Focus on History: Black history in Montgomery County being assembled

This spring the Montgomery County Heritage and Genealogical Society will erect a state historical ma

This spring the Montgomery County Heritage and Genealogical Society will erect a state historical marker outside the 131 Mohawk Street home where Chester “Bromley” Hoke lived in Canajoharie.

Hoke was born in 1847. Not much is known about his parents but his grandparents were slaves. His grandfather, Henry Miller, was owned by a man named Miller from Minden. His grandmother was owned by Adam Garlock of Canajoharie. Hoke’s grandparents presumably were freed when New York abolished slavery on July 4, 1827.

Hoke volunteered to serve in the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first African-American units in the Civil War. The regiment was the subject of the 1989 movie “Glory.” Hoke returned to Canajoharie after the war and was a porter at the Nellis Hotel. He had four sons with his wife, Elizabeth Phillips. He previously had a daughter. According to his 1913 obituary, Hoke was a good baseball player, as were some of his Canajoharie descendants.

Amsterdam figures in the story of a decorated black Civil War soldier. A native of Oswego County, Bruce Anderson received one of the last Congressional Medals of Honor from the war. Anderson and 12 others of the 142nd New York Infantry cut down a palisade blocking advance of Union forces in an attack on Fort Fisher in North Carolina in 1865. They were recommended for the medal but the paperwork was lost. Anderson hired a lawyer and finally received the medal in 1914. He spent the last years of his life in Amsterdam, died in 1922 and is buried in Green Hill Cemetery.

Montgomery County Historian Kelly Farquhar has assembled a team to gather information on African-Americans who lived in the county from 1820 to 1880. The black population grew in that period, perhaps because of the abolition of slavery at an early date in New York. After 1880, local blacks apparently sought more opportunity in bigger cities.

Farquhar’s work is being funded by local sources and $10,000 from Preserve New York, a grant program of the Preservation League of New York State and the New York Council on the Arts. Farquhar, SUNY Oswego professor emeritus Judith Wellman and local historians Scott Haefner and Alessa Wylie also will document the local abolition movement and survey sites related to the Underground Railroad. They hope to complete the project next year.

The Underground Railroad was a network of safe structures and people who helped runaway slaves flee to Canada.

Even after New York abolished slavery, escaped slaves were still considered stolen property in the state, effectively stealing themselves from their masters when they ran away. Anyone caught harboring an escaped slave was subject to arrest.

A barn at Freysbush Church on Route 163 in Minden may have been a hiding place for the runaways. Ames, south of Canajoharie, could have been a stop on the Underground Railroad along with what are now two bed and breakfasts — the Inn by the Mill in St. Johnsville and Halcyon Farm in Florida.

The recollections of Elizabeth Jones McFee of Ames have been recorded in which she tells of going with either her father or grandfather to transport a “freedom seeker” hidden in a stove to the home of Dr. Mereness, which was the next safehouse. One man who likely was part of the Underground Railroad was the Rev. Richard Eastep of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Canajoharie. An 1857 letter makes reference to Eastep sheltering fugitive slaves.

Farquhar will hold a public event from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, April 2 at the Old Courthouse in Fonda inviting people to come with local stories, artifacts and pictures relating to Montgomery County’s African-American history.

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