By Tim Rowland
Following the abolition of slavery, the South found new ways to exploit black workers. Ex-slaves were jailed for little or no reason and sentenced to hard labor. Others became sharecroppers, a form of virtual slavery that was all work and no reward.
Two such sharecroppers were Jacob and Robert McCray, who after the war were working the fields in Alabama for a white landowner. For their efforts, they received a share of the harvest, which did no more than pay off the debt they had incurred at what was essentially a company store. It was a grim existence for the brothers, who in 1882 had no idea they were about to receive a letter from up North with a lucrative proposition, and even less of an idea they were about to become embroiled in a land battle between two Adirondack developers.
Their improbable and mesmerizing story was told before a meeting of the Lake Placid-North Elba Historical Society last week by Saratoga Springs author and scholar Amy Godine, who has extensively researched the work of abolitionist and Adirondack landholder Gerrit Smith. Godine titled the discussion “Race and Real Estate: Beyond Timbuctoo.”
Smith’s land in Essex and Franklin counties had become something of a nuisance to him, Godine said, so he resolved to give it away in small chunks to black New York residents, with the vague idea that they might become self-sustaining farmers.
This led to the much maligned Timbuctoo, a long-lost North Elba community of would-be agrarians who, the erroneous story goes, were too incompetent, cold or lazy to make a go of it.
In fact, farming wasn’t really the point. Smith’s idea was that, as landholders, the blacks would be able to vote under New York law — something Smith saw as a key to equality. Most of the 3,000 grantees never even saw the lands they owned, Godine said, and in a matter of years even Smith had lost interest in the project.
But before he did, an escaped slave named James Pennington — who had become an influential author and minister — acquired a lot in 1847 in the name of his brother, Stephen Pembroke, who was still a slave back in Maryland. It was not uncommon for Northerners to set up positions for fleeing slaves, but it’s not known how many more Smith lots, if any, were purchased in the name of fugitives. “Was this a fluke, or a canary in a coal mine?” Godine said.
Either way, Pembroke and his two sons escaped, but were captured by slave hunters who sold the two boys to plantations in the Deep South, as their father watched them disappear forever.
Pembroke was soon forgotten, but the hundred acres he owned on Mirror Lake was not. In the 1880s, tourism was flourishing and “hotels were pushing up like mushrooms,” Godine said, and the sweet site on the lake appeared on the radar of the Elizabethtown innkeepers Oliver and Mary Abel.
Unfortunately for them, they had been beaten to the punch by Benjamin Brewster, who was already squatting on the parcel with his own plans for a hotel. But the Abels had a plan: they would acquire title to the land and boot out the interloper. And that almost happened.
Pembroke had died in 1859, and the actual deed was lost. But there was a record of it in Gerrit Smith’s ledger, and people were willing to testify that the transaction had taken place.
In 1882, Godine said that an attorney representing the Abels contacted the McCray brothers, offering them the equivalent of $7,000 for the lot, which by then was worth many times that. No matter. For the sharecroppers, it was transitional wealth, enough to buy some animals and work for themselves instead of a white overlord. “It could make the future somewhat hopeful,” Godine said. They accepted.
So the story flashes back to the shores of Mirror Lake and the courtrooms of New York, where Brewster and the Abels duked it out through years of suits and appeals.
The Abels said they had the bill of sale from the McCrays. Brewster said, so what? The story had too many holes: no actual deed, requisite signatures were missing, the sons’ last name differed from their fathers’ and in the eyes of the law they were illegitimate at best, and maybe no relation at all. Who could say?
But “ordinary inferences (in whe white world) did not apply to slavery,” Godine said. Certainly a judge would know that slaves were not afforded marriage licenses, or that family members would take different names depending on the surname of their owner at the time. The judges, Godine said, “either did not know or did not care.”
In the final appeal, the Abels lined up what appeared to be an insurmountable mountain of witnesses and evidence in support of Pembroke’s claim to the land. But the appeals judge took an easy, if intellectually and morally dishonest, way out. Pembroke was a slave when he acquired the land and, as property himself, he could not legally own property. Any deed, in his view, was worthless from the start.
With the scratch of a pen, the judge had erased a legacy. “He stripped two old men of their right to their remembered lives,” Godine said.
Which was more cruel for them, she asked: getting a taste of freedom before being recaptured, or being told that “you have no story. You have no past. We do not see you.” Nineteenth century legalities had triumphed over the truth.
Brewster would have his hotel.