BLK in the ADK

As the national reckonings regarding racial inequities, police brutality, and inclusivity in outdoor spaces expand, the Adirondacks — the largest park in the contiguous United States and a predominantly white space with a notable history regarding anti-slavery efforts — seeks to make its 6 million acres a more welcoming experience for all.

a black hiker

As Clifton Harcum began to climb Baker Mountain near Saranac Lake in the Adirondacks, fears entered his thoughts. Climbing the mountain was a new experience for Harcum, who had just started a new job in the area as the program coordinator for the Division of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at State University of New York Potsdam. He and his family moved to the area in the early stages of the pandemic. He enjoyed jogging and doing trails, but the more he learned about the health problems caused by Covid-19, the more it spurred him to improve his health and get in shape.“I didn't want to get sick. Nobody knew what was going on, “ Harcum says. “And I wanted to make sure I was healthy for my family.”

But as he trekked up Baker Mountain, fears about safety increased. “You think of all kinds of stuff as a Black person in the mountains,” Harcum says. Those fears range from getting hurt to encountering animals, or even encountering other people who might cause harm. With each step, Harcum’s fears grew louder in his mind, preventing him from going forward and prompting him to head back down the mountain. As he retraced his steps, he met a white man going up the mountain who seemed friendly.

Harcum worriedly asked the man, “Do you mind hiking with me?”

The man agreed to go up with him. As they climbed and chatted, they found a common bond in being former athletes and made their way to the top of the summit. But they didn’t talk about George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, or even Central Park birder Christian Cooper. Harcum avoided those kinds of conversations. He grew up in Baltimore City and says he feels privileged to experience the beauty of the Adirondacks and that it makes him a stronger and better man. He’s hiked more than 40 mountains and more than four hiking challenges and hopes to do more in the future. “I like the challenge, and the serenity, and the peace, and just experiences that a guy from Baltimore City would never have access to,” he says.

Clifton Harcum and his son

Clifton Harcum has hiked in the Adirondacks with his son and has felt the surreal beauty of the area even though he is one of the few people of color that hike in the park. Photo courtesy of Clifton Harcum.

Those same qualities serve as a draw to many who visit the area. Located in the northern rural region of New York state, the Adirondack Region borders the Adirondack Mountains to the south, the Canadian border to the north, Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence Seaway to the west, and Lake Champlain to the east. It comprises 6.1 million acres, including more than 10,000 lakes and 30,000 miles of rivers and streams. It includes 12 counties, multiple universities, more than a dozen state correctional facilities, and is home to the largest remaining intact, temperate deciduous forest ecosystem on the entire planet.

Around the time Harcum scaled Baker Mountain in 2020, the community he and his family joined was wrestling with how to respond to the national reckonings regarding racial inequities, police brutality, and inclusivity in outdoor spaces. About 1 million people reside in the Adirondack Region. About 91% of those identify as white, barely 2% as Black, and less than 1% as every other race or ethnicity. Visitors and residents of color have long shared anecdotes of racist encounters, including one involving Aaron Mair, an Adirondack resident and the first Black president of the Sierra Club. The area also earned press for a town’s refusal to allow a street painting spelling out “Black Lives Matter” on the pavement.

But residents of the Adirondacks such as Pete Nelson also have witnessed people working to make this area more welcoming to people of color. Nelson, an educator, activist, and co-founder of the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, has worked to illuminate the socioeconomic and racial diversity issues in the Adirondacks. In 2015, he helped co-found the Adirondack Diversity Initiative, a volunteer-run coalition of organizations and individuals who develop and promote strategies to help the Adirondack Park become more welcoming and inclusive for all New Yorkers. In May 2019, New York State announced that $250,000 of its 2020 budget would go to the ADI as part of the $300 million Environmental Protection Fund. This allowed the hiring of a new director and the expansion of its initiatives and outreach efforts.

The cofounder of ADI, Pete Nelson

Pete Nelson, co-founder of ADI, has spent the last 3 decades helping to diversify the outdoors, especially the Adirondacks, is in charge of the Community Policing Initiative to help ease the relationship between the police and the community. Photo courtesy of Pete Nelson.

Part of that work includes acknowledging the area’s history. “The whole concept of this park and the wilderness and the rules that govern and how it’s protected, how it's written about and how people have looked at it throughout history, all from the lens of white privilege,” Nelson says. As an example, he points to a reform effort by members of the Malone Police Department located in Franklin County that dismissed people of color and other issues informed by bias in their town. Members of the department presented the plan in January 2021, and community members immediately criticized it. In the report, the department praised their French-Canadian and Irish connections in the police and community and framed Black people as “transient,” claiming they moved to the area to be close and visit incarcerated family members and then left. The report stated members of the department could not find any evidence of “racially or otherwise discriminatory actions toward any villagers.” The instant backlash to the report ensured it was scrapped and replaced with a new one.

In fact, the role of the police and police departments also features in the work being done in this area. In response to the national and international outrage regarding police misconduct, 18 days after George Floyd’s death, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed Executive Order #203 which stated:

“Urgent and immediate action is needed to eliminate racial inequities in policing, to modify and modernize policing strategies, policies, procedures, and practices, and to develop practices to better address the particular needs of communities of color to promote public safety, improve community engagement, and foster trust.”

The law required each police agency in the state to take part in a process to create a police reform plan, which would be overseen by whichever local government has jurisdiction over that agency. They would then create a commission or a group of people from the community and police to talk about police reform and help build this plan. Through these conversations, reports and plans would be created and submitted to the state by April 1st, 2021. Police agencies in the Adirondacks started scrambling. Luckily, the Adirondack Diversity Initiative had been thinking about a policing program prior to Executive #203. The Executive Director of ADI, Nicky Hylton-Patterson, started her job in December of 2019, and within a few months faced a pandemic followed by a summer of nationwide unrest. Hylton-Patterson focused her attention on the relationship between the police and those within the Adirondack area.

She, along with Nelson, helped launch the Community Policing Initiative. Its goal is to: “To strengthen the relationship between police agencies and the Adirondack communities they serve with specific focus on eliminating racial disparities that disproportionately harm Black, Indigenous (and) People of Color (BIPOC) and other marginalized residents and visitors by engaging in a positive process that affirms the importance of police agencies in realizing communities are safer, healthier and free of racism and inequity.” Of course, this initiative is informed by more than the police brutality toward and intimidation of people of color and their communities. The school-to-prison pipeline, poverty, education inequities, and the wealth gap inform ideas of criminal behavior and play critical roles in the stereotyping of people of color. Although the national reckoning regarding police brutality directed at communities of color led to calls for defunding the police, Hylton-Patterson wants to shift the focus from abolishing the police to transforming the systems that have plagued these communities for generations.

But these events highlight current struggles in an area with a long history of estranged relationships involving Black people, the police, and the outdoors, and that history stretches back to slavery. In 1788 New York passed legislation banning the slave trade, but not slavery itself, within the state. New York also was expected to follow national laws such as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793, which authorized local governments and allowed slave hunters to capture and return escapees to their owners and imposed penalties on anyone who aided in their flight. New York slowly moved toward ending slavery with the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery 1799, which allowed for the freeing of slaves (but only for those born to a slave mother after July 4th, 1799) and required enslaved people to finish indentured servitude to their owners based on sex: 25 years for women and 28 for men. Slaves born before the 1799 date remained in servitude with the designation of indentured servants.

The Executive Director of ADI, Nicky Hylton-Patterson

Nicky Hylton-Patterson, Executive Director of ADI, wants to find ways to help the relationship between the police and people of color within the Adirondacks. Photo courtesy of Nicky Hylton-Patterson.

Author Sally Svenson’s Blacks in the Adirondacks: A History chronicles the impact of these laws on the region: the “proportion of free Black to slaves in the Adirondack region rose rapidly after the law took effect.” Cities such as Plattsburgh went from 35 slaves in 1799 to no slaves and 58 free Black people. Eventually, by 1817, New York passed legislation to ban slavery altogether by July 4th 1827, making it the first state to pass a law for the total abolition of slavery.

Residents of the Adirondacks held conflicting views on slavery. As Svenson documents in her book, The Plattsburgh Republican, (the Clinton County newspaper), published anti-Black views such as “implicitly endorsing segregated schools, disparaging a Whig as a ‘pretend Negro-loving personage,’ and declaring of a plan for educating black girls that it smells badly.” But residents during the same time took part in anti-slavery endeavours. Counties such as Clinton and Essex were highly in favor of pro-suffrage votes for Black men. Essex County had numerous anti-slavery towns such as Jay, Moriah, Ticonderoga, Crown Point, and North Elba. One of the most risky and dangerous of these anti-slavery endeavours was participating in the Underground Railroad. In fact, the Adirondacks became a passageway for freedom for many slaves from the South, thanks to its proximity to Quaker communities in Vermont and the accessibility to Canada by canals and Lake Champlain.

During this time, Timbuctoo became a settlement for Black people in the Adirondacks. In 1821 the passage of New York State’s second constitution required that free Blacks own $250 (up from $100) worth of real estate ($8,000 by today’s standards) in order to vote while also abolishing this requirement for white men. The law disenfranchised nearly every Black citizen within the state, infuriating the New York State politician Gerrit Smith, an ardent abolitionist and suffragist. Smith proceeded to divide 120,000 acres of his land in the Adirondacks near North Elba, N.Y. and give it to any interested free Black person. Eventually more than 3,000 Black people accepted Smith’s offer and moved to this new land. The abolitionist John Brown, who eventually led the raid of Harper’s Ferry a decade later, purchased land near the settlement to help with the new arrivals.

gerrit smith

Gerrit Smith, abolitionist and philanthropist, social activism went beyond Timbuctoo as in 1859 Smith joined the Secret Six, a group of influential northern abolitionists, who helped the famous John Brown in his efforts to capture the armory at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, and start a slave revolt. Courtesy of Library of Congress, Wikimedia Commons

solomon northrup

Solomon Northrup was a free Black man who grew up in Minerva in Essex County. He was offered a traveling musician job in Washington D.C. were he was eventually drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery. The movie 12 years a Slave is based on his life. Photo courtesy of Frederick M. Coffin (engraved by Nathaniel Orr), public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

poster warnng

An April 24, 1851 poster warning the free Black people of Boston about policemen acting as slave catchers in response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 that made it legal for slave catchers to bring back escaped fugitives from the North back to the South. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

But the optimistic gesture failed. Getting to North Elba proved difficult, and the land was rocky and infertile, which required settlers to cut down evergreen trees in order to plant crops. Many of the Black people who came lacked farming experience or the tools to work. In addition, the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which served as a stronger version of the 1793 bill, forced citizens to assist in the capture of runaway slaves. It also outlawed these fugitives from testifying on their behalf and a trial by jury. If citizens refused, they earned fines and even jail time for their lack of cooperation. The act also introduced judge-appointed commissioners to issue warrants to slave catchers and U.S. marshals to capture suspected fugitive slaves.

These slave catchers are intertwined with the emergence of police in the United States. There were different reasons for the conception of police in the North and the South. Michael A. Robinson’s article “Black Bodies on the Ground: Policing Disparities in the African American Community” explores how policing today is a direct consequence of the hunting of Black people during slavery and the terrorizing of Black communities. Robinson writes, “Slave patrols are considered the first real advance toward modern-day policing and were charged with policing enslaved Africans and free Blacks.” They were in charge of enforcing laws, surveilling, and controlling the movement of enslaved populations. In the late 18th to early 19th century the North experienced a population boom thanks to urbanization and an increase of immigrants from countries like Germany, Ireland, and England, and police departments were created as a solution to controlling the growing population. The formation of the police in the North and South was, as Robinson put forth, a way “to protect the financial interest of the wealthy,” either for the ruling class in the North or the wealthy plantation owners of the South.

About 1 million people reside in the Adirondack Region. About 91% of those identify as white, barely 2% as Black, and less than 1% as every other race or ethnicity.

Ultimately, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 created chaos in Upstate New York communities. Not all white citizens within the area felt compelled to help their new Black settlers. In Blacks in the Adirondacks, Svenson describes how white people in the area “overcharged for or even refused to sell supplies to the settlers” and eventually many white citizens left. By 1850, only 13 Black families remained in the area, and by 1871, only two remained.

The troublesome and violent history continues to inform the lives of people of color today. Harcum remembers an incident from one day when he left work and was driving in Watertown, N.Y., wearing his suit and getting a feel for his new community in 2018. He recently landed a job at Jefferson Community College after leaving a position as director of University Engagement and Lifelong Learning at University of Maryland Eastern Shore located in Princess Anne, Maryland. Driving through the unfamiliar northern New York area, he began to notice a car following him, a police car. The car followed him for a while, getting close, going in front, and then finally pulling him over. The officer left his vehicle, hand on his gun, and approached Clifton’s car.

“What’s going on,” Harcum says he remembers thinking.

When the officer reached Harcum’s window, he claimed he couldn’t see the tags and that the car, a BMW X3, was “coming up as stolen.” The officer started asking questions about Harcum and his car and then asked for license and registration. While Harcum reached for his papers, he told the officer where he worked, and the officer’s attitude changed. The officer continued to ask questions but seemed much calmer as Harcum held out his license and registration, waiting for him to take it.

Before they stopped talking, Harcum asked the officer, “Do you still need my information?”

“No,” the officer responded (even though he stopped him because he suspected Harcum had a stolen vehicle).

Harcum atop a mountain

Clifton Harcum grew up in Baltimore City and says he feels privileged to experience the beauty of the Adirondacks and that it makes him a stronger and better man. Photo courtesy of Clifton Harcum.

Raised in Baltimore where he describes the interaction between the police and the community as “estranged,” Harcum says the interaction with the officer at Watertown shook him. “The only time I ever felt really threatened was that time when I was in Watertown,” he says. “Because I didn't know what was going on. He had his hand on his gun, and I actually thought at that moment, ‘I'm about to get killed by the police.’”

Even those whose jobs involve educating and protecting state parks experience similar acts of bias. Angela Crenshaw, a ranger and the area manager at Gunpowder Falls State Park in Harford County, Maryland, uses her role to share the natural, cultural, historical, and recreational resources to visitors. She also enjoys providing the frameworks of African American History, slavery, the Undeground Railroad, historical segregated beaches in Maryland, and the untold history of Frederick Douglass and his connection to Baltimore. But she remembers a time when she was camping alone and police arrived at the campsite because they smelled marijuana. She became uneasy as she understood the cops suspected her of doing it. But she refuses to allow setbacks or micro-aggressions to derail her. “I understand that I'm probably going to be the only if not one of two or three other Black women in that wilderness area,” Crenshaw, a self-confessed nature lover, says. “It's just something that comes with wearing the skin.”

The Community Policing Initiative was created for those types of encounters. Hylton-Patterson wants to construct a bridge that connects police and people of color who either reside in or visit the Adirondacks with the goal of creating a safe and welcoming space. And for Hylton-Patterson, police officers play a key role in that work. “I don't believe in abolishing the police, I believe in transforming the entire system so that policing looks different, because they will be responding to a different kind of citizenry,” Hylton-Patterson says. “Our system has created the criminals that are being punished for the conditions that created them to begin with.”

To do that, she wanted to find a policing program that did not do diversity training but rather, offered strategies for transforming police officers. When searching, she found RENZ Consulting, LLC, which was founded by Lorenzo M. Boyd, Ph.D., who spent more than 13 years as an officer himself and has trained police officers for more than 20 years. Boyd’s and RENZ’s strategy is to talk with the community, allies, people of color, and even the police to get an understanding of the situation. They use those conversations to identify desired outcomes and work on steps to reach them. Boyd tries to help police officers build empathy, compassion, communication, and critical thinking skills in their training.

“We don't treat everybody in the police as being the same. We treat police officers very individualistically,” Boyd says. “And we train internally, we talk about biases, we talk about prejudices, we talk about thoughts that they have about things. And we try to abandon the idea of building a better cop. We try to build a better person, and then usher them into policing.”

“No one is stopping me from enjoying this experience. You know, Confederate flags and all. Racist and all. I'm gonna do what I want to do, you're not going to stop me from doing what I want because you're ignorant.”

Boyd wants officers to understand the history of people who collectively have had traumatic experiences, a “community of trauma.” If a police officer knows these triggers, then they can use an approach that avoids them. The training includes three, week-long, eight-hour-a-day sessions over nine months. Each day features between 15 to 20 cops from different agencies around the Adirondacks, such as the Potsdam Village Police Department and the Lake Placid Police Department. The first session happened in early May, and the next session happens in the fall.

Boyd also wants police officers to understand the “racial battle fatigue” within Black and brown communities and to possess a better perspective and cultural competency in their interactions. “When they see you, it has nothing to do with you. Sometimes they're just triggered because of other negative stuff in policing,” Boyd says. “So if they can kind of back off and be a little more empathetic as they deal with people, then that's a step forward.”

Harcum still enjoys being in the wilderness and nature and seeing the “beauty of God’s creation” during the summer. He continues to hike up mountains and trails and says that overcoming obstacles along the way has made him become a stronger man and an overall better person. He has done Youtube videos on the Black experience in the Adirondacks, written articles, and been interviewed about life in the Adirondacks. Having his face out there has led to people being interested in hiking with him and having tough conversations with a person of color, an opportunity which many had never had before. “No one is stopping me from enjoying this experience,” Harcum says. “You know, Confederate flags and all. Racist and all. I'm gonna do what I want to do, you're not going to stop me from doing what I want because you're ignorant.”

Land Acknowledgement

Our pursuit of outdoor joy is remiss without the acknowledgement of the occupation of unceded Indigenous land. We are students and journalists working, writing, and living on the land of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, comprising the Six Nations made up of the Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations. However, acknowledgement is not enough. Read More.