Pre-Civil War ledger documents Adirondack property transfers that helped secure voting rights for Black men
By Kenneth C. Crowe II, Times Union
ALBANY — The “Receipt Book, Land Grants From Gerrit Smith” in the New York State Archives is more than a 122-page volume listing names, acres and locations. It contains the factual proof for a plan to give about 3,000 Black men the wealth required to have the right to vote in New York in 1846.
It was a time when a Black man could only qualify to cast a ballot if he was at least 21 years old and owned real estate worth at least $250. White men did not have a property requirement.
Smith, an abolitionist who was considered to be the wealthiest man in New York state, gave away 40 acres of land to each of the 3,000 people listed in the receipt book. The document can be accessed online at the state Archives website. Smith worked with members of the state’s Black community to devise the plan.
“This is particularly unique and important because it was a very important action by a very famous abolitionist … What’s especially interesting about it is his motivation was to enable these disenfranchised people to be able to vote,” said state Archivist Thomas Ruller about the volume.
Smith was one of the “Secret Six” who funded fellow abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Va., in October 1859 in a move against slavery. Brown lived in the Adirondacks where the Smith land grants were made. Smith also purchased the draft of President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation in the state library after the state Legislature bought it from him.
Smith’s receipt book, when tied to other 19th-century records, shows that the fight for Black suffrage didn’t only occur in the 1960s, but was a battle waged in New York more than a century earlier, said Aaron Mair, Adirondack Wilderness Campaign director for the Adirondack Council.
“This is a unique piece of African American history, a gem to the nation, but also a crown jewel to New York State,” said Mair, who was the 57th president of the Sierra Club and an advocate for people of color on environmental issues ranging from access to wilderness areas to living free of toxic pollution.
“Taking it to New York, the issue of belonging and freedom and the right to vote, was very critical,” said Mair, who has studied the historical significance of the receipt book.
Smith’s land grants were sited mostly in the Adirondacks in Essex, Franklin and Hamilton counties, according to the pages listing all the acreage he donated. Grants also were made in Delaware and Ulster counties in the Catskills.
The recipients of the lots included 54 Albany residents, as well as Black people from Manhattan, Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens, Dutchess, Westchester, Orange, Rockland, Sullivan and Suffolk counties.
The land grants cracked the prejudice that established the voting restrictions that targeted Blacks.
“We have these particular records because it relates to the distribution of land and particularly lands in the Adirondack that were granted to Gerrit Smith. There’s the bias against Black people, poor people. There was an effort to maintain the hegemony of the wealthy landed class,” Ruller said.
The Smith’s receipt book “is a carbon copy of a transcription of the original receipt book, which apparently was kept by Charles Ray, secretary to abolitionist Gerrit Smith,” according to the entry describing the book. It was copied when the Land Tax Department, Division of Taxation and Finance, had possession of the ledger.
The receipt book is proof of how otherwise disenfranchised Black Americans obtained their voting rights. While some moved north into the Adirondacks, which stood as a fortress of protection away from the South, most remained where they lived before receiving the grants, Mair said.
“It’s one of the illustrative examples of why they were pushing for suffrage,” Mair said. “The grants made by Gerrit Smith were to meet the requirements for the right to vote.”