A collection of primarily 20th-century resources on African-American history in Utica and the Mohawk Valley was recently donated to the Burke Library Special Collections by Kirkland alumna Cassandra Harris-Lockwood K’74. The Oneida County Black History Archive collection includes oral histories (written and audio files), photographs, and research materials.
“I’ve never seen black people presented in such a way around here,” said Harris-Lockwood. “The collection captures something truly unique and significant to the history of this area.”
The main component of the archive comprises materials gathered by the For the Good Corporation, a nonprofit based in Utica of which Harris-Lockwood is president and CEO.
Harris-Lockwood said she got the idea for the archive after meeting a black man in a local grocery store in the late 90s. After finding out he had grown up in the area, she visited him a few times, taking notes documenting his early life.
“That was the beginning of the archive,” she said. “He piqued my interest in the history of black folks here and his story became the archive’s first bio.”
The collection’s strong point is in documenting the lives of African-Americans in the region in the mid- to late-19th century. One highlight of the archive is the story of the Mitchell Family, who Harris-Lockwood grew up with and said were crucial to the introduction of Jazz music to the region.
“I didn’t realize it when I was a little kid,” says Harris-Lockwood. “Aunt Skip would sing and dance and Uncle Fred would always take out his bass violin and it was just what we did, I didn’t think of it as much growing up.”
She also worked with Utica College professors the late Paul Young and Jan De Amicis to highlight the African-American experience in the local area.
Professor De Amicis focuses on the early experience of African-Americans in the Mohawk Valley, documenting the lives of slaves that once lived in the area. Professor Young interviewed local residents, creating oral histories documenting black life in Utica throughout the 20th century. Their photographs and research materials record the expansion of the black community in Central New York.
“The oral history materials are fantastic,” says Christian Goodwillie, the Director and Curator of Special Collections and Archives at Hamilton. “They capture black life in Utica as the African-American population began to boom in the early 20th century.”
The collection also includes the papers and clippings of Kate Oser, a Clinton resident who was deeply involved in social justice struggles in the Mohawk Valley from the 1960s through the 1990s.
“It reflects one local woman’s connection to a lot of national movements,” said Goodwillie. “It gives us some wonderful primary source material that local entities were generating in regards to those issues.”
Goodwillie called the collection a wonderful asset that will likely be used by students and faculty to get an insight on what it meant to be black in the local area not too long ago.