In the 1700s, British Indian agent Sir William Johnson wrote there was a settlement of free African Americans called the Willigee Negroes on the south side of the Mohawk River in what today is the town of Florida.
Historian Dan Weaver, author of a booklet on the subject, said the word “willigee” is Dutch, referring to willow trees which were common in the area.
Johnson, who built estates in Fort Johnson and Johnstown, owned at least 40 enslaved black people, 10 household slaves and 30 field hands.
Retired Johnson Hall site manager Wanda Burch said other upstate New York land owners also owned slaves. New York state abolished slavery in 1827.
Even after 1827, escaped slaves from the South were considered stolen property and people caught harboring them were subject to arrest.
There is a historical marker at Chester “Bromley” Hoke’s Mohawk Street home in Canajoharie. Born in 1847, Hoke volunteered for the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, one of the first black units in the Civil War. After the war, he was a porter at the Nellis Hotel. He died in 1913.
An 1855 New York census counted 418 black residents in Montgomery County, 118 in Canajoharie village. Montgomery County historian Kelly Yacobucci Farquhar said the local African American population declined after the Civil War, presumably because blacks moved to larger population centers where there were more jobs.
Anthony “Dixie” Veal, an enslaved man at a Georgia plantation, joined up with New York state troops who were marching through Georgia in the Civil War.
Veal later became a well-known porter at Amsterdam’s Hotel Warner and was prominent in the city’s black community. Veal once convinced the city’s Opera House not to go on stage with an insulting black face impersonation of him.
He suffered from mental illness late in life and died at the state mental hospital in Utica in 1904.
Bruce Anderson, an African American buried in Amsterdam, fought heroically during the battles of Fort Fisher, North Carolina in the Civil War.
He and other soldiers were recommended for the Medal of Honor but the paperwork was lost. Anderson finally got his medal in 1914. He died in 1922 and was buried at Green Hill Cemetery in Amsterdam.
Farquhar is “ninety percent” sure that Bruce Anderson’s grandson is Ambrose “Cowboy” Anderson, Jr. of Gloversville, a 2012 recipient of the Congressional Gold medal, the nation’s highest civilian award.
“Cowboy” Anderson was one of the first Montford Point Marines, an African American unit in World War II. He fought at Iwo Jima.
An African American Amsterdam barber, Robert A. Jackson, may have been active in the Underground Railroad before the Civil War. Farquhar said Jackson’s barber shop on an upper floor at 69 East Main St. was near Chandler Bartlett’s shoe store that reputedly sheltered freedom seekers.
After the Civil War Jackson delivered a rousing speech in support of Republican presidential candidate James Blaine in Canajoharie in 1884. Blaine narrowly lost the election to New York Gov. Grover Cleveland. Jackson died in 1893 and was buried at Green Hill Cemetery.
Seattle Seahawks football quarterback Russell Wilson’s grandfather was a high school basketball star in Amsterdam in the 1940s. Harrison Wilson, Jr. went on to serve as president of Norfolk State University, a historically black institution in Virginia. He died last year at age 94.
Harrison Wilson, Jr., was the son of Harrison Wilson, Sr., who was born in Falmouth, Kentucky, relocating to Amsterdam in 1910.
Harrison Wilson, Sr., and his wife, Marguerite, raised eight children. Their children and grandchildren have pursued substantial careers in education, law, healthcare, industry, media and sports.