you, dear reader, were a member of the Orpheus Club or know someone who was, I would very much like to speak with you. Please drop me a line if you’d like to share your story**

Monday, February 13, 2017

Colored Citizens of Elmira

by Erin Doane, curator

In 1844, the Colored Citizens of Elmira was formed. The organization was created to help promote social, economic, and political issues important to the African-American community. Groups such as this were being organized throughout the United States as early as the 1830s. Elmira was somewhat of a hotbed of abolition activity leading up to the Civil War. Both white and black citizens were involved in public movements to end slavery and in the more secret business of the Underground Railroad. John W. Jones, an escaped slave and Underground Railroad conductor, served as secretary of the Colored Citizens of Elmira in 1850. His duties with the organization included preparing and disseminating resolutions made by the group.

John W. Jones, c. 1850
Through these resolutions, the Colored Citizens presented their stance on political issues and declared how they intended to act in regard to those issues. In October 1850, the organization resolved:
That we, the colored citizens of Elmira, do hereby form ourselves into a society for the purpose of protecting ourselves against those persons, (slave-catchers) prowling through different parts of this and other States since the passing of that diabolical act of Sept. 18th, 1850 [the Fugitive Slave Act], which consigns freemen of other States to that awful state of brutality which the fiendish slaveholders of the Southern States think desirable for their colored brethren, but are not willing to try it themselves.
They also resolved to protest against and resist the Fugitive Slave Act “though every one of us be assassinated.” They declared that if they discovered anyone working with the slave-catchers, those people would be treated as enemies.

Jones was tasked with having these resolutions published in the village papers, the New York Tribune, the North Star, and the Impartial Citizen. The full text also appeared in the November 15, 1850 issue of the Boston Liberator.

The Colored Citizens were active for years, taking stands against many injustices. In 1854, they organized a petition to remove the requirement of African-Americans to have $250 in property in order to vote in New York State. The property requirements were rendered unconstitutional by the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment in 1870.

In the 1890s, the group met several times to discuss the frequent occurrences of lynchings throughout the country. Rev. M.H. Ross, chairman of the organization, considered an 1893 meeting one “of grave importance, one that should concern every American on this broad land of ours; that should call forth expression from every lover of justice and liberty – the continual lynching and outrages that are being perpetrated on the colored people by lawless mobs, without just cause, only because they are negroes, is to us a subject that should concern all.”

Elmira Daily Gazette and Free Press, July 9, 1892
In 1916, the Colored Citizens issued a protest letter to Mayor Harry N. Hoffman regarding the scheduled showing of Birth of a Nation in Elmira. (You can read more about that incident here.)

When it came to politics, the Colored Citizens of Elmira openly endorsed or condemned candidates. In 1872, they passed a resolution strongly endorsing the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant who went on to easily win a second term. In November 1891, they had a notice published in the newspaper urging voters to remember how Mr. Fassett had defeated the civil rights bill in 1890. The Lodge Bill or Federal Elections Bill, as it was called, would have authorized the federal government to ensure that elections were fair by enforcing the ability of African-Americans to vote in the south. J. Sloat Fassett of Elmira who was running for governor in 1891 had apparently been against the bill.

The Colored Citizens also organized community events to celebrate significant occasions such as the ratification of the 15th Amendment in 1870 which prohibited the government from denying a citizen the right to vote based on race, color, or previous condition of servitude. They also held events to commemorate the anniversaries of the Emancipation of the Slaves in the British West Islands and the passing of the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 that ended slavery in the British Empire. Highlights of these events were speeches by renowned orators. Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi, the first African-American to serve in the United States Congress, spoke at an 1870 event in Elmira. Frederick Douglass spoke at Colored Citizens-sponsored events here at least twice, at a civil rights celebration on July 17, 1873 and at another event on August 3, 1880.
Frederick Douglass, c. 1870s
I had some difficulty in tracking the activities of the Colored Citizens of Elmira after the early 20th century. The name of the organization appeared in newspapers in the 1920s and later but was never capitalized. Because of this, I am not sure whether the articles were referring to an official organization or rather the community in general. An April 26, 1928 article in the Star-Gazette reported that “Colored citizens of Elmira are planning a concerted movement which it is hoped will bring them more recognition in civic and intellectual affairs. … It is proposed to form an organization which will take an active part in the advancement of the colored race.” To me, this indicates that the Colored Citizens of Elmira as an organized group had dissolved at some point. The organization, however, did appear to have an active history for some 70 years.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Henry Wilson’s Walks

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

Elmiran Henry Wilson took something rather mundane, in his case, walking, and made it extraordinary. He could walk a lot and over long distances. To my knowledge, he made two such long, walking “tramp” journeys: one in 1895-96 and one in 1901-2. This is what I can piece together about his trips. They’re a rather remarkable look at the life of a local black man that transcends many typical narratives of that time period.

In July 1895, the local papers reported that “local colored boys” Henry Wilson and Frank H. Jones were planning to walk across the country if they could get enough money to do so. There was no real mention of their motives for doing so. At some point, Jones must have dropped out of the plan, because on August 4, Wilson alone departed from Elmira wearing a “black velvet suit with knickerbockers” and pulling a little red wagon.

By August 7, Wilson made it to Hornellsville. There he laid out his itinerary with the local paper. He planned to go though Salamanca to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and the Santa Fe route to California, all the while following train lines. He suspected it would take 13 months. Wilson planned to collect signatures from newspapermen and hotel proprietors “as evidence of good faith.”

By the end of November 1895, made it to northern Arizona. He sent a letter to an Elmira friend saying he was doing well and making some money giving lectures. He next would have to cross the Mojave Desert, however, facing about 200 miles “without water or shelter along the route.” Everything he needed he had to carry in his wagon. He wanted to be in California by Christmas.

There is a bit of a gap in the record at that point, but we do know that he made it to San Francisco and then started the return trip home. In August 1896, Wilson’s half-brother was killed jumping off a train in Ohio. At the time of his death, he may have been going west to see his brother, who was in a hospital in St. Louis. Wilson reportedly had been held up significantly in his return with “mountain fever,” which required substantial hospitalization. Wilson eventually recovered and made it back home. In April 1897, he lectured about his trip at the Bethel A.M.E. Church.

Wilson’s walking career didn’t end there. In 1901, he and another Elmira man, William Boggs, were hired to walk across the country and to go to England and France to promote the 1903 Louisiana Purchase Exposition, by handing out promotional images and flyers.
Ticket for the Louisiana Purchase Expo
On November 12, 1901, Wilson and Boggs set out at 10 am pushing a three-wheeled wagon with an American flag atop the canopy. They started at the corner of Lake and Water Streets and were sent off by a small crowd, including two sad young women who “followed along for a few blocks gazing wistfully after the stalwart young men.” Wilson and Boggs were wearing “knee bicycle trousers and stockings, russet shoes and canvas hunting jackets. Each man had a tight-fitting skull cap.”

The paper praised the two men, but did also include some racist commentary about them; they were reportedly “pushing their cart and looking as happy as if they were bound for a water melon picnic or a cake walk.”

The men were scheduled to first go north through wine country and then on to Buffalo. When they reached St. Louis, their contracts with the Exposition were said to begin. From there, they would go to Charleston, S.C. for the Midwinter Exposition. Then they would head back to New York and board a steamer to Liverpool, from where they would go to Ireland and France. France was a big part of the plan; the men were supposed to tell the French people how “the American people are to celebrate the centennial of the Louisiana purchase from Napoleon in 1803.” Along the way, Wilson and Boggs were also doing vaudeville-style performances and dances, in part to draw attention to their advertisements and to also make a little extra money.

After their departure, the last reference I can find of them is from early January 1902. After that, the trail goes cold. I have no idea if the trip was a success or what happened to either man. Understandably, this could have been a dangerous assignment, and something could have gone wrong. So for now, this story ends abruptly. If I find more information, I’ll post an update.