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From the Schofield Letters : Emancipation Day, 1896

Yates Past - January/February 2009

When I was still teaching high school level US History, the State Education Department made us keenly aware that February was Black History Month and asked us to include lessons appropriate to the topic. I guess that stuck with me even after retirement. You might not think there would be much in Yates County’s history relevant to the history of black Americans, but you would be surprised. If I can ever gather enough information, I would love to do a story on the Underground Railroad in our county because there was an active network here. We had a story in Yates Past a while back on the Penn Yan Cuban Giants, an all-black professional baseball team that used the Yates County Fairgrounds as their home field for a few years in the 1920s. The Ku Klux Klan was also quite active in our county in the mid to late 1920s. All material for future articles. One aspect of black history in Yates County came to me through letters written by the family of Admiral Frank Schofield, a county native. One of the nice side effects of reading their letters is that they clue me into different aspects of county history. The following excerpt was written on August 4, 1896 by Frank’s mother, Catherine Danes Schofield, who lived with her husband on Head St. (North Ave.) in Penn Yan. I should explain that Frank’s wife, Claribel, was born and raised on the Eastern Shore of Maryland on a southern-style plantation along a tributary of the Chesapeake. At the time of the Civil War, her family owned 100 slaves and had deep Confederate sympathies.

Frank, this is a lovely day and Penn Yan expects a lively time for the colored people celebrate Emancipation Day. There will be a big crowd in town. They are to have a big parade and an orator from New York City, music by a colored band, and the Colored Quadrille will sing. Claribel was here to the other one. It was before you were married. I well remembered how shocked she was over the mingling together of blacks and whites..... how she said she despised Lincoln for signing the Proclamation....which we did not wonder at, as she had been taught that way.

Emancipation Day was celebrated by blacks in central New York during the first week of August. It commemorated the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation by President Lincoln in 1863, the abolition of slavery in New York in the summer of 1827, and the abolition of slavery throughout the British Empire on August 1, 1834. It was held in different central New York cities and villages each year. In 1896, it was in Penn Yan on August 4th. The Yates County Chronicle reported: Residences and public buildings were gaily decorated with bunting in honor of the celebration of Emancipation Day by the colored people in this village. The early trains brought some of the guests and every train during the day added to the numbers. There were no less than 500 out-of-towners, some more gaily bedecked than Solomon in all his glory. A huge parade formed at the corner of Elm and Liberty Streets at 2 p.m., proceeded down Liberty St. to Head St., up Main St. to Clinton St., up Clinton to Benham, down Jacob St. to Main, out East Main and then back to the Courthouse Park. The parade included black organization leaders on horseback, “colored bands” from Syracuse and Elmira, the Penn Yan Cornet Band, the local Sloan Post of the G.A.R. (Civil War veterans), Yates County fire departments, Penn Yan’s political leaders in carriages, and “Miss Harriet Jackson as the Goddess of Liberty”.

Exercises were held at the bandstand in the Courthouse Park and included music, a reading of the Emancipation Proclamation by Miss Eunice Frame of Penn Yan, and a major address by Charles W. Anderson. The Penn Yan Democrat reported: Very seldom have the people of Penn Yan been privileged to listen to as able and eloquent an address as that delivered by the Hon. Charles W. Anderson yesterday. Anderson was from New York City and was the President of the Afro-American Republican Organization. He was later described by President Theodore Roosevelt as “the colored Demosthenes”. His address was described in the newspaper as “logical, witty, practical, and eloquent. At the very first he touched a responsive chord by asking the audience to draw nearer the stand, adding that it was now the tendency of mankind to draw nearer each other as men and brothers.” In the speech, he made the point that the two races have more in common than what divides them. He said, “The Negro is bound by such strong bonds to the white race that as they began together in this country, so they must end. While slaves, the whites were also slaves. Were you not slaves when even you of Penn Yan had not freedom of speech south of Mason’s and Dixon’s line? When men in commercial life at the north were afraid to touch slavery to its harm, lest they alienate their Southern trade? Were they not slaves? The two races stand or fall together. Their fealty is to the same flag, they worship the same God, they owe equal service.”

At 4 p.m. there was a baseball game at the fairgrounds between two black teams, the Casinos of Elmira and the Keystones of Ithaca. The game had to be ended early with one team leading 9-0 due to “differences occurring between the members of the two clubs.” That evening there was a concert and a Grand Emancipation Ball at the Sheppard Opera House on Main St. which continued well into the morning hours The next day there was an excursion on the steamer Mary Bell on Keuka Lake. It was quite a celebration.

There were at least two other Emancipation Day celebrations in Penn Yan, in 1892 and 1905. At that time in history, race relations were getting uglier throughout the country, Jim Crow segregation, lynchings, etc. It is nice to see that at least on these occasions, Yates County put on a progressive face and countered the trend.

by Rich MacAlpine

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