Black History in Utica
A Beginning Black Community
Jan DeAmicis, Utica College
Jan DeAmicis, a Sociology professor at Utica College, tells us that "African Americans were among Utica's first residents," most escaping "the consequences of enslavement" further south. The first Black person in Utica probably was a slave; slavery did not end until 1827 in New York State, though the pattern was to own one, two, or three slaves. It wasn't until late in the nineteenth century that a more permanent community of Black residents emerged (pp. 7-8). DeAmicis found that "slavery did not really thrive in the growing village of Utica . . . slave sales probably ended in 1815 . . . by 1820 there was only one enslaved African in the village of Utica; by 1830 there were none to be found" (p. 9)
How did the freed slaves make their living? "Most Black Uticans lived at the eastern end of Main Street in a neighborhood popularly known as 'Hayti' . . . many found work in the industries generated by the Mohawk River, the Erie Canal and the turnpikes: in stage coach and livery stables, cooks on canal boats and in hotels, as servants and waiters in hotels, and provisioners for the Canal trade (p. 10). When Utica was incorporated as a city in 1832, there were 184 Black men, women and children. The Black neighborhood known as "Hayti" was a station on the Underground Railroad . . . Black Uticans by doing so were subject to "serious risk of heavy fines and three years imprisonment" (p. 11).
The African American Community Expands
The number of Black Uticans was very small until about 1950. Occupational choices were limited in Utica as was true throughout the Northeast. Manual labor remained common, though some Black men were in skilled trades or professions, such as barbering or worked as shopkeepers. The 1920 Census tells us that Black households were usually headed by a man and often included extended family or boarders. Some of the earliest social institutions were Hope Chapel, established soon after the Civil War ended, the Colored Free Masons Hiram Lodge No. 25 in 1867, and St. Paul's Baptist Church in 1922 (DeAmicis, p. 19).
Post Avenue was thought of as the place where most Blacks lived by the late 1800s, but Black Uticans lived throughout the city up until 1880. The Second Ward emerged as the neighborhood for Black people after about 1910. Most of the county's Black people, by this time, lived in Utica, and largely in the second ward, 263 people.
De Amicis notes that Richard Frank was born in 1931 in the second ward and made remarkable accomplishments throughout his life. He was a well known athelete in the area, one of the first Black police officers in Utica, the owner of a popular nightclub, the Birdland in the 1960s and 70s, and the Associate Dean of Student Services at Utica College (DeAmicis, p. 23). In an interview with DeAmicis, Frank told him, "The second ward was I would have to say the United Nations, and it worked. . . we had everybody in the second ward'" (p. 24).
Jazz in the Black Community
The 1940 Census lists 10 male and 4 female musicians, and Black musicians made their way through Utica as a central thoroughfare for the state. Club George, located at Liberty and Seneca Streets, opened just before Christmas in 1945 with live music and often big name entertainers, who dropped by after performing at the downtown hotels. From 1945 to 1955, jazz musicians from throughout Central New York gathered nearly every night. After 1955, a jukebox replaced live music. Club George is said to be the oldest business continuously operated by a black person in Utica. Club George hosted Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, and Nat King Cole among other entertainers, and "people went there because it was a friendly place where black and white, rich and poor, came together in a common love of music." There was a slogan for the business: "Club George…where atmosphere prevails and hospitality will meet you at the door" (Williams, 1989, p. 3A).
The Migration From the South
An article in the Observer-Dispatch tells us that many Utica blacks trace their ancestry back to Belle Glade, Florida, as migrant workers began to come north. In 1940, Utica's black population was 514; 10 years later, it had risen to 1640! (Dudaek & Farrell, 1991). By 1960, the population had doubled again to more than 3,000, and that by 1970, there were 5,207 African Americans in Utica (DeAmicis, p. 27). World War II made a difference, as recruiters went south to secure labor when workers were in short supply. But the Southerners did not initially move to the city; they came to Oneida County in May to harvest green beans, and by October, most returned to Florida to harvest sugar cane. By the early 1950s, DeAmicis tells us, "as many as 6,000 Southerners could be found each summer in dozens of camps scattered across the county" (p. 27). Some found work year round and stayed in Utica, and other Blacks came north not as migrant workers, but to escape the restrictions in the south.
Racism and Discrimination: A Shortage of Housing
Racist attitudes and exclusion were widespread in Utica too, as we see in a tongue-in-cheek article written for Upstate Ministry in the early 1940s:
If you think you see more Negroes on Utica streets than formerly, you are, of course, right. There are more – probably 800 or 900 more than there were a year ago, possibly 1,500 more than there were two years ago.
There are three Negro churches now instead of two and there is a community center going full blast with Community Chest support. But otherwise probably the increase hasn't been significant unless you happened to be a Negro arriving in Utica and looking for a room.
There are four Negro lodging houses in Utica, and a handful of scattered families who can occasionally rent one room. All of these rooms have been filled for months now and for a time one bed served six men—three at a time in two shifts.
The plight of an arriving Negro looking for a room is not a pleasant one. If he arrives by train, he probably inquires of one of the red caps. If – almost miraculously these days – he drives, he probably asks some fellow Negro he sees on the street. In either case, he is usually referred to one of the lodging houses, which in turn refers him to another and so on. . . not infrequently the room-seeker makes a one or two night forced landing at the rectory of Hope Chapel, where the Rev. E.A.U. Brook's heart is bigger than his house.
Efforts to convert an ex-Utica knitting mill into an apartment house for Negroes fell through when the government ruled that 'no industrial plants could be converted to anything else' during the war. . . While most of the arriving Negroes have—or soon get—defense factory or Rome Airport jobs, Utica's colored population has been on the upgrade ever since 1940 pea-farm owners south of the city started to bring truckloads of southern Negroes up for the canning season. . .
Utica is now adding Negroes at a rate of about one a day, and, of course, the task of housing them would not be so serious if it were not for a certain race prejudice that happily is not as bad here as it is in many other places. In Canada, Mr. Brooks points out, it is practically non-existent.
1944: Washington Courts and the Cosmopolitan Community Center
A building at Washington Courts
© Craig Grant, courtesy Bill Bryant
By the time Washington Courts housing complex was built in 1944, it became an avenue for Black families to find housing. A long-time resident of the complex, Miss Catherine Moore, explained that her father had worked on the railroad and traveled home to Albany each weekend to see his family. The opening of Washington Courts enabled him to bring his family to live with him in Utica. An article from the Observer-Dispatch in 1951 celebrated the Cosmopolitan Center, which was already established as a community center serving the neighborhood of Washington Courts. The OD quotes the center's annual report:
The Cosmopolitan Community Center aims, within the limitations of staff and facilities, to unite residents of these communities into a common civic and social effort so that they may secure for themselves a higher standard of lving and more wholesome experiences.
The members of the Board of Trustees in 1951 include Dean Winton Tolles of Hamilton College.
Educational, social and recreational facilities were available at the Cosmopolitan Community center which was described as a Red Feather agency (Utica Community Chest); affiliated with the Council on Social Agencies and the National Federation of Settlement Houses.
Residents of the neighborhoods could join the social or educational groups of their choice, and, it was said,
© Craig Grant, courtesy Bill Bryant
Teen agers, particularly, find the center's programs, opportunity to occupy their leisure in worthy, stimulating games, athletics and special skills under excellent supervision . . . Boys and girls learn to play constructively in groups, organize their own clubs, plan special programs and develop qualities of leadership not otherwise available to them. The center has a scouting program, a camping program, home bureau unit, painting classes for children a well baby clinic, basketball teams and other athletics groups (Cosmopolitan Center, 1951).
From Second Ward to Cornhill
The concentration of Black families has moved from the Second Ward to the neighborhood of Utica known as Cornhill. The target area for the HOPE VI Project in Cornhill has a much larger population of African Americans than the City of Utica as a whole or than any other neighborhood.
Thirteen percent of Utica is comprised of African Americans, and in the target area of HOPE VI, that number jumps to forty-three percent. Correspondingly, the distribution of the White population is seen more toward the outer edges of the city; seventy-nine percent of Utica is white, but the percentage falls to just forty-three percent in the study area (2000 Census, www.census.gov
Not Everyone Has Prospered
DeAmicis pointed out that "Not everyone has prospered in Utica. . . Utica's economic decline after World War II meant that many could not find the opportunities they so earnestly sought" (p. 32). Whereas earlier in the century, African American households were male-headed, and those that weren't were mainly widowed, by 1990, 64% of households were headed by women, and three-quarters of those were below the poverty level.
Today, from the Census 2000 data, we know that the region's economic decline has a differential impact on African American families. Black males are less likely to be employed than any other group. While Black females are employed at percentages comparable to those among Whites and Hispanics, only 56 percent of Black males who are in the labor force in the city of Utica are employed, compared to 91 percent of White males and 81 percent of Hispanic males (Source: 2000 Census, SF3 Employment Data). Black female employment may be misleading, as household income lags behind White families, and female-headed households have high percentages of poverty. The median household income in the HOPE VI area is significantly lower than that of Utica as a whole; HOPE VI neighborhood median income was $17,911, and median income for the City of Utica was $25,113.
Utica also has an increasing focus, as do many cities, on retaining youth in the educational system for graduation and higher educational opportunities. Hispanic males and females have the highest percentages of the population without a high school diploma, but this may reflect the immigration of Spanish-speakers from other countries. Males, overall, are less likely to complete high school. Nearly half of Black men over the age of 25 in the city of Utica (46.4%) do not have a high school degree or its equivalent, compared to just over a quarter of White men (25.4%) (Source: Census 2000 Population Data – SF3 and Block Groups).
Cosmopolitan Center Drive to Open Here Thursday. (1951). The Observer-Dispatch
, Utica, New York, June 3.
DeAmicis, J. (2002). The search for community: Utica's African Americans. In Ethnic Utica
, (pp. 7-35), James S. Pula, Ed. Utica, New York: Ethnic Heritage Studies Center, Utica College.
Dudajek, D., Farrell, B. (1991). Field work paved way to North for some. The Sunday Observer-Dispatch
, Utica, New York, February 17, p. 1E.
Negroes. Upstate Ministry
, December-January, 1942-43, Oneida County Historical Society Archives, Utica, New York.
Williams, S. (1989). George Hamlett, Club George Host for 44 years, Dies. The Observer-Dispatch
, Utica, New York, November 21.