The story of Black history in the greater Cortland area is a conflict of progressive ideals against human realities.
A Black pastor led an all-white church, but faced racism.
An interracial and coeducational school had a professor and former student run out of town because of their interracial relationship.
The 20th Century would see greater respect for Black people in Cortland, as the likes of Black Olympians, singers and political activists would all make appearances in the city.
Here are some of the stories of how Black people brought their influence to Cortland County.
SAMUEL RINGGOLD WARD
The son of runaway slaves, Samuel Ringgold Ward was an abolitionist and pastor to two all-white churches, including one in Cortland.
Ward was born in Maryland in 1817 and escaped to New York with his parents in 1820.
As he grew up, he would become a teacher in Black schools.
In 1834, he was attacked by a proslavery mob of merchants and was arrested without an accuser or trial, according to the Cornell University library. After that, he focused his attention on abolition. He became an agent of the American Anti-Slavery Soiety in 1839, according to the Encyclopedia Britanica.
His eloquent style of delivery gave birth to his nickname, the Black Daniel Webster.
That same year, he was licensed by the New York Congregational Association as a pastor which would lead to tenures in South Butler from 1841 to 1843 and in Cortland from 1846 to 1851.
The state was progressive with antislavery sentiment — and Central and Western New York were known as the Burned Over District for its even-more progressive politics — still Ward experienced strong hatred of Black people in Cortland.
“In 1846 I became pastor of the Congregational Church in Cortland Village, New York, where some of the most laborious of my services were rendered, and where I saw more of the foolishness, wickedness, and at the same time the invincibility, of American Negrohate, than I ever saw elsewhere,” Ward said in his 1855 book, “Autobiogrpahy of a Fugitive Negro: His Anti-Slavery Labours in the United States, Canada and England.”
After leaving Cortland, Ward moved to Syracuse where he assisted in a slave rescue that led him and the slave to flee to Canada. He would live there until 1853 before moving to England and then Jamaica where he lived until his death in 1866.
NEW YORK CENTRAL COLLEGE (1846-1860)
New York Central College in what is now McGraw was revolutionary, the first college in America that was both interracial and coeducational among both its student body and its faculty.
Despite that, a New York Central College professor and his former student were run out of town for being an interracial couple in the 1850s.
Professor William G. Allen, who was Black, and Mary King, a former student, publicly declared their unity and plans to wed in 1853.
Her minister parents accepted the relationship, but her brother organized a mob with plans to tar and feather Allen before placing him in a wooden barrel with spikes, said Sharon Stevans, a volunteer videographer for the McGraw Historical Society.
The college was opened in McGrawville by the American Free Baptist Missionary Society in 1849 as a symbol of anti-slavery and equality for supporting slavery.
It was the first college in the country to hire Black professors and taught men, women, white and Black people the same curriculum, side-by-side, she said.
After the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831, education for free Blacks was shut down and Allen was forced out of school.
Gerrit Smith, an abolitionist and social reformer, paid for Allen to attend Oneida Institute before he acquired his law degree in Boston. He was hired in 1850 at the college, where he taught literature and language, and where he met King.
After the mob, Allen was disguised in a wagon and shipped to Syracuse before fleeing to New York City, where he reunited with King months later and married her. They moved to England and had eight children. Allen advocated for abolition before disappearing from history.
In 1891, King was listed in a British census as a widow working in a wool factory with a few of her children. Allen was presumed deceased years prior. The school was closed in 1860 for lack of financial support but an outbreak of smallpox and Allen’s marriage to King contributed to its downfall.
MARTIN LUTHER KING JR.
Twelve years before his assassination in 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. spoke at the New York State Convention of Universalists at the Cortland Hotel in October of 1956, according to coverage by the Cortland Standard.
There, he discussed non-violent procedures for enacting change and unity through love.
“If the Negro succumbs to the temptation of using violence, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness,” King said.
Ten months before his speech at the hotel, King was arrested and convicted of leading the Montgomery bus boycott following Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat in December 1955.
He addressed 160 people at the hotel to explain his method of nonviolent resistance.
MLK spoke to gathering of Universalists in Cortland
Editor’s Note: On Oct. 16, 1956, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the Hotel Cortland in Cortland to a state meeting of Universalists. This is what was published the next day.
From the Cortland Standard: Wednesday, Oct. 17, 1956:
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Leader of Bus Boycott In Ala., Explains His Stand
By Grace Wheeler
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., of Montgomery, Ala., last night told the New York State convention of Universalists that “oppressed peoples must not use violence” in waging the struggle against the forces of injustice.
Violence merely creates new and more complicated social problems, he said, and “if the Negro succumbs to the temptation of using violence … unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness.”
The pastor of the Dexter Ave. Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., and president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, Dr. King brought the spotlight of world interest to Montgomery last December through his leadership of the bus boycott without violence.
Found guilty of having “conspired illegally to boycott the city’s segregated buses,” he was fined. The sentence was suspended pending his appeal to the Alabama Circuit Court of Appeals.
Addressing about 160 persons at the Universalists’ banquet at Hotel Cortland, Dr. King explained the method of “nonviolent resistance.”
He said that “it is not a method of cowardice or stagnant passivity; it does resist.” It is “passive physically, but strongly active spiritually.”
Secondly, he said, this method “does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and understanding.”
Third, the attack is directed to the forces of evil, rather than to persons caught in the forces, Dr. King explained.
“As I like to say to the people in Montgomery, Ala.: ‘The tension in this city is not between white people and Negro people. The tension is at bottom between justice and injustice, between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. And if there is a victory it will be a victory, not merely for 50,000 Negroes, but a victory for justice and the forces of light. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who may happen to be unjust.”
Dr. King’s fourth point was that the method of non-violence not only avoids external physical violence, but also internal violence of spirit.
“At the center of non-violence stands the principle of love,” he said. “In struggling for human dignity the Negro must not succumb to the temptation of becoming bitter or indulging in hate campaigns.”
Dr. King explained that he spoke of love sence of “understanding good will … we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed, while hating the deed the person does.”
Finally, Dr. King explained, the non-violence method is based on the conviction that the universe is on the side of justice. “It is a deep faith in the future,” he said, “that causes the non-violent resistor to accept suffering without retaliation.”
“He knows that in his struggle for justice, he has cosmic companionship. This belief that God is on the side of truth and justice comes down to us from the long tradition of our Christian faith.”
Dr. King called segregation “a cancer in the body politic” and “an evil that is utterly un- Christian.” He said, “We cannot afford to slow up … We must continue to protest courageously to injustice wherever we find it.”
In his opening remarks, Dr. King said that the crisis in race relations “has been precipitated on the one hand, by the determined resistance of reactionary elements in the South to the Supreme Court’s momentous decision outlawing segregation in public schools …” and “on the other hand by the radical change in the Negro’s evaluation of his nature and destiny.”
He gave a brief history of the Negro in America to show this change from the attitude of subservience of one of new self-respect and new sense of dignity.
Dr. King was introduced by the Rev. Howard Gilman, state superintendent of Universalists. After his address, Dr. King was presented a check from the Fisher Society of St. Lawrence Theological School by Miss Sydney Weaver, a Cortland resident and St. Lawrence student.
“This method does not seek to defeat or humiliate the opponent, but to win his friendship and his understanding,” King said. “The tension is not between white people and Negro people; the tension is between justice and injustice. We are out to defeat injustice and not white persons who happen to be unjust.”
King was the most prominent leader of the American civil rights movement before his assassination on April 4, 1968, in Memphis.
In response to his death, more than 100 cities erupted in violence. James Earl Ray pleaded guilty to the assassination and was sentenced two months later to 99 years in prison.
Following King’s death, his wife, Coretta Scott King, visited SUNY Cortland students off campus in November 1977 when she was pushing to reopen the investigation into her husband’s death, said Jeremy Pekarek, SUNY Cortland’s archivist and instructional services librarian. It was an opportunity for students to meet and talk about their own societal norms on campus.
Jesse Owens may best be known for his gold medal success in track events at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but he would make an appearance at SUNY Cortland almost three decades later.
During the games, he won gold for the United States in 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints along with the long jump, according to the Olympics website. He helped set a record in the 4×100 meter relay that wouldn’t be bested for 20 years.
Adding to the Owens’ accomplishment was winning these events in Nazi Germany, where Adolf Hitler preached of Aryan superiority.
On March 20, 1962, Owens was invited to speak to physical education, recreation and education majors at SUNY Cortland, Pekarek said. Owens discussed:
His experience during the 1936 Olympics.
His devotion to the sport of track and field.
The importance of self-reflection and knowing one’s self.
Arguing that teachers had a moral responsibility to their community and country.
He also said that women in the United States should participate in recreational sports, which was more common in other countries at the time.
Owens died of lung cancer in 1980.
Marian Anderson was regarded by many as the world’s best contralto because of her vocal quality, rich tone and tremendous range.
In 1967, after her farewell tour, she performed at the SUNY Cortland Convocation as the honorary guest where she received the centennial medal of honor and an illuminated scroll, Pekarek said. The college is unaware of the contents of the scroll but it was likely decorated with gold edging and embellished edges.
The American singer made her debut in Berlin in 1930 and toured Europe between 1930 and 1935. Upon returning to America, she met something other than the acceptance Europe gave her.
In 1939, she was refused rental of a Washington, D.C. concert hall because of her race. That sparked widespread protest and led to debates countrywide about segregation.
Her first national performance at the Lincoln Memorial followed and drew 75,000 people.
During her performance at SUNY Cortland, she performed the Lincoln Portrait alongside the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra, Pekarek said. The Lincoln Portrait is a collection of Lincoln’s speeches, including the Gettysburg Address.
Letters were sent to a number of guests, including Robert Kennedy, inviting them to speak at the college but all of them, except Anderson, turned down the invitation, Pekarek said. The letters have been kept in the archives, but there is not a letter to Anderson.
“They singled her out,” Pekarek said. “Aside from her record in the (music) industry, I couldn’t figure out why she was singled out.”
Pekarek speculates it’s as simple as being a well-known entertainer, although she was associated with the Civil Rights Movement.
(formerly Stokely Carmichael)
A key leading member in the development of the Black Power movement during the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Kwame Ture, born Stokely Carmichael, visited SUNY Cortland as a guest speaker in 1985, according to The Press, the college’s student newspaper.
Born in Trinidad in 1941, he and his family immigrated to New York City in 1952. In 1960, he would join the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and would be one of the Freedom Riders who traveled through the Southern states challenging segregation laws.
He would serve as the prime minister of the Black Panther Party from 1968-69. He also helped establish the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, “an international political party dedicated to Pan-Africanism and the plight of Africans worldwide,” states the Encyclopedia Britannica.
Ture came to SUNY Cortland as the keynote speaker on April 20, 1985, at the college’s Black Student Union’s annual Black Culture Week dinner.
Ture said education serves the purpose for Black Americans, as well as all races, to “make life better for their descendants,” the campus paper reported.
Education should be used for that focus and not for high paying jobs, Ture said, because capitalism makes people look at the “frivolity” of things and “away from the forces which affect their lives.”
Additionally, he spoke of the need for Black Americans to organize to create reforms through seizures of power to end oppression.
“According to Ture, fighting against the oppression of Africans helps all humanity,” the article said.
Ture died in Guinea in 1998.