Holding Back on Black Heritage

Woman traces City's History through family

February 27, 1991

Paul Riede, The Post-Standard

The old man moved slowly behind the push mower, his wife guiding him carefully along the slopes of the yard in front of their State Street home.

In those years before his death, he needed the help. He had lost an eye while helping a fugitive slave to freedom along the Underground Railroad. It was the same route out of slavery he had taken years before: up from the Carolinas, through Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania to Syracuse. It is uncertain how he lost the eye along the way -- whether it was during a fight or through some accident -- but his wife used to say one thing was for sure: The injury was what made him "so devilish and mean'' in his later years.

That is about all Clarice Harrison Spencer knows about her great-grandfather; she never met him and doesn't even know his full name. Nor does she know much about another great-grandfather -- a cook in New York's 3rd Regiment during the Civil War. But she holds tight to the memories, few as they may be, that she inherited from her father.

And at 73, she fears some of those memories may not survive for another generation.

"I try to get the kids interested in who they are, but all they're interested in is if they get sick, does it run in the family,'' she said. "I don't blame them. It's a tough time to make ends meet, and they've got to direct their thoughts to the living.''

But Herbert Williams, a professor of African-American studies at Syracuse University and director of the Community Folk Art Gallery, says it is about time Syracuse's African-American community makes a serious commitment to preserve its past.

Williams, who said he is the only African-American member of the Central New York Genealogical Society, is spearheading an effort to establish a Syracuse Society for the Study of African-American Heritage, to develop a historical record of the city's black community.

"It's important for people to define themselves,'' he said. "Too often people have been written about by historians who were not aware of the cultural practices of the people.''

The Folk Art Gallery has already started taping oral histories from older Syracuse residents.

"Each family tells a side of the story about the culture,'' Williams said. "When seen all together, they give us a collective picture of history.''

Fighting Discrimination

Spencer's strand of Syracuse history begins with the Civil War. By the time her great-grandfather made his first trip up the Underground Railroad, the city had a small but growing black community of about 300.

Spencer's ancestors were not alone in their fervor to join the fight against slavery; in 1863, when black soldiers were first allowed to serve in the Union Army, a company from Syracuse eagerly joined regiments based in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

With several anti-slavery conventions held in the city during the 1840s, Syracuse had long since developed a reputation as an abolitionist stronghold and a key stop in the Underground Railroad.

Nonetheless, according to Barbara Sheklin Davis' "A History of the Black Community in Syracuse,'' discrimination in employment and housing was routine.

Most black residents were concentrated in one area of the city, south of the Erie Canal. Only a few blacks owned houses in white neighborhoods, Davis reported, but relations were generally friendly.

Even in its own neighborhoods, the black community established a class structure as the war ended and the turn of the century approached, according to the autobiography of writer George S. Schuyler. At the bottom was a transient population of gamblers and hobos that was concentrated around the canal. Then came the laborers and domestics -- the working poor.

On the top tier were the people who worked for wealthy families as chefs and butlers. Those, Schuyler wrote, "had nice homes, well-reared families, and sought to maintain high cultural standards.''

Spencer's family tended toward that category. Her maternal grandfather, Fred Cooper, worked as head waiter at the St. Cloud Hotel on Clinton Street.

His brother, Edward, was a "gentleman's gentleman'' for the curator of a museum on James Street, and he lived in the curator's house on Cedar Street. Spencer remembers stopping by once a week with her friends, where her great-uncle, a well-dressed, distinguished looking man, would treat them to a batch of his homemade cookies.

At the hotel, Fred Cooper met and married Catherine Reed, a chambermaid from Ontario. They had several children, and also took in and raised a baby born out of wedlock to another chambermaid at the hotel. The boy was white, but it made no difference, Spencer said.

"I don't know that he realized until he was grown that he wasn't black,'' she said.

The vote had come to black men with the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1870, and like most African-Americans at the time, Fred Cooper favored the party of Lincoln.

"When the Republicans got together for their rallies, he would get his quartet together and sing for them,'' Spencer said. "Only for Republicans, though. He used to say all Democrats were Southerners.''

The black community was so small as to be virtually powerless politically, but some token gains were made in the late 1800s. In 1881, when Edward Wilson was appointed the first black postman in the city and the second in the nation, a local newspaper reported that black residents went into the streets and greeted him with elation on his first day on the job.

Entrepreneurial Life

Spencer's father, Homer "Dutch'' Harrison, was just entering the job market when the Split Rock munitions plant opened in 1914 to help supply the war in Europe.

Most factory jobs were still reserved for whites, but the construction of the Woodlawn reservoir in the mid-1890s and the work at the munitions plant were open to black workers. Those opportunities spurred a small but steady migration of blacks into the city, raising the population to about 1,260 by 1920.

Harrison was scheduled to work at the Split Rock plant on July 2, 1918, but took the day off to celebrate Spencer's first birthday. The party may have saved his life.

An overheated gear at the plant that night set off an explosion of a ton of TNT. The blast, which was so loud some city residents feared they were under German attack, killed 50 workers in Harrison's section and injured 50 others.

Harrison moved on, working for a long stretch on Syracuse University's farm, where the school used to grow its own livestock and vegetables.

Then he began to branch out on his own, becoming the first black cab driver in Syracuse, a distinction he said paid off immediately.

He used to line up behind other cabs at the bus station. Even if he was the last in line, he used to tell his daughter, people would seek him out.

"When they see a black face in the car, that's just what they're looking for,'' he would say ruefully. "They feel like they've got a chauffeur.''

In the end, the rules were changed so he had to direct people to the first cab in line.

"When things don't go their way,'' he told Spencer, "they make a law to make things go their way.''

But Harrison had other customers. The father of famed Syracuse lawyer Paul Shanahan used to hire him for several hours at a time. Through him, Harrison developed a ride-and-wait business -- sometimes waiting for the elder Shanahan for several hours and getting paid for it.

The independent cab business was only one of Harrison's ventures into private enterprise.

"He had nine kids and a lot of hardship, and he tried everything to get money,'' Spencer said. "He'd see things other people didn't see. People used to tell us, 'If your father was white, he'd be a millionaire.' ''

Herbert A. "Hoppy'' Johnson, a longtime Syracuse resident, remembers Harrison as one of the leading black entrepreneurs of the 1930s. "He was always doing something,'' Johnson said.

At the time, it was fashionable for families who could afford it to buy large playhouses for their children and put them in their backyards. Harrison began collecting used playhouses, relocating them and selling ice and coal out of them.

At one point he had a drive-in ice, wood and coal business in back of the family house on Fayette Street.

Harrison, who died 10 years ago at the age of 87, also opened the Abyssinia Hotel at Washington and Almond streets, which was established to accommodate black musicians who came through Syracuse on their tours.

Music legends like Count Basie used to stay there, often using a rehearsal room there to the joy of the hotel staff.

Limited Opportunity

Such ventures by black entrepreneurs were rare, and were almost always limited to the black community.

In his 1937 study, "The Negro in Syracuse, N.Y.,'' former Dunbar Center Director Golden Darby reported that only 5 percent of blacks in the job market worked for themselves. Most of them operated tiny businesses, such as ice and coal stands and in-home hairdressing parlors. The total worth of all those ventures combined was about $43,000, he reported.

Unemployment among blacks in that time of depression was a little over 50 percent, and those who had jobs were notoriously poorly paid, Darby found. He reported the average wage for black men was $14.05 a week, with black women earning only about $5 a week.

Rents, meanwhile, were higher for blacks than for whites in the same section of town. As a result, 60 percent of the families Darby surveyed took in lodgers, and it was not unusual for 14 people to share a five-room apartment.

Because of employment discrimination, there was little for young blacks to strive for. That was one of the reasons that about one-third of black children of school age did not attend school, Darby reported.

About 25 black students attended Syracuse University each year between 1921 and 1928, but only a handful were from the city, according to another survey by the Dunbar Center. For those who did graduate, there were few suitable jobs. The first black graduate of SU's law school, William Johnson of the Class of 1903, had to work as a clerk rather than as an attorney.

Battling for Equality

Spencer said she does not remember facing discrimination as a child. On Almond and Fayette streets, where she grew up during the 1920s and '30s, she played freely with the other children on the block -- some white, some black.

"If you had a friend you were bringing home, you wouldn't think to tell your parents what they were,'' she said. "That wasn't the issue. It was whether they were nice -- what kind of people they were . . . Nowadays that (race) is a big issue, I understand.

"We didn't even think about integration then. Wherever you lived, that's what school you went to.''

But the discrimination she did not see during her childhood appeared as soon as she was old enough to look for work.

She was an experienced bartender, but as soon as she aspired for a higher-paying job in a white establishment, she ran into a brick wall.

She was told she needed a union card to work at the white club, but the union never processed her application.

"It was like they froze when they saw me,'' she said.

An older bartender later told her, "You don't have any black people in that union -- they make too much money.''

As the civil rights movement grew in Syracuse in the early 1960s, activists planned boycotts of stores that did not employ blacks as salespeople. Spencer said Flah's was one of them, but when the store found it was on the boycott list, it claimed no blacks had ever applied for employment.

Spencer applied, and got a job selling handbags.

"They got used to me,'' she said with a smile. "There was no trouble; I didn't rub off.''

She said some customers attempted to bypass her in favor of a white saleswoman, but it didn't work.

"I don't know whether it's bred in them or not, but some people would walk around the counter and expect her (a white saleswoman) to wait on them,'' she said. "She would just say, 'Clarice is a good saleswoman, and if you don't like it that's your problem.' ''

Population Boom

The times were such that Spencer's search for a decent job had become a political act. But the changes that made the 1960s such a tumultuous time in Syracuse were in part a result of the population explosion in the city's black community after World War II.

The number of African-Americans in the city shot from 5,000 to nearly 12,000 during the 1950s, and nearly doubled again in the '60s. Most of the increase involved people coming from the South to find work in Northern factories.

Leon Modeste, president of the Urban League of Onondaga County, said that as more blacks moved in, the community's racism became more apparent.

"As long as you stayed in your place, you were OK,'' he said. "It's when you start seeing large numbers of blacks -- that's when you start seeing the Jim Crow, racist attitudes.''

Many African-Americans left Syracuse for bigger cities when they found limited opportunities here, Modeste said. Syracuse, called "the Canada of the North'' during pre-Civil War days because of its hospitality to runaway slaves, became known as "up South'' to many blacks who found discrimination here in the 1950s and '60s, he said.

Not until 1977 did the city initiate a voluntary busing plan in its schools, despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision in 1954 to integrate the nation's schools "with all deliberate speed,'' Modeste said.

The post-war migrations, coupled with the massive urban renewal work on the southern end of downtown during the 1960s, put an end to the tiny, tight-knit community Spencer knew as a child. She says a slower, more congenial lifestyle disappeared with it.

"I don't think the people get along with each other the way they did when I was brought up,'' she said. "People are in a hurry. If you want to talk to somebody, you have to make an appointment.''

Spencer, who now lives in an integrated neighborhood on the city's east side, still remembers the "orange lady,'' a Jewish woman who used to sell fruit from a pushcart on Spencer's downtown street. When she got sick, it was normal for Spencer's family and others on the street to check in on her at her home, bring her soup, and make sure she was OK.

"Then you knew practically everybody,'' she said. "Now it's a whole different ball game.''

Black Population

Black population in Syracuse has increased 119-fold since 1860. Following are census figures that track those gains in the last 130 years.

Year  Black pop.  % increase  Total pop.
1860  280  NA  28119
1870  435  55.4  43051
1880  590  35.6  51792
1890  867  46.9  88143
1900  1034  19.3  108374
1910  1124  8.7  137249
1920  1260  12.1  171717
1930  1899  50.7  209326
1940  2082  9.6  205967
1950  4586  120.3  220583
1960  11210  144.4  216038
1970  21383  90.7  197291
1980  26716  25.2  170105
1990  33320  24.7  163860


July 22, 1990