by diane Janowski ©
Elmira, New York's African-American community did not come in great numbers until after about 1840, although some early settlers brought free blacks and slaves. In census records of 1820, two prominent Elmirans owned thirteen slaves between them. Slavery was finally abolished in New York State in 1827, so there were no slaves listed in the 1830 census, but instead were listed around 300 "free colored people." Some Elmira churches took a moral stand against slavery in 1840, and, after which, African Americans began arriving. Most had come up the Underground Railroad from the South - fugitives from slavery and poverty. In Elmira, New York they found friends and benefactors. By 1860 there were 60 black households.
“Slabtown” developed around 1850 - never important enough to warrant discussion in local histories. That may have been due to the inarticulate humility of its citizens. Nevertheless, it sent forth champions of culture, brilliance. Occupations in Elmira for blacks ranged from railroad workers, canal workers, and farmers. By 1870, there were masons, barbers, and grocers. Schools were open to African American children and literacy was improving among the older African Americans.
The setting of this small gem was then the geographical center of Elmira, New York, bounded north by the Lackawanna Railroad, east by Lake Street, south by Clinton and west by the Chemung Canal - later old State Street.
The name “Slabtown” was not an implication of disrepute. In its heyday it could not in any sense be called a slum. The name originated in the peculiar structure of a few of the older homes there. Instead of framework of 2 x 4s, the building was much like a box with 12-and 14-inch boards guaranteed to last a century. This singularity of construction was covered outside by customary siding and inside by wallpaper. No air space. The homes thus built often stood side by side with a modern home of beautiful proportions.
Settled by Ex-Slaves
Slabtown’s main streets were Dickinson, Benjamin, and Baldwin Streets. In the 1840s and 1850s the first settlers of the area were former slaves of the deep South. They were peace-minded with the characteristics of culture originating in Georgia, Mississippi, Louisiana, and the Carolinas. They were holiday-conscious, genial, and generous. They were good neighbors.
The heyday of Slabtown was contemporary with the old Iron and Steel Rolling Mills, Hope-Jones Organ factory, Gutenberg and Rosenbaum Company, and the Chemung Canal. It was also the time of the Underground Railroad - a name for the aid given to southern slaves in their efforts to gain freedom in Canada. The generous hospitality of freed slaves who gathered in Slabtown welcomed the hard-pressed fugitives and gave them needed aid and encouragement.
These people were wonderful and religious. They built four churches in that compressed area- the AME Zion Memorial, the Bethel African Methodist, the Union and the Monumental Baptist Churches. A Temperance Hall began in 1896 on Dickinson Street, and in the 1907 City Directory, a "Colored YMCA" listed the same address. The Elmira Industrial School benefited the black community with schooling in industrial work. The AME Zion and the Bethel churches were razed in 1952 to make way for the (John W.) Jones Court housing development.
The Old Industries
Slabtown is not even a shadow of its one time glory. Early settlers worked at the Rolling Mills, the Fitch and Aldrich Lumber Company, the H.C. Spaulding Lumber Company, the silk mills, the Chemung Canal, Briggs Brewery, and Brown Brothers Moulding Company.
The area saw a few important events. The most spectacular of these was the Rolling Mill fire at midnight on February 12, 1907. The buildings housing the Mills extended from Fifth Street to Washington Avenue. At the height of the fire came a shrieking wail from the very heart of the fire - the little donkey engine, in the midst of the flames, had developed a full head of steam. This was Elmira’s biggest fire to date.
Celebrating the Fourth
July 4th provided an annual celebration on the grounds of old Elmira Free Academy - now Ernie Davis Middle School. The celebration consisted of generous donations of candy, firecrackers, and the "greasy pole" and "greasy pig."
The African-American Elite
On balmy evenings Mr. and Mrs. Jeremiah George of Dickinson Street gathered with the neighbors telling stories of slavery days. “Mister” was more than a sobriquet; rather a title of nobility that distinguished gentility of well graduated victims of slavery.
Another “Mister” was Mr. Isaac Collins. He lived at the corner of Fifth and Dickinson in an old frame house that threatened to cave in from old age. Every Memorial Day he donned his black fedora complete with cord and tassel, the breast covered with medals, most of which were really his, and he took his honored place in the Memorial Day Parade to Woodlawn Cemetery to help decorate the graves of his comrades. He had been freed from slavery in 1862 and had joined the Grand Army of the Potomac.
Today’s Slabtown is nothing of its former self. Its settlers are gone and only a handful of residents still live in the area. The large homes of the upper class, to which many of the residents were employed as "house help," remain as huge apartment houses in less than perfect condition. Chemung County's 2000 demographics show an African-American (and mixed African-American) population of 6,067 citizens or 5.82% of the county.
Visit the John W. Jones Museum Website