Oneida County Black History Archive
July 6th 2012 · 0 Comments
The Oneida County Black History Archive Project, was established in 2011 at For The Good Inc., and continues to make progress in collecting and archiving the rich history of African-Americans in Oneida County and particularly in Utica.
The City itself has a history of African-American residents from the very beginning that have contributed greatly to the growth of the community and culture over the years. Unfortunately that history only seems to be shared by the people who lived it and a very small circle of those interested in learning more about it.
My Utica College internship at For The Good enables me to continue to research, archive, and present this rich history to the public of Oneida County. As a History Major, these untold tales of some of Utica’s most interesting historical characters are important to me and deserve to be brought to light.
According to the 2012 Census, the City of Utica is comprised of a total population of 62,235. Of this nearly thirty-one percent, or 19,290 residents, of the population of Utica, are of a race other than White. Of that minority population, a staggering forty-nine percent, 9,501 of Utica’s population are African-Americans.
The questions I present as a student of history is; From where did this population originate? What is their story? This summer I have been given the opportunity to attempt to answer such questions.
Through the utilization of oral histories that have already been collected, new interviews will be conducted with local Utica residents, and more surveys will be handed out and a more complete history of African Americans in Oneida County will begin to emerge.
Essential to my work this summer is the help of elder residents living in the community, along with their stories, that have been passed down to their younger family members.
Recently, I had the great pleasure to interview one such resident who has lived permanently in Utica since 1950. Annie Watson is one of the many residents of Utica that found herself here as a result of “working on the season.”
Mrs. Watson is originally from Metter, Georgia and from there at the age of five, she moved to Belle Glade, Florida where her path would cross with that of the man who brought her family to Oneida County.
During the summer of 1941, Claude Hinman was vacationing in Florida. On this particular vacation Mr. Hinman met Mrs. Watson’s older brother. They began to discuss the difficult times people were facing after the Depression and how good work was difficult to come by.
Mr. Hinman proceeded to offer work to Mrs. Watson’s brother in Upstate New York on his bean farm for the summer. Keeping to his word, Mr. Hinman sent two trucks back to Florida soon after to bring workers up to his bean farm in Deansboro.
Mrs. Watson describes Mr. Hinman as being, “…really nice. He would loan people money to buy food with,” among other things. At the end of the summer Mrs. Watson returned home to Florida while her four brothers remained in Utica and found employment at various places such as Savage Arms and Utica Radiators.
Through a previous interview with Richard “Dickie” Frank, it was learned that these seasonal workers who eventually came to stay, would apply for jobs at locations that Blacks who were long-time residents, had long since given up on being hired. Utica was a very segregated city. It was segregated and discriminatory.
Dickie said, “They didn’t know that they didn’t hire Blacks. They showed us something. They got hired. They opened doors.”
It would not be until 1950 that Mrs. Watson would come to Utica to stay for good. Between 1941 and 1950 she was met with the unfortunate loss of both her father and one of her brothers. As times were hard Mrs. Watson was a ‘child of work,’ and was unable to attend school for more than a year total during her childhood.
Eventually, Mrs. Watson found work as one of the first teacher’s aides at Central Methodist Church, now a Muslim mosque, located on the corner of Court and Broadway. Following this position she did housework until she obtained her high school equivalency.
After obtaining her GED, Mrs. Watson took a position at Marcy State Hospital as a therapy aide and stayed in this position until her retirement. Mrs. Watson is one resident of Utica that has had the opportunity to see the city grow and change over time and was more than happy to share her story with me.
Despite the lack of welcome migrant workers such as Mrs. Watson faced upon their arrival in Oneida County, she recalls workers being called bean picker, pea pickers, “bums and tramps and things,” she still describes Utica as “nice.”
As with many residents that have lived in Utica for many years, Mrs. Watson shares the perspective the Utica is not what it used to be. She states that when she first moved to the city “you could walk home at four or five in the morning and no one would bother you. They would maybe pick you up and give you a ride home. But now I wouldn’t be caught dead out on these streets because I’d be so scared.”
Despite this particular change in Utica, Mrs. Watson still feels very much at home in the city and is proud of the history she experienced here.
It is these very stories that the OCBHAP will continue to uncover and share with the rest of Oneida County. Mrs. Watson is an invaluable piece of the history of African-Americans in Oneida County and I now ask our readers to please share what history you may have.
Primary sources are some of the most important pieces of history and yet are also some of the hardest to obtain when researching. Interviews such as the one conducted with Mrs. Watson add much depth and perspective to the project and we can never have too much of that.
Anyone interested in sharing any piece of history they feel may contribute to our project is encouraged to do so by contacting the For The Good, Inc. office at (315) 797.2417.
Also, July 6th through July 8th the OCBHA will be handing out surveys for the project at the Brick City Reunion here in Utica. For more information on the reunion and where you can pick up a survey, please call our office.
Thank you so much to Mrs. Watson for her contributions and thank you in advance to other members of the community that we will work with in the future.
By Mark Ziobro