Renaming pays homage to Black settler, lays foundation for honoring local history
By Mike Lynch
The renaming of a brook in the northern Adirondacks in honor of 19th century Black settler John Thomas has given diversity advocates a burst of hope with this “longshot” win and at least one says it may have ripple effects.
Paul Smith’s College professor Curt Stager led the effort for changing the name of Negro Brook. The source of John Thomas Brook is located near Kate Mountain in the town of Franklin. From there, it flows south to Twobridge Brook one mile northwest of Bloomingdale.
The new name pays homage to Thomas, who escaped slavery and started a farm near Bloomingdale. Stager filed the application with the U.S. Board of Geographical Names, which approved the proposal for John Thomas Brook at its April 13 meeting.
The application received letters of support from the town of Franklin, Franklin County, ADI, Historic Saranac Lake, Paul Smith’s College, Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center, North Country Underground Railroad Historical Association and local residents.
Celebrating a win
“This was something that people felt was a longshot, so it’s a huge win,” said Adirondack Diversity Initiative Executive Director Tiffany Rea-Fisher. “I think it will help other people understand what’s possible and get more people involved in this type of process.”
Rea-Fisher said the name change was long overdue but called it an exciting development and very important.
She said the new name “starts to give voice to people that have been here, people that have made up this wonderful place that we all call home.”
“I don’t know that there’s anything that can be done in that area that would be a more powerful gesture,” Rea-Fisher said.
Six Nations Iroquois Cultural Center Director David Fadden said the brook goes through his family’s property where he grew up and the land designed for the new center.
He said the former name would be embarrassing to share with groups visiting his family’s museum, which preceded the cultural center, and he was especially bothered by the brook’s original name.
“I always just had a bad feeling about that: the history and derogatory term used to name this beautiful little brook behind my house,” Fadden said.
In the future, Rea-Fisher said she could see local groups working together to identify problematic names and to take the burden off of one person.
The most obvious landmark that diversity advocates see as needing to be renamed is Negro Hill near John Thomas Brook.
“That might be next,” Stager said.
There’s also a lake with a racist name south of Cranberry Lake that someone brought to his attention.
“But to change it, we want to know the story and I’m trying to find the story,” Stager said.
Amy Godine is the author of “The Black Woods:Pursuing Racial Justice on the Adirondack Frontier,” which is scheduled to be released in the fall, and is the curator for “Dreaming of Timbuctoo,” an exhibit that tells the story of Black settlers at the John Brown Farm State Historic Site in Lake Placid.
She said this name change is an important step.
“It makes this family part of Adirondack history and not part of a racist narrative that afflicted Black pioneers from the beginning,” Godine said. “It puts the brook in the context of other places in the region in the country that are named for people, not for prejudices and for bigotry.”
So Stager decided the waterway should be named after John Thomas, one of the more well-known Black settlers in the area whose story has been shared at the North Star Underground Railroad Museum at Ausable Chasm for more than a decade and in the book “Blacks in the Adirondacks” by Sally E. Svenson.
Who was John Thomas?
John Thomas was born into slavery in Queene Anne’s County, Md. in 1810 or 1811. He escaped 29 years later, distraught after his wife and children were sold and forced to live away from him.
“I became dissatisfied with my lot, of being marketable property, and a subject of involuntary servitude; for no crime, but that of the color, which God gave me,” Thomas wrote in an1872 letter to abolitionist and philanthropist Gerrit Smith.
Thomas moved to Troy for seven years, where he met Smith, who gave him 40 acres near Plumadore Pond, which is about six miles north of Loon Lake. In total, Smith gave “120,000 acres of his Adirondack landholdings to 3,000 Black pioneers during the 1840s-1850s to help empower them to vote in New York State,” according to the USGS application.
However, Thomas didn’t stay at the property long because it was too remote. He sold it and bought land to start a farm on Muzzy Road in Vermontville, near the brook now named after him. With his wife, Mary Vanderhyden, and two daughters, they grew the farm to 200 acres. Their descendants still live in the North Country.
While in Bloomingdale, Thomas suffered prejudice but also support from locals.
“… in the diary of Rainbow Lake (NY) hotelier and neighbor Charles Wardner, for example, the writer told pathetically racist anecdotes about a “Negro Thomas” who lived nearby,” according to Stager’s USGS application.
However, “local lore has it that when John’s former “owner” sent bounty-hunters to recapture him Vermontville residents helped him drive the thugs away,” Stager wrote.
John Thomas, his wife and their son, Richard, are buried in Union Cemetery in Vermontville.
Don Papson, founding president of the North Country Underground Railroad Association, said this renaming helps tell the story of Black settlements in Franklin County, letting people know that Blacks settled outside of Essex County, a more commonly known part of Adirondack history.
“You find half of North Elba, St. Armand, Franklin, and Belmont were Black-owned in the middle 1800s, including Mount Baker (in Saranac Lake),” Stager said.