October 22, 2021

New York Central College the topic of McGraw author’s new book

Joe McIntyre/staff photographer

Genealogist and author Marlene Parks talks about the history of the New York Central College Saturday at the Cortland Historical Society in Cortland.

Since 2013, McGraw resident Marlene Parks has dug deep in a project to resurrect a nearly forgotten piece of the village’s history.

She has compiled information about students who attended New York Central College in McGraw, the first college in the country to both have African-American professors and allow women and African-Americans to be educated alongside white men. She discussed her research — and her two-volumne, 1,200-page book — on Saturday at the Cortland County Historical Society with McGraw historian Mary Kimberly. Fifteen people attended.

Opened in 1849 by the American Free Baptist Missionary Society, in what was then known as McGrawville, the nonsectarian school sat where McGraw High School now is. Faculty taught Latin, Greek, math, science, public speaking and agricultural science. The college was constantly onset by financial issues, as it received no government support due to its experimental nature. It relied mostly on tuition, about $30 a year, and donations. It lasted until 1860.

“It was an unusual college for its time because male or female, black or white, it didn’t matter,” Kimberly said.

A retired U.S. Postal Service employee, Parks had been interested in genealogy for 20 years. Growing up, she heard about the college only in whispers.

“I wasn’t taught about it when I went to school,” Parks said.

One day, Parks’ grandchildren took her to a small cemetery in the woods near the McGraw High School’s baseball field. There she saw five headstones of African-American students from the college.

“The first stone I saw was of a black student from Kingston, Ohio, where my father-in-law is from,” Parks said. She started looking for information about the students.

The books list information about 616 of the school’s 1,062 students.

“I did most of the research from home,” Parks said, using websites like ancestry.com, newspapersonline.com, gravefinder.com, U.S. Census records and the histories of the students’ hometowns.

In February, a documentary about the college by Sharon Stevans, a volunteer at the McGraw Historical Society, was screened at the Smithsonian National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. Kimberly said work on the documentary and the book happened around the same time, but they are separate projects.

When she finished the books, Parks said she thought to herself, “Why are we still fighting the same battles?” in a time where people are still fighting for civil rights.

“I can tell people a little town tried to create a place without any prejudice, and it did make a difference,” Parks said. “It created humanitarians and heroes in a time where nothing else existed like this.”