Author Amy Godine digs into Adirondack history and the people behind the stories in her new book ‘The Black Woods’
By Tim Rowland
Through its history, exploring in the Adirondacks has been consistent with topo maps and a stout pair of boots. But for those who fear every last square foot of wilderness duff has by now been trod, Amy Godine’s “The Black Woods: Pursuing Racial Justice on the Adirondack Frontier” is a portal for adventurous minds to pursue a fresh frontier long masked by ignorance or outright suppression.
The book is a corner-turning addition to the Adirondack canon, presenting a growing awareness that rich Adirondack histories of Black and Indigenous peoples were unjustly brushed aside to make room for sporting and conservation narratives in which the mission was dependably valiant and the heroes were dependably white.
At a gathering at Heaven Hill Friday, which followed a wreath-laying on the grave of abolitionist and North Elba resident John Brown, Godine discussed some of the stories in her book that had previously never seen the light of day and, just as importantly, why they hadn’t.
“They changed the world as much as it changed them,” Godine said of the people who saw the Adirondacks as a base camp for equality.
That ideal, put forth by abolitionists such as Brown and Gerrit Smith and the Black settlers who endured mountainous hardships to start a new life, did not hold, at least not in the eyes of public perception.
Brown was made to be a crackpot, Smith an ineffectual dreamer and Black settlements an epic and even comic failure. White developers who swooped in to appropriate Black-owned lands in order to cash in on the emerging tourist trade clucked that Black farmers were too soft and incompetent to succeed the harsh northern winters, a story willingly parroted by generations of white historians.
Discrimination, Godine said, flourished in places such as the Lake Placid Club, a “vexed institution” that pointedly noted in print its objections to racial, religious and those of inferior class (it went so far as to admit that there were Jews who possessed some pretty impressive credentials, but — sorry).
Godine noted Friday’s event was sponsored in part by conservation groups that, as the preservation effort was gaining momentum in the latter half of the 20th century, generally did not involve themselves in matters of social justice.
Those attitudes are now changing, she said, as land trusts, scientists and green groups are recognizing and helping bring to light another dimension in Adirondack history.
“The Black Woods” is a road map to this compelling story, best known for Smith’s great land giveaway to Blacks, which had usually been construed as a failed attempt at Black homesteading, but was in fact a successful conduit that, through property ownership, gave Blacks the qualification they needed to vote.
“His grantees mostly did not come,” Godine said. “But neither was it a resounding failure.”
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Smith did fail to recognize that land was just the beginning — Black farmers would also need tools, seed, animals and building materials that most couldn’t begin to afford. “He wasn’t up to the genius of his own idea,” Godine said. “He missed how poor they were and how much capital they needed.”
Yet he, and the Black settlers who did succeed, were well ahead of their time. They would have been simpatico with our “recent” ideas of sustainable agriculture, outdoor lifestyles, economic self-sufficiency and new cabins that, as opposed to their existing cramped and diseased quarters, would be “livable, safe and healthy,” Godine said. “They kept the faith with the old agrarian dream.”
She said “The Black Woods” lays the groundwork, bringing the reader up to current understanding of the quest for social justice, at which point other scholars, she hopes, will engage in a “new era” of exploration.
As a person of color heading up the Adirondack Council, Rocci Aguirre said this endeavor is valuable for its historical perspective, but is also “profoundly personal” because there was a time when he himself might not have been invited to the discussion.
Aguirre said the spirit of Timbuctoo, a Black agrarian community that flickered briefly on the North Elba frontier, lives on as the Adirondacks strives to appeal to a younger, more diverse audience with green jobs and new opportunities for those who might not have always been welcome.
“That is the next chapter to this story, which you have so beautifully captured,” he told Godine.
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Photo at top: Author Amy Godine reads from her new book “The Black Woods” as a young reader follows along. Photo by Tim Rowland