February 2012

Adirondack Civil Rights Hall of Fame

Champions of racial justice had strong North Country ties

From the Southern Poverty Law Center, in Montgomery, Alabama, comes the dismal news that American students know next to nothing about the history of the Civil Rights Movement. In 35 states, school history curricula don’t mention civil rights at all. Next to this flunking majority, New York, which got an A, stands tall, but even New York educators are compelled to cover so much ground that history is reduced to one-line flash cards, landmark dates and a few telescoped events that do double duty as facile moral fables. Lincoln freed the slaves; Martin Luther King stood for peace, justice and integrity; the Civil Rights Movement put an end to segregation; and—lesson over. End of story. Slavery was a Southern problem. Cities were the staging ground for the fight for civil rights. For students in the rural North, it has always been easy to assume that civil rights was something happening “out there.” A gripping saga, to be sure, but not much to do with, say, the Adirondack region, where the black population has always been quite low.

In fact, civil rights has much to do with Adirondack history, and Adirondackers with the campaign for racial justice. And the real inventory of North Country activists is long, continuous and remarkably robust—it could populate a book. So take the 10 names in this Adirondack Civil Rights Hall of Fame as a starting point, a sampling, or better still, a prompt for a wider, more inclusive celebration. If this Hall of Fame does nothing more than challenge the rote assumption that the Adirondack story and the fight for civil rights are unrelated, it will have done its job. Far from unrelated, they inform and sustain each other. And they were sometimes the same thing.

John Brown (1800–1859)
In the North they called him the Martyr-Emancipator. Southern epithets were rather less adoring. What John Brown did at Harpers Ferry drove a polarized, embattled nation to face the likelihood of open war. Brown’s abortive bid to seize a federal arsenal in Virginia and embolden enslaved African-Americans to break for freedom resulted in his capture and execution. But did the effort really fail when the nationwide debate about it hastened the great conflict that resulted in slavery’s abolition and freedom for four million in 1865? Brown’s civilian life—homesteading in Essex County, raising sheep, selling wool, worrying about his children and his neighbors—seems sometimes to belong to another man. Don’t believe it—here was no divide. Brown’s commitment to racial justice was equally the wellspring of his antislavery militancy and his “peacetime” work with his black farmer neighbors in North Elba. And his modest Adirondack home and grave have been a shrine for civil rights pilgrims for the last 150 years.

John Thomas (1811–1894)
Of the 3,000 black New Yorkers who got gifts of Adirondack land in 1846 and 1847 from the radical abolitionist-philanthropist Gerrit Smith, a fraction moved to the Adirondacks, and of that fraction fewer still stuck around. One of these pioneering stalwarts moved to Franklin sometime around 1850 and called it home for the rest of his long life. In 1872 John Thomas wrote a thoughtful thank-you letter to the benefactor he would never meet. Life was better, much better than it used to be, he wanted Gerrit Smith to know. Thomas was a slave in Maryland when his beloved wife and children were taken from him and sold. Galvanized by rage and desperation, Thomas fled to Phil­a­delphia, then to Troy, New York, where he eventually remarried and came into one of Smith’s free deeds. On his Adirondack farm he made a new life and name for himself as a frontiersman, a good neighbor and devoted father to his new family. Local history reports that a bounty hunter’s effort to seize Thomas under the Fugitive Slave Law and dragoon him into slavery was thwarted by his Adirondack neighbors. In 1872 the elderly homesteader could tell Smith with pride, “I have breasted the storm of prejudice and opposition, until I begin to be regarded as an ‘American Citizen.’” But note that telling word, “begin.” The struggle for equality was far from over.

Wendell Lansing (1807–1887)
When some of Gerrit Smith’s black deed holders complained of getting swindled by racist guides or scheming surveyors, Smith’s agents supplied the grantees with the names of eight white Adirondackers they could trust. Among them was Wendell Lansing. Everyone in the North Country knew Lansing and his bare-knuckled antislavery ideas. In 1839, when he was putting out a newspaper in Washington County, the Adirondack Whigs wooed Lansing north, handpress, typecases and all, to start a newspaper for political reform. They got what they asked for and then some. Not only would Lansing’s abolitionist resolve far surpass their own, he risked job and neck hiding fugitives in his Wilmington home, promoting controversial abolitionist speakers and pushing abolition politics at local conventions. The Essex County Republican and the Northern Standard, which he started, and the Plattsburgh Sentinel, which he bought, were his bully pulpits for attacks on slavery and racism. And when the Civil War was over, he kept at it, lobbying for women’s rights, the Southern freedmen and the poor.

John Curtis Underwood (1809–1873)
While Lansing spread the abolition gospel in Essex County, the antislavery activist John C. Underwood was making waves in Herkimer County to the south. But waging antislavery politics on the southern Adirondack frontier was too far from the fray, so the entrepreneur leased a slew of cheese-making factories in northern Virginia and organized a work party of Herkimer County neighbors to go to the South and run them. It was Underwood’s first “free labor experiment”—no slave labor allowed. He would build an antislavery colony big enough to send a delegate to the Virginia legislature. Alarmed by Underwood’s exertions, the Virginians used John Brown’s raid as an excuse to run the Yankee firebrand back to New York State. But when President Lincoln made Underwood a federal district judge in 1861, he got his second act. Underwood ran the Freedmen’s Relief Association in the capital, named ex-slaves to jury duty, lobbied for black schools, ordered the integration of Richmond’s public transportation, organized voter registration among Virginia blacks and lobbied unavailingly for the redistribution of confiscated Rebel land to former slaves. In 1869 he ran the first integrated Constitutional Convention in Virginia and introduced a resolution urging voting privileges for blacks, women and the clergy. Southerners reviled him as an “absurd, blasphemous, cowardly, devilish, fanatical, ghoulish … jacobinical Yankeeish zero,” whose integrated jury indicted Jefferson Davis for treason and threw him into jail.

When President Andrew Johnson ordered Judge Underwood to set bail for Davis in 1867, he reluctantly complied, but made it punishingly high. Only with the intervention of a few wealthy Northerners would Davis get bailed out. Among those philanthropists was Underwood’s old mentor, Gerrit Smith.

John E. Milholland (1860–1925)
Many abolitionists quit campaigning for equal rights when slavery was abolished. Others, such as Thomas, Underwood and Lansing, stayed the course. As they saw it, the postbellum push for civil rights was not a separate battle from the Civil War but a peacetime expression of it and no less a pitched fight for that. Born to poor Irish emigrants in Essex County’s tiny Lewis at the outbreak of the Civil War, John E. Milholland was one of these farsighted activists whose life spanned the war, Reconstruction and the revival of the Ku Klux Klan. As a young man he edited the Ticonderoga Sentinel. Then the New York Tribune scooped him up, and when he wasn’t writing about politics, he dabbled in investing. The new technology of vacuum-propelled underground pneumatic tubes for sending city mail made his fortune and freed him to concentrate on causes like the Constitutional League, which he launched in 1903. The league’s innovative strategy of using legal precedent and the Fourteenth Amendment to fight racism would be adopted by its better-known successor, the National As­sociation for the Advancement of Colored People. Milholland became the NAACP’s first treasurer and a close advisor to its founders, Oswald Garrison Villard and W. E. B. DuBois. Was it surprising these three activists shared a passion for John Brown? In 1916 Milholland told a throng who’d come to North Elba for Brown’s birthday, “Until the United States stands for equality of race and color and for freedom all along the line, John Brown’s mission will not be fulfilled and his vision consummated in a true democracy.” Twelve years later the all-black John Brown Memorial Association invited Milholland to speak at their May pilgrimage to North Elba, an honor usually reserved for blacks. Milholland, in turn, hosted the out-of-towners at his summer home for lunch—no small gesture in the era of Jim Crow.

George Marshall (1904–2000)
Ask any Adirondack historian about the Marshall family and you’ll surely hear about Bob Marshall, the conservationist who articulated the ideology of modern wilderness preservation, with a mountain range in Montana and an Adi­rondack mountain named in his honor. You may hear, too, about Bob Marshall’s father, Louis Marshall, the constitutional lawyer revered for his erudite defense of minority rights from the Deep South to Massena. But it is the legacy of George Marshall, Bob’s younger brother, that puts him on this list. The Marshalls were seasonal Adirondackers with a summer camp on Lower Saranac Lake. A Roosevelt economist during the Depression, Columbia-educated George headed up the National Federation for Constitutional Liberties and its successor, the Civil Rights Congress, formed in the mid-1940s to champion black civil rights. Marshall took the job to heart. When, in 1945, a white Mississippi jury took two-and-a-half minutes to find a poor black truck driver guilty of rape and to sentence him to death, Marshall organized an appeal that delayed Willie McGee’s execution for five years. During the Red Scare, the House Committee on Un-American Activities ordered Marshall to furnish members’ lists for his “communistic” groups. He refused, and spent three unrepentant months in jail. “Speaking for the Civil Rights Congress and myself,” he said of his impending jail term in 1950, “we are proud of the fact that we have won the enmity of … the white supremacists. The Civil Rights Congress and its thousands of Negro and white members will continue to fight Jim Crow and all its manifestations until the Negro people have won full civil and human rights. They will not stop us! And I assure you that going to jail will not stop me!”

Julian Reiss (1899–1959)
In 1945 New York adopted legislation outlawing racial and religious discrimination in the workplace. It was a groundbreaking development. No other state, not even the federal government, had done this much. How would the new Ives-Quinn Bill be enforced? A five-person State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD) was appointed by Governor Thomas Dewey. And like the iconic, all-for-one-and-one-for-all Army platoons in World War II comic books, SCAD was scrupulously “balanced,” with a little of everything—a Jew, a Catholic, a black, a Protestant, a woman—in the determined mix. Lake Placid car dealer Julian Reiss was the token Adirondacker, but tokenism was of no interest to this devoutly Catholic philanthropist. In his four-seater plane he winged to SCAD hearings all over the state, vetting rumors and reports of racial bias. Hard-line civil rights activists were unhappy with SCAD’s cautious, even conciliatory, dealings with bigoted employers. But as Reiss’s son recalled, the commissioners were “pushing against the tide,” and worried that “if they came on too strong, the Assembly would revoke the bill.” Better some gains, they felt, than none at all. And for Commissioner Julian Reiss, SCAD’s influence was lasting. He organized the interracial Flying Trio, and Reiss and two friends—a black engineer and a white priest—puddlehopped in Reiss’s four-seaters to Catholic college campuses all over the Northeast, preaching interracial tolerance and justice. Reiss launched an Adirondack summer camp for poor city youths—still open on Lake Placid today. Adirondackers know Reiss mainly for Santa’s Workshop, the enduring theme park he built near Whiteface Mountain. But it was the good work he did for racial justice behind the scenes that puts him on this list.

Judy Genier (1941–)
She doesn’t see herself as a civil rights champion. She was just a kid, after all, and it was 50 years ago. But the kind of nerve it took for an eighth-grader to pick herself up out of a tiny mining town in Essex County and venture south to Asheville, North Carolina, in 1955—no particular encouragement from family, classmates, teachers—was rare. Genier, a welder’s daughter, went to Asheville to enroll in an all-black girls’ school. She’d heard about it in her church, and she thought it was just weird and wrong that any school should be one color or another. The Allen High School girls ought to “know what it is like to have a white sister,” she explained at the time. For her part, she had “just never known color. It wasn’t really a big deal. That’s how I was raised.” For three years she boarded at the Allen campus, coming home only for vacations. Her new friends took her to the all-black section of the local theaters, to black churches, to their homes. She liked that school. She made a lot of buddies. And in 1956, she got a letter from the White House. “You are much to be admired for your strength in making the road toward integration a shorter one,” Mamie Eisenhower told the astonished teenager. “I want to commend you for your courage and foresight in taking your place where you could accomplish so much.” Genier only left Allen High when she felt her presence put the school at risk; the Ku Klux Klan was burning crosses on the Allen school lawn.

Andrew Goodman (1943–1964)
Judy Genier was not the first Adirondacker to challenge Jim Crow and segregation, and she wouldn’t be the last. After the Civil War many Adirondack teachers, ministers and journalists ventured South to teach or preach to emancipated slaves. They were the forgotten forerunners to the Freedom Riders of the 1960s, bearing witness, speaking truth to power. But An­drew Goodman, a summer resident of Tupper Lake, did more than witness. In the “Freedom Summer” of 1964 the 21-year-old Queens College student was in Meridian, Mississippi, working to register blacks to vote. On June 21 Goodman set off with community organizer Michael Schwerner and Schwerner’s assistant, James Chaney, to look into the recent burning of a black church that was going to be a site for voter registration. On the way back to Meridian their car was stopped by Klansmen. The three civil rights workers were taken out and shot, their bodies dumped in an earthen dam. Not until 2005, 41 years to the day after the murders, was the last suspect, Edgar Ray Killen, brought to justice. A 2,176-foot peak near Tupper Lake was named in Goodman’s memory; his family summers there still.

Andrew Goodman’s New York City parents were activists when he was growing up, and they kept pressing for social justice and equal rights long after Andrew died. Most of the activists profiled here hailed from families with a history of protest and engagement. They were Re­publicans and Democrats, a Socialist, a Communist, a Green. More than party, faith or creed, the common variable was a home culture of civic engagement. John Brown’s parents were fervent abolitionists. Wendell Lan­sing’s son kept muckraking just like his reformer-father. John Milholland’s daughter, Inez, was a labor lawyer and a suffrage speaker. George Marshall strove to meet the high bar for civic engagement set by his jurist father, just as the descendants of Julian Reiss have honored his concern for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised through many generations.

Alice Paden Green (1941–)
This miner’s daughter came with her large family to Republic Steel country in 1948, part of the Great Migration of black Americans who abandoned the segregated South for a better life in the North and West. Standish, Mineville, Witherbee, Port Henry—all were seeded with survivors of Jim Crow. And generally these moves worked out. The Paden kids got decent educations. Church, work, school and sports were integrated. Alice ran her school’s drama club, became her class salutatorian. But the region had its own kind of color line. Restaurants where the new arrivals were not welcome. Friendships, ro­mances, jobs that could only go so far. No lynch mobs here, but no social parity, no color-blind acceptance. The injuries of rac­ism were enough to deflect Alice from a teacher’s career to advocating for the rights of black New Yorkers who’d run afoul of the law. In Albany in 1985 she founded the Center for Law and Justice, widely praised for raising public sensitivity to racial profiling, police misconduct and inequities in the criminal justice system. She also opened the Paden Institute & Retreat for Writers of Color in a cabin near her home in Essex. Many African-American authors have honed their manuscripts in this getaway. It’s her way of helping make the Adirondack region a place where blacks are comfortable and welcome, a place they feel they belong.

That was John Brown’s idea, too. But when Alice Paden Green was growing up in Mineville, she knew nothing of John Brown or his black neighbors. Nobody was learning about the local champions of civil rights at Mineville High School in the ’50s. The discovery that so many champions of racial justice lived within an hour of the Paden family home has been, for Alice, a revelation, and a relief. This is her legacy: these names, the pioneers!

For so long she thought she was alone.

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