By Tim Rowland
On a sun-dappled afternoon along what was once the Adirondack frontier, a hateful slur was put to rest for good, and in its place blossomed an emphatic tribute to a man whose name was very nearly lost to time.
With a sizeable crowd gathered Saturday, Sept. 16, on the side of a lonely country road, a sign was unveiled officially changing the name of Negro Brook in Vermontville to John Thomas Brook, named for a 19th century Black farmer whose lands were nearby.
“This name change is not erasing history,” said Paul Smith’s professor and historian Curt Stager. “This is recovering history that has been erased.”
IT’S DEBATABLE: Should offensive place names be changed?
John Thomas was born into slavery on Maryland’s Eastern shore. In 1840, the sale of his wife and children drove him to escape from his plantation on the Underground Railroad headed north.
At roughly the same time, abolitionist Gerrit Smith was devising a plan to give away blocks of Adirondack land, around 120,000 acres total, to Black men.
Most newly minted landowners would never see their holdings, but some did indeed head into the wilderness and farmed their land with considerable success. Much of their story is forgotten, ignored by white historians who were apt to write off the farms as a tragicomic failure.
In Vermontville, the lone legacy of the Black agronomists was a small stream named Negro Brook, and prior to 1963 the brook had gone by an even more offensive name. Stager said he was stunned the first time he heard the name 40 years ago, finding it an obvious affront to the community and embarrassment to the college, which owned land through which the brook flowed.
Stager said his research as to how the brook got its name initially yielded no fruit. Everyone had a theory, none of which checked out. The two breaks came with the discovery of a manuscript that mentioned the Black settlement, and a letter discovered by founders of Keeseville’s Underground Railroad Museum from Thomas to Smith.
Thomas’ letter, which Stager read, spoke of the difference Smith’s gift had made, and demonstrated that his farm was successful, selling a hefty annual surplus of fruit and vegetables.
A growing body of scholarship has shown a light on groups whose stories have not been told, including Indigenous peoples and Black settlers. The historical marker commemorating John Thomas Brook is 150 yards from the Six Nations Indian Museum on county Route 60 in Onchiota. Dave Fadden, son of museum founder John Fadden, spoke at the ceremony of his people’s close relationship with nature, waters and the land.
The brook’s name change was dependent upon a demonstration of popular support among residents of the local community. Stager said it was the overwhelming support of local Adirondackers and groups that made it a success.
Tiffany Rea-Fisher, director of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, spoke to the purity of the movement and thanked Stager for making it his mission. “This was clean, simple and the right thing to do,” she said. “This will have a ripple effect that will go on for generations.”