Monday, January 28, 2013

In the Good Old Wintertime

As we move closer to the midpoint of winter and snowflakes flutter to the ground, it seems to be a good time to reflect on the ways Schenectadians have embraced the winter and its attendant outdoor joys. Whether you love or hate winter, we hope you'll enjoy these photos of winters gone by in Schenectady, from the library's photograph collections.

Ice skaters frolic at Central Park, ca. 1916. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

This seven-foot-tall Schenectady "snow lady" was formed following a 17-inch snowfall in February 1952. Photograph from Larry Hart Collection.

Local boys maneuver rafts of ice in Central Park, , ca. 1920. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

The blizzard of 1888 dumped three feet of snow on Schenectady. Here, you can see mounds of snow piled nearly twice as  high as the men standing at left. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Strolling through Crescent Park, near the turn of the twentieth century. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Horse racing on the Erie Canal near the locomotive plant. Photograph from Grems-Doolittle Library Photograph Collection.

Young men playing hockey, ca, 1926. Photograph from Walter S. Kokernak Collection.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

"Not a mass of servile blackness:" Area African-American soldiers in the Civil War

26th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops Regimental Color. It features a gold embroidered oak wreath encircling the words "U.S. Colored Troops". The motto reads "God and Liberty." Image via New York State Military Museum website ( 

"Not a school of boisterous apes, as they will tell you who deny the negro human attributes; not a mass of servile blackness that meets you with bended knee and eyes downcast, but nearly two thousand intelligent athletes - living bronze statues of Hercules, who have had the fortitude to flee oppression or possess the courage to battle against it . . . you expected to behold a great unwieldy collection of Jim Crows and Robert Ridleys, grinning unmeaningly out of the Government blue, but your scarecrow proves to be a living, thinking man -- your effigy gives palpable proof of being something human."
- New York Times reporter's impressions upon seeing the 26th Regiment, United States Colored Troops, in training - 28 Feb 1864

The United States Colored Troops (U.S.C.T.) were regiments of the United States Army during the Civil War comprised of African-American soldiers. African-Americans were first authorized to be employed as combat soldiers in the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and the formation of African-American soldiers into regiments under state designations was officially begun later that year. By the end of the Civil War, the United States Colored Troops' 175 regiments supplied about one-tenth of the Union Army's manpower.

A recruiting poster directed at African-American men during the Civil War. It refers to efforts by the Lincoln administration to provide equal pay for black soldiers and equal protection for black POWs. The original poster is located in the National Archives, Records of the Adjutant General's Office, 1780's–1917, Record Group 94.

In addition to the dangers that all soldiers faced during the Civil War, African-American soldiers also faced mistreatment and discrimination based on their race. African-American units were not used in combat as extensively as they might have been; African-American troops were often assigned the jobs of cleaning latrines, constructing fortifications, digging trenches, and loading and unloading wagons and ships. The camps of African-American regiments were at times plundered by white Union troops. African-American soldiers were paid $10 per month from which $3 was automatically deducted for clothing, resulting in a net pay of $7. Meanwhile, white soldiers received $13 per month from which no clothing allowance was drawn. In June 1864, after protest from both whites and blacks, Congress granted equal pay to the soldiers of the U.S.C.T. and paid the soldiers retroactively.

New York State was credited with 4,125 men in the U.S.C.T., and many African-American men who enlisted in New York joined the 20th, 26th, and 31st regiments of the U.S.C.T. In terms of numbers, New York contributed about 2% of the U.S.C.T. soldiers; over half of the soldiers who served in the United States Colored Troops were from the Confederacy-led south.

Among New York's contributions to the United States Colored Troops are two men buried at Vale Cemetery: William Childers and Jared Jackson.

William Childers was born in Tennessee. In the early 1860s, he was living in Ballston and working as a waiter. He enlisted on December 19, 1863 and served as a private in Company F of the 26th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry. Notes in his service record indicate that he served in the action of July 1964 at Bloody Bridge, St. John's Island, South Carolina. After the war, he moved to Schenectady, where he worked as a coachman and a hostler until his death in 1890 at the age of 49. He is buried at Vale Cemetery. His name is included on the African American Civil War Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Mil 545 - Certification that William Childers, "a colored recruit," mustered into the Union army and was credited to the 5th Ward of the city of Schenectady.

Jared A. Jackson grew up in a farming family in Bethlehem, New York. He enlisted on December 14, 1863 and served in Company H of the 26th Regiment, U.S. Colored Infantry. He entered service as a private and was appointed as a corporal in August 1864. Soon after the war, Jackson moved to Schenectady. He and his wife, Hannah, lived in Schenectady, where Jackson was employed as a laborer. He died in 1888 from tuberculosis and chronic liver disease and was buried in Vale Cemetery. His name is also included on the African American Civil War Memorial.

You can learn more about the role of African-American troops in the Civil War this Saturday, January 26, when Dr. Allen Ballard, a Professor of History and Africana Studies at the University at Albany, will give a talk entitled "African-American Troops in the Civil War" at the Franchere Education Center at the Mabee Farm. Details are below -- we hope to see you there!

Lecture: "African-American Troops in the Civil War"

Speaker: Dr. Allen Ballard

Date: Saturday, January 26, 2013

Time: 2:00 p.m.

Location: Franchere Education Center, Mabee Farm Historic Site, 1080 Main Street, Rotterdam Junction, NY 12150

Cost: $5.00 admission – Free for SCHS members              

Dr. Allen Ballard will trace the role of African-American troops during the Civil War. As part of his presentation, he will read a selection from his historical novel, Where I'm Bound, which fictionalizes the experiences of an African-American regiment in the Union Army.  Ballard is a Professor of History and Africana Studies at the University at Albany. He is the author of two non-fiction books, The Education of Black Folk and One More Day's Journey: The Story of a Family and a People, two novels, Where I'm Bound and Carried By Six, and, most recently, a memoir entitled Breaching Jericho's Walls: A Twentieth-Century African American Life. Ballard's articles have appeared in scholarly and popular journals, including the New York Times Magazine.

Monday, January 14, 2013

"A Magazine Offering Comment on Schenectady's Sophisticated Side": The Schenectadian

Campaigners march down State Street on the cover of the November 1933 Schenectadian, drawn by Walter Reagles. Notice the Nicolaus Restaurant's parrot in the background. From the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.  

There are many interesting local periodicals that have been published over the years. One of the most interesting -- and certainly the most cosmopolitan -- is The Schenectadian, a very New Yorker-esque magazine published from 1933 to 1935. From burlesque show reviews, commentary on wrestling, and a narrative of sailing down the Klondike Ramp in a wagon to analysis of local politics, discussion of up-to-the-minute fashions for women and men, and modern poetry, The Schenectadian captured the "high" and the "low" of culture in Schenectady during the era, and did so with humor and style.

An eye-catching subscription notice in an early issue of The Schenectadian by an uncredited artist. "You may prefer to see her in a grass skirt or a full beard, but those things take time and money. Just remember that she is doing her best and so are we." From the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.  

Walter Reagles remembered that he, along with Milton Enzer, the director of Union College's news bureau, and GE employees Kenneth Patrick and Ross Lindblom, "felt the need of a local magazine which contained a metropolitan point of view" and set out to create a magazine that "imitate[d] the style of the New Yorker." Reagles was at that time the art director at General Electric. The team published the first issue of The Schenectadian in October 1933. The Schenectady Gazette described it as "a magazine offering comment on Schenectady's sophisticated side." The magazine continued to be published monthly through at least May 1935.

Illustration by James Gisondi from The Schenectadian. From the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.  

Illustration by Mary Sauter from The Schenectadian. From the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.

The Schenectadian presented a clever, urbane look at local politics, local history and personalities, theatre, community events and social news, movies, radio, and concerts. Other pieces in the magazine explored the worlds of the city's bars and burlesque shows (under the heading of "Sin and Sociology"), and an ongoing series of articles traced the effects of the Depression and New Deal efforts locally. The magazine also included fiction and poetry, and offered reviews of the fashions available for purchase at local clothiers such as the Lady Lee Shop, the Evelyn Shop, Gelber's, and the Vanity Fair Shop, as well as department stores such as Barney's, the Wallace Company, and the Carl Company. Readers were encouraged to send in reminiscences for a "Do You Remember?" column, and the "Dorplets" column provided a tongue-in-cheek look at all aspects of life in Schenectady. Walter Reagles' "Vignette" series highlighted local people from William "Buck" Ewing, catcher for the Mohawk Colored Giants baseball team, to Monsignor John Reilly, to police officer Thomas William Walsh. Another semi-regular feature, "Business Women," written by Frances Travis, profiled women in local business and government. In ubiquitous sprinklings throughout the magazine, The Schenectadian also poked fun at ill-worded headlines from local papers such as the Schenectady Gazette and the Schenectady Union-Star.

Sketch of a burlesque dancer by Dora Abrahams from The Schenectadian. Abrahams (later De Vries, then Mathieu) moved to New York City and had success as an illustrator. Her work was published in the New Yorker, Life, Vogue,  and Glamour. A Schenectady native, she credited Walter Reagles with "discovering" her and encouraging her as an artist. From the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.

Like the New Yorker, The Schenectadian also provided a showcase for talented cartoonists and illustrators. Artists such as Dora Abrahams, James Gisondi, Edwin Sauter, Mary Sauter, Walter Reagles, Bradley Wilson, Howard Blanchfield, and James Barstow were regularly featured in the magazine. Many of the artists whose work was featured in The Schenectadian worked in the General Electric Company's art department.

The cover of the June 1934 issue of The Schenectadian, by Edwin Sauter, is a satirical sign of the times during the Depression; new graduates go from diploma to shovel to work on Civil Works Administration (CWA) projects. From the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.

Illustration by Bradley L. Wilson from The Schenectadian. From the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.

This sketch of Mohawk Giants catcher William "Buck" Ewing, drawn by Walter Reagles, accompanied  a vignette written about Ewing. It appeared in the November 1933 issue of The Schenectadian. From the collections of the Grems-Doolittle Library.

The Grems-Doolittle Library has several issues of The Schenectadian available for researchers to view. A complete listing of issues in our holdings is provided below. Please contact Librarian Melissa Tacke (; 518-374-0263, option 3) if you have issues of The Schenectadian not listed that you are willing to donate.

The Schenectadian
Vol. 1, No. 1 - October 1933
Vol. 1, No. 2 - November 1933
Vol. 1, No. 3 - December 1933 / January 1934
Vol. 1, No. 4 - February 1934
Vol. 1, No. 5 - March 1934
Vol. 1, No. 6 - April 1934
Vol. 2, No. 1 - May 1934
Vol. 2, No. 2 - June 1934
Vol. 3, No. 1 - November 1934
Vol. 3, No. 2 - December 1934 / January 1935
Vol. 3, No. 3 - February 1935
Vol. 3, No. 4 - March 1935
Vol. 3, No. 5 - April / May 1935

Monday, January 7, 2013

Shifting Definitions of Race and Citizenship: The Case of Shankar Gokhale

"I am neither an American citizen nor a British subject, but a man without a country, an outlaw of the world, having been punished in this way for my unpardonable crime of pledging my allegiance to the only flag which at one time had offered to treat me as a 'free white person.' But . . . the Supreme Court of the United States, the bureau of naturalization and the Department of State decided otherwise."
- Shankar Gokhale, speaking to Schenectady's Hindustan Club in 1926 about his citizenship fight

Shankar Gokhale was a resident of Schenectady for over fifty years. Schenectady County made Gokhale a citizen in 1920; only a few short years later, the United States Supreme Court declared his citizenship invalid. The story of Gokhale's personal struggle illustrates the changes surrounding ideas of race and immigration in the 1920s.

Shankar Laxman Gokhale was born in 1869 in Wai, India. He earned two master's degrees from the University of Calcutta in physics and chemistry, and was awarded prizes for having the highest overall academic average as well the highest average in physics. In India, he served as a professor and as President at Holkar College. He was dismissed from his position under suspicion of engaging in seditious activity, although no evidence of seditious activity was discovered by the police. He came to the United States in 1911 and almost immediately moved to Schenectady, where he worked for General Electric as a magnetic engineer, working with Charles Steinmetz, L.T. Robinson, and others. His wife Uma and older children joined him in Schenectady in 1922; the couple had three more children born in the United States. Gokhale would continue to work for GE until his retirement in 1933.

Gokhale was also active in political and religious life in Schenectady. He was a founding member of the Sociology Club (also known as the Economic Club) and the Schenectady Free Thought Society. He frequently spoke publicly about unemployment, comparative religion, and Indian customs, culture and history. Although he worked closely with many Socialists in the Sociology Club, he did not consider himself to be a Socialist and sought to debate Socialists at any opportunity, publishing letters to the editor seeking public debates in the Schenectady Gazette as well as in The New York Call, a Socialist newspaper published in New York City. He also spoke several times about the life and teachings of Jesus; although he had not converted to Christianity, he was interested in the study and discussion of religion and taught a Bible class at the First Congregational Church. He and his wife were also members of the First Methodist Church's Golden Age Fellowship. He died in Schenectady in 1962.

In 1969, Gokhale's son, Madhu, a 1927 graduate of Union College, established the annual Shankar Gokhale Prize at Union College.  The prize is, according to the college's website, is awarded to a "senior in engineering, preferably in the five-year program with the second major in economics, judged to have the greatest potential for community service in the area of mathematical approaches to economic problems." A Shankar Gokhale Prize was also established the same year at Indore University in India.

The story of Gokhale's struggle for citizenship begins with the story of how the United States has defined which foreign-born residents could become citizens. The Naturalization Act of 1790 restricted naturalization to "free white persons" of "good moral character," thus excluding Native Americans, indentured servants, slaves, and free African-Americans. Nearly a century later, the law expanded to grant citizenship to African-Americans. Asians were excluded from becoming naturalized citizens.

Although Asians were excluded from naturalization, South Asians from India were not always considered to be Asian and were considered to be Caucasian or white under the law. In 1913, Akhay Kumar Mozumdar became the first Indian-born person to earn U.S. citizenship; his case established a legal precedent that people from India were technically "Caucasian" and thus should be considered white and eligible for naturalization.

Gokhale became a naturalized citizen in Schenectady County in 1920. "The question was raised whether or not it was advisable to admit him, as his wife and two children are still in India and his wife cannot speak English," reported the Schenectady Gazette on Gokhale's case. Gokhale reiterated his intention to make the United States his home and assured the examiners that his wife would soon begin study of English and would not join him in the United States before she had some command of the language. He was then naturalized. Further, the definition of Gokhale as Caucasian, and thus white, seemed to be reflected in his racial identification by New York State and Federal Censuses workers; Shankar Gokhale was defined as being "white" in the 1915 NYS Census and 1920 Federal Census. Interestingly, following the changing immigration and naturalization laws, Gokhale and his family were defined as "black" in the 1925 NYS Census, and thereafter defined in Federal Censuses as "Hindu," which was used as a racial term rather than a religious one.

This shift came in part from a landmark 1923 Supreme Court ruling in the case of Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh and veteran of World War I. The court found that, despite being anthropologically Caucasian, Indians were not white and would be considered Asian. This ruling stripped all previously-naturalized Indian-born people -- including Shankar Gokhale -- of their U.S. citizenship, as prosecutors argued that Indian-born immigrants had secured their citizenship illegally.

Following United States v. Thind, the Immigration Act of 1924 (Johnson–Reed Act) further codified the exclusion of members of certain racial and ethnic groups from immigrating to the United States. It was passed amid an atmosphere of xenophobia and fear of the changing face of American demographics; the Office of the Historian of the U.S. State Department has described the law as an attempt to "preserve the ideal of American homogeneity." The law severely restricted the immigration of Southern and Eastern Europeans and completely prohibited the immigration of Asians. South Asians were finally explicitly permitted to become naturalized citizens under the Luce–Celler Act in 1946. Racial distinctions were not completely eliminated in naturalization and citizenship law until 1952, under the Immigration and Nationality Act (also known as the McCarran-Walter Act).

Gokhale fought hard for his citizenship following the Thind case. In 1926, Senator David Reed of Pennsylvania introduced a resolution that would confirm the naturalizations of Indian-born persons prior to the Thind decision. The resolution would affect about 70 Indian-Americans. Reed arranged for a hearing before the Senate Committee on Immigration at which a number of Indian-Americans were called to demonstrate "the high character and intellectual achievement of most of the Hindus who have become naturalized citizens." Gokhale gave his testimony, answering questions about his work, family, and his political involvement. In the end, Reed's resolution was tabled. In United States v. Gokhale, the Circuit Court of Appeals found that Gokhale "was not in fact eligible for naturalization . . . for he is concededly a Hindu, and under that case a Hindu is not a white person as the statute defines that phrase." In 1928, the Supreme Court moved to have the appeal of Gokhale vacated with the understanding that he would be permitted to regain his citizenship.

As Gokhale fought the United States government in the courts for his right to citizenship, he contrasted his treatment by the government with his treatment by people in Schenectady. "Justice Sutherland of the United States Supreme Court has now declared that the people of this country do not want any Hindus here, as they are instinctively opposed to the assimilation of Hindus," said Gokhale as he spoke to the Hindustan Club at the Hotel Van Curler. "My personal experience during the last 15 years is just the reverse. I have received the heartiest welcome from all my American friends and acquaintances." In another instance, a newspaper story dispatched from Washington, D.C. following the Senate hearing quoted Gokhale as speaking in broken English. One of Gokhale's Schenectady friends, Ben Levy, quickly wrote a letter to the Schenectady Gazette in Gokhale's defense. Levy explained that he had known Gokhale for over a decade and had heard him as a public speaker many times. "It is true, Mr. Gokhale lacks the characteristic pronunciation of English as used by the American born," wrote Levy, "but his exceptionally able command of English has been the source of favorable comment on more than one occasion. I truly wish that my English could be compared favorably to that of Mr. Gokhale. I am asking you to publish this as a matter of simple justice to a very exceptional man."