It’s just a long, smooth piece of wood. A staircase banister. It’s the last vestige of a dream and a time when Cortland County was in the center of the hottest bed of progressive social thought in America — a fury so hot it had a name: The Burned Over District.
Today, it rests with the McGraw Historical Society.
Nearly 170 years ago, it graced the staircase of an elegant manor in what was then called McGrawville, a $50,000 investment in the idea that all people — black and white, men and women — deserved a good education and an opportunity to improve themselves.
Lonnie Bunch III, the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History and Culture, will screen a documentary about that banister, that college — and that dream — later this month in Washington. Its producers hope the documentary will inspire Bunch, and the museum, to more research, and perhaps even exhibits, about the New York Central College.
“It’s one of the coolest things I’ve heard about this area,” said Sharon Stevans, who wrote and produced “New York Central College: Beacon on the Hill.” “It’s kind of a heart-rending story.”
Stevans, Melanie Arnold, Carl and Mary Kimberly and others collaborated to produce the documentary: a story of racism, and sexism and hope. There’s disease, hard times, scandal. All of it centering around an 11-year period on a building where the McGraw High School now stands. It has a lesson, Stevans said, that bears learning, now more than ever.
“Carl grew up in this village,” said Mary Kimberly, the village historian. “I can’t say exactly how Carl felt about it, except that he thought it was worth sharing.”
New York Central College was founded in 1849 in McGraw with a curriculum unheard-of in the mid-19th Century. People of African and European descent would learn together. Men and women would experience the same lessons, in the same classes, from instructors both black and white. No other institution in America was so blended.
But it didn’t exist in a vacuum. All around Central New York, progressive activists were laying the groundwork for advances in abolitionism, feminism, interracial relations and social thought in a 20-year period that saw a lucky collision of religious fervor, economic stability and community development all taking place between the Adirondacks and Lake Erie.
* Frederick Douglass gives his first major speeches in Elmira in 1840.
* The utopian Skaneateles Community was established in 1843 Mottville, a Skaneateles hamlet.
* William Seward becomes increasingly influential in nearby Auburn, is elected to the Senate in 1848 and eventually rises to the Lincoln cabinet.
* The idealist Oneida Community is founded in 1848 in Oneida.
* The Seneca Falls convention in 1848 draws Amelia Bloomer of Homer to meet Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
* Elizabeth Blackwell becomes America’s first medical doctor in 1849 at Geneva Medical College in Syracuse, now part of Syracuse University.
Bell points to a 1955 book, “The Burned Over District” by Cornell University historian Whitney Cross, for much of the early work understanding that period in regional history. Cross draws heavily on migration patterns from New England during a period when central and western New York were beginning to thrive, and how the religious and social practices of those communities came west, too.
But it’s a bit more complex than that, Bell added. The Burned Over District grew between two major recessions — in 1837 and 1857.
The Panic of 1837 “made people think more of the effects of their actions and purchasing power,” Bell said. They questioned social conventions and began crafting their own utopian ideals. Not long before this, John Smith began Mormonism in neighboring Cayuga County. He’s wasn’t the only one.
Evangelist Charles Grandison Finney spread his ideals from Jefferson County from 1825 to 1835, and the newfound wealth inspired him to move to Ohio to teach and eventually lead Oberlin College, now the oldest coeducational college in America and the second-oldest in the world. But all its professors were white until 1948, a century after New York Central College.
By the time the 1840s rolled around, people with money — notably Madison County philanthropist and occasional presidential candidate Garrit Smith — also had a vision of what to do with it. Smith, who happened to be Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s cousin, donated $50,000, about equivalent to $1.3 million today, to build the initial building. Other contributors added $12,000 to fill it with professors and students.
The history of the college itself — as Stevans’ documentary notes — is a soap opera unto itself. It never became financially solvent, Bell said. “Outside of a small group, it never had any supporters,” he said. The state Legislature resisted chartering it; while black-owned nearby newspapers supported it in ink, including Douglass’ paper “The North Star,” money didn’t follow.
All three of its black professors left under a cloud. Charles Lewis Reason, America’s first African-American professor at a largely white college, left after a year in a dispute with founders. George B. Vashon said he was forced out by racism.
But it was the departure of William G. Allen that was most scandalous. He had the audacity to marry a student — a white student. The mob, led by his new brother-in-law, was more than a little insistent. The couple fled Central New York for New York City, then England.
The dream was an ideal, but the people were fallible. Mahommah G. Baquaqua who had been kidnapped by slavers in Africa, jumped ship in America and ended up at the college, left amid complaints of hazing and harassment by his classmates, probably because his skin was so much darker than even the other students of African descent, most of whom were mixed-race, Bell said.
Few students actually graduated, he added. Most went through a preparatory program rather than a college-level course of studies.
The smallpox outbreak of 1860 was the death knell. It wasn’t that students died — few did. But disease brings fear, and fear keeps people home. Enrollment, always a struggle and never worse following the Panic of 1857, evaporated amid a backlash against the previous decade’s social progress and the Burned Over District.
It’s a concept historians call the “perishability of revolutionary times,” Bell said. “It describes the 1850s and particularly Central College to a T.”
The college is gone. The lessons remain.
Carl Kimberly died in August, before the documentary was finished. Mary Kimberly keeps the banister and records from the college. “It would be interesting to know how the villagers felt about it,” she said, but the records vanished in a theft long ago. “I would have thought the people would have to be fairly open-minded about it.”
After New York Central College failed, Garrit Smith turned his largesse toward Ithaca, and was an early supporter of Cornell University, founded just five years later, Bell said. Many of its philosophies echoed its McGraw cousin.
The rapid progress of the 1840s withered in the 1850s. Following the Civil War, Reconstruction saw progress accelerate, then evaporate by 1890. Women’s suffrage, now a century old, the Civil Rights Movement and more all fall into the cycle.
“It’s pushing and pulling, twisty and turning,” Stevans said. “There’s a tension there that interested me.”
“There’s modern life lessons in this story,” she added, and Bell agreed.
Progress isn’t constant. It comes in fits and starts; it slows down and speeds up. Sometimes it reverses itself.
“One of the struggles is how can you be progressive when there’s no progress,” Bell asked. “It’s a source of some comfort in tense times that these things are fleeting, but they return.”