February is Black History Month

It is Black History Month, so The Valley News thought it would be good to share some stories of African-American history right here in Oswego County.

Here are a few vignettes:

‘Harlem Hellfighters’ at Fort Ontario.

The Harlem Hellfighters were an all-black military infantry unit during World War I, a group that received high recognition for its heroism and fighting ability.

By the time World War II rolled around, the group from Harlem in New York City now was called the 369th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment. And before shipping out to take on the Japanese in the Pacific, these 1,800 black soldiers did their training at Fort Ontario.

Sure, fighting the Germans would be rough. But the soldiers also got a taste of rough when they arrived in Oswego for training in January 1941. One soldier said he remembers getting off the train in Oswego and they immediately lost a soldier in a mound of snow.

Even though the United States was not yet in the war, training of troops was taking place as President Franklin D. Roosevelt prepared for the worse. The men with the 369th spent eight months at Fort Ontario, practicing anti-artillery drills at the Johnson Farm, an abandoned area east of the fort, where nine Mile Point One is now located.

A history student at SUNY Oswego wrote in 1972 that the men of the 369th often went into Oswego or Syracuse when they were off duty. They would hang out at the Dunbar Social Center in Syracuse and play basketball. They would shop in Oswego and eat at local restaurants.

Adding nearly 1,800 black soldiers to the population changed the demographic makeup of Oswego. In a county of more than 71,000 residents, 55 were black before the soldiers arrived, according to the U.S. Census in 1940. By contrast, Harlem — where most of the men were from — had an 89 percent black population, the 1940 Census shows.

“Outside of Harlem, the issue of race became more immediate for the 369th,” a 1993 article in the Journal of Social History says. “Oswego was, in the words of one member of the 369th, ‘lily white.’

The most famous of the 369th soldiers at Fort Ontario was Lt. John Woodruff, also known as “Long John” Woodruff. He had won the gold medal in the 800 meters at the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin.

The 369th Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment was at Fort Ontario from Jan. 15 through September, when they shipped out to Massachusetts and then to Hawaii.

During World War II, they engaged in defensive and tactical operations on new Georgia Island, Emirau, Los Negros Island, Admiralty Island, Biak Island, Sansapor New Guinea, Middleburg Island and Morotai Island, all in the Papua New Guinea area of southeast Asia.

Starr Clark Tin Shop

Starr Clark had a business in Mexico in the 1850s – a tin shop making stove pipes and other pieces of tin wear.

But in addition to the tin work, Clark and his family also used their house to shelter runaway slaves as they made their way north to freedom in Canada.

The tin shop building, on Main Street (Route 104), still exists and has since been renovated into a museum to mark Mexico’s importance along the Underground Railroad.

Judith Wellman, a professor emerita at the State University College at Oswego and expert on U.S. African-American history, researched the building’s role in the Underground Railroad. Her work produced enough evidence to have the tin shop named to the National Register of Historic Places in 2001. She said it is one of the best documented Underground Railroad sites.

Oswego Public Library

Gerrit Smith, the famous abolitionist who lived in Peterboro, Madison County, provided the money for construction of  the Oswego Public Library.

But he had two conditions to providing the money. One was that the library must be on the east side of the Oswego River. And the second is that the library should be open to everyone, regardless of his or her race or complexion.

According to the library’s history on its website, the library has had “African-American patrons including prominent members of the Underground Railroad and the local community.” Records kept on who was borrowing books from the library show that many African-American families used the library during its first years, the history states.

Grant – dentist, patented golf tee 

The Tudor E. Grant family was a well-known African-American family in Oswego. Tudor Grant’s son, George Franklin, who was born in Oswego, made a name for himself in later life, becoming the second African American to graduate from Harvard’s dental college. He later became a faculty member of his alma mater and was a leader in the treatment of cleft palates.

But he also is renowned in the sports world. He received the first patent for the wooden golf tee.

Bristol Hill Church, Volney

This church on Route 3 had many white and African-American members dating to the early and mid-1800s. The church was built in the 1830s and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Case House in Fulton

The Case House on South First Street in Fulton was well known for the Underground Railroad activity that took place there. It is at the site where the old Elks Lodge was located.

Interracial Couple in Fulton

In a book titled “the American Prejudice Against Color,” William Allen, a college professor who says he was one-quarter African American, tells the story of how he fell in love with a white girl in Fulton, became engaged to marry her and the prejudice they encountered due to their engagement.

In fact, an angry mob of Fulton-area residents who did not want this marriage to take place went after Allen.

“Tar, feathers, poles, and an empty barrel spiked with shingle nails had been prepared for my especial benefit; and, so far as I was concerned, it must be escape or death,” Allen wrote in his book.

He wrote that a mob of 400 to 500 people came looking for him after they learned of his engagement to Miss King. He wrote “Reader, the life of a colored man in America, save as a slave, is regarded as far less sacred than that of a dog. There is no exaggeration in this statement—I am not writing of exceptions.”

Allen and King were eventually married in New York City and then left for Europe.

There are many other stories about African Americans in Oswego County at http://visitoswegocounty.com/historical-info/underground-railroad/ . The county had its own Anti-Slavery Society and was known as a hotbed of abolitionist action.

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