African-American Experience in Mid-20th Century Syracuse
In mid-20th century Syracuse, African Americans were dealing with discrimination on several fronts, including housing, education and employment. African Americans had been segregated to the 15th Ward and it was very difficult, if not impossible, for them to move out of that area. When the Urban Renewal plan called for much of the 15th Ward to be destroyed and its population relocated, protests ensued. There was also limited job opportunities for African Americans at this time and little incentive for children to stay in school. But attitudes began to change starting in the 1950s, as more business and manufacturing jobs were opening up to the African American community. The early 1960s also saw the first Blacks elected to local political positions and the rise of organizations to fight discrimination.
Abolition in Syracuse
Abolition in Syracuse was a hot topic from the 1830s-1860s. Societies were formed, meetings were held, churches were founded on anti-slavery principles, and the Underground Railroad was aiding enslaved fugitives on their way to Canada. In 1839, a light-skinned enslaved woman from Mississippi was visiting Syracuse with her slaveholding family, the Davenports. Some African American staff at the hotel told her that they would help her escape if she desired, and Harriet agreed. She slipped away during a party and was taken to the homes of several abolitionists, including Gerrit Smith. Meanwhile, Davenport issued a reward poster for the return of Harriet. Davenport even went to Gerrit Smith’s house to search for her and was delayed there while Harriet made her escape to Canada. Harriet lived out the rest of her days in Kingston, Ontario, marrying Henry Kelly and having several children.
Ain't Misbehavin - The Jazz Age in Syracuse
The story of how jazz music in the 1920s and 30s expanded through Syracuse’s African American community at jazz clubs and social gatherings, like those at the Dunbar Center. The 1940s and 50s saw the heyday of jazz in Syracuse with clubs, concerts and musicians popping up all over the place. In the 1960s, jazz’s popularity was waning and many of the old jazz club buildings were being destroyed by urban renewal. However, many jazz fans remain and have enjoyed the sounds of the Syracuse Jazz Fest since 1982.
A Brief History of Black Musical Entertainment in Syracuse
In the 19th century, minstrel shows were very popular. These were performances, presented by white performers in stylized makeup called blackface, gave a derogatory and stereotyped representation of Black life and community. But by the early 20th century, actual African American performers were starting to showcase both classical and folk music. From the 1920s to the 1950s, jazz became all the rage with jazz clubs spread throughout the 15th Ward. By the 1950s, many nationally popular Black entertainers, were preforming in Syracuse to large crowds. While the latter half of the 20th century saw the emergence of many local black performers, some who went on to national acclaim. Today music festivals, like Jazz Fest and the Blues Festival, and concert venues bring in many African American local and international stars to dazzle the Syracuse crowds.
Alternate Civil Rights “Trains”
Syracuse’s 15th Ward landmarks were the everyday businesses, neighbors, schools and churches that the close-knit community knew and recognized, but with urban renewal that was all taken away. There were different methods that developed in the 1960s civil rights struggle: Malcolm X’s aggressive and separatist philosophy for African-Americans that evolved into the “Black Power” movement, along-side Martin Luther King’s and Whitney Young’s approaches – that urged a strident but more cooperative, open dialogue on improving race relations.
The Teenage Music Scene in Transition
The youthful music scene around Syracuse in the 1950s and 1960s was a dynamic and eclectic one, reflecting trends throughout America. Syracuse teens could listen to both national acts and area bands in a number of ways, through radio, records, live performances, and also on local TV shows like Dance Party, and the Bud Ballou Show, and national broadcasts like Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. Black musical groups and singers became popular among America’s youth during this time, but this often put strains on social traditions in a nation just entering a tense and emotional civil rights era.
The 'Jerry Rescue' Cases: Human Freedom on Trial in 19th Century Central New York
In 1851, several Syracuse area men voluntarily put their own freedom in jeopardy. In open violation of federal law, they helped rescue another man, one facing slavery, and guaranteed his liberty. Those men, in turn, were arrested, indicted and faced imprisonment themselves. This is the story of the “Jerry Rescue” cases.
Did a Former Shipmate of Herman Melville Help Free a Fugitive Slave in Syracuse?
Enoch Reed, a young African-American man from New Bedford, MA, and Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, joined the crew of the whaling ship, Acushnet in 1841. Melville drew heavily on his experiences on this New Bedford whaling ship for his book. Enoch Reed later moved to Syracuse and helped during the 1851 “Jerry Rescue”, to free the fugitive slave, William “Jerry” Henry. Enoch was arrested, tried and convicted of civil disobedience. He died in 1853 awaiting his appeal.
Preservation of Syracuse's African-American Landmarks
In the early 1960s, massive Urban Renewal programs called for demolition of Syracuse’s primary African-American neighborhood – the 15th Ward. Many African-Americans hoped the plan would lead to better housing and more city-wide integration. But it soon became apparent that most other city neighborhoods were unwilling to accept blacks. Relocation efforts began to lead most blacks into other run-down, older neighborhoods south and east of the 15th Ward. Local African-Americans, long denied political influence, debated how to respond. Some advocated protests to pressure city hall into finding better housing. Picketing and sit-ins were held at demolition sites in 1963. Dozens of arrests were made. Set against the national civil rights protests in the South, it was sometimes viewed negatively by the local establishment, as agitation by outsiders. But African-Americans also sought to influence the system from inside and the decade saw the first blacks elected to local political positions.
Early Baseball in Syracuse
Integrated professional baseball began in the 1880s with teams signing on a few young Black men, including Moses Fleetwood Walker, who played for the Syracuse Stars for two years. Unfortunately, discrimination ended integrated teams by 1890 and the color barrier would not be breached again until 1946 with Jackie Robinson. Local Black baseball teams continued to play throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s, often drawing large crowds. Other sports also struggled with segregation issues as was seen in the life of Wilmeth Sidat-Singh, a Syracuse University student and athlete in the 1930s. He was later a Tuskegee Airman during World War II.
Symbols of Slavery and Freedom
Neighborhoods often develop a tight identity, which was true for Syracuse’s African American community in the 15th Ward during the first half of the 20th century. There are local records of slaves, some even attempting to escape to freedom, which was the case of one young man trying to flee his Skaneateles slaveholder’s household in 1810. Today, we use art, artifacts, and monuments to remember the reality of American slavery. These symbols remind us of its injustice, as well as the heroism of those who fought against it.
Syracuse and Change – 1963
There were many changes happening in Syracuse in 1963. The civil rights struggle was taking center stage, nationally and locally. The Vietnam War would soon come to dominate the lives of all citizens in tragic ways. Outside economic forces had begun to shift job opportunities, for better and for worse. And downtown was being radically re-configured by suburban growth, the heavy footprint of urban renewal and the building of several expressways and interstates. Although many of these changes were already underway by 1963, the assassination of Kennedy in November seemed to mark the decade’s turning point, perhaps from idealistic optimism to the difficult realities that continue to this day.
The Trial of Moses Fleetwood Walker
Moses Fleetwood Walker, one of the first African American professional baseball players in the 1880s, played for the Syracuse Stars baseball team from 1887-1889. A couple years later, Walker got into an altercation with some white men who were shouting insults and throwing stones at him. Walker ended up killing his attacker and was arrested for murder. At the trial, his legal team made the argument that it was self-defense. The jury found Walker not guilty.
Slavery in Onondaga County
Slavery was legal in New York until 1827. Although the majority of New York slaves were down in the New York City area, there were a scattering of slaves throughout Upstate, and Onondaga County was no exception. There are even local records of slaves attempting to escape to freedom, which was the case of a young man trying to flee his Skaneateles slaveholder’s household in 1810.