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Borderland Blacks: Two Cities in the Niagara Region during the Final Decades of Slavery

Author(s):Broyld, dann j.
Reviewer(s):Wellman, Judith

Published by EH.Net (September 2022).

dann j. Broyld. Borderland Blacks: Two Cities in the Niagara Region during the Final Decades of Slavery. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2022. xii + 296 pp. $45 (hardcover), ISBN 978-0-8071-7706-8.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Judith Wellman, Professor Emerita, Department of History, State University of New York at Oswego.

 

In Borderland Blacks: Two Cities in the Niagara Region during the Final Decades of Slavery, dann j. Broyld creates a detailed and fascinating study of the interconnected communities and shared experiences of people of African descent in two cities near the US-Canada border: Rochester, New York, and St. Catharines, Ontario. “Black inhabitants of each city possessed transnational identities,” he argues, and “the national divide did little to hamper the shared culture and interests in the area.” Borderland Blacks “embraced a common struggle that transcended location and nationality.” In “this robust Niagara zone,” Blacks “transformed borders intended to be restrictive into flexible borderlands, which paved the way for increased self-agency and autonomy in shaping the trajectory of their own lives.” (pp. 15-17, 20)

Broyld’s focus on borderland follows the ground-breaking work of scholars such as Karolyn Smardz Frost, Veta Smith Tucker, et al. in A Fluid Frontier: Slavery, Resistance, and the Underground Railroad in the Detroit River Borderland (Wayne State University Press, 2016) on the importance of borderlands for the Underground Railroad. Historians have also used the borderland concept to explain the experience of many Native peoples. Most useful for upstate New York is Alan Taylor’s The Divided Ground: Indians, Settlers, and the Northern Borderland of the American Revolution (Vintage, 2007), which uses the concept of borderland to explain the situation of indigenous peoples in what became western New York and Upper Canada. For both Native Americans and African Americans, the concept of borderland helps us understand how communities of marginalized people transcended national boundaries and used that leverage to expand control over their own lives.

Broyld divides his work into four chapters. His initial chapter, “Setting the State for the Journey,” gives background on the Underground Railroad and legal, social, and political similarities and differences in New York State and Upper Canada that made the Niagara Frontier a “fluid frontier.” In chapters two and three, he focuses specifically on Rochester and St. Catharines. In his final chapter, “A Border that Divides but Also Unites,” he expands on his point that Blacks were able to transform the border to their own advantage.

Broyld grounds his narrative thoroughly in primary sources, especially newspapers from Rochester and St. Catharines, augmented by autobiographies and other materials. These sources yield richly detailed information about specific people and events, powerfully supporting Broyld’s borderland thesis. Focusing on neighborhoods where people of African descent lived, local institutions, cultural celebrations, work, and Underground Railroad activities, he convincingly argues that Blacks in both Rochester and St. Catharines maintained regular ties with people of color across the international boundary, a trend that escalated in the 1850s. While both cities shared similar patterns of transportation (including canals and railroads), economic development, and culture, Broyld argues that they differed in one key feature: “Black Rochesterians insisted on being integrated into the white mainstream, while Blacks in St. Catharines preferred the separation and safety of their own established community.” (p. 32)

Broyld chose Rochester and St. Catharines because, he argues, they formed the most important Underground Railroad nodes in the Niagara Frontier borderland. Taking his cure from Frederick Douglass, he suggests that these two cities were “the last stops on the Niagara branch of the Underground Railroad.”

Rochester and St. Catharines were certainly important Underground Railroad communities, enhanced by the presence of Frederick Douglass in Rochester and Harriet Tubman in St. Catharines. But Broyld is unconvincing when he argues that elsewhere “in central New York, the American-Canadian border hardly played a role in day-to-day life.” Broyld needs further evidence, for example, to support his contention that Buffalo “lacked the cultural intensity and abolitionist activities found in Rochester, and it was polluted by slave catchers.” (p. 23) And Broyld downplays the importance of Syracuse, ignoring the direct rail connection between Syracuse and Niagara Falls and the direct canal route from Syracuse to Lake Ontario via Oswego, suggesting instead that “Syracuse’s lack of a direct connection to the Great Lakes, leading to Canada, or even a major tributary to the lakes, reduced its transnational relevance.” (pp. 24-25) “Essentially, Buffalo and Niagara Falls were too near the international border,” he suggests, “and Syracuse was too far from Canada on the ‘outer borderlands’ to act as dynamic mediators of American-Canadian interchange.” (pp. 24-25)

While much work remains to be done to document African-American life in other borderland communities, preliminary research suggests that, in fact, Rochester and St. Catharines were similar in many ways to other cities across a larger area. Cities such as Syracuse, Oswego, Auburn, Buffalo, and Niagara Falls on the US side and Niagara Falls, Hamilton, Toronto, and Kingston on the Canadian side had strong Black communities, strong biracial Underground Railroad networks, and easy access both to water and rail transportation (the latter becoming especially important, as Broyld notes, after completion of the Niagara Falls Suspension Bridge to carry trains directly between the two countries in 1855). Further research will test how well these communities fit Broyld’s definition of the Niagara borderland as made up of “human connections” and “shared culture and interests” that transcended the international border. (p. 15). Broyld himself suggests this possibility when he features both Jermain Loguen (who escaped from slavery in Tennessee to become “king of the Underground Railroad” in Syracuse) and Harriet Tubman (who escaped from slavery in Maryland to become a landowner in Auburn), both of whom regularly crossed the border into St. Catharines.

With its strong base in primary sources, well-organized descriptions of African American life in Rochester and St. Catharines, and powerful depictions of individual Black residents, Broyld has made a convincing case for the importance of transnationalism in both Rochester and St. Catharines. This book is an essential contribution not only to borderland theory but also to the history of the Niagara Frontier and to emerging scholarship on the Underground Railroad in an international context.

 

Judith Wellman is Professor Emerita in the Department of History at the State University of New York at Oswego. Her publications include The Road to Seneca Falls: Elizabeth Cady Stanton and the First Women’s Rights Convention (University of Illinois Press, 2004), Brooklyn’s Promised Land: The Free Black Community of Weeksville, New York (New York University Press, 2012), and research on the Underground Railroad, abolitionism, and African-American life in the Syracuse and Niagara Falls areas.

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Subject(s):Historical Demography, including Migration
Servitude and Slavery
Social and Cultural History, including Race, Ethnicity and Gender
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):19th Century