When Harvey Griffin became a member of the Monticello Fire Department in 1875, he was the only African-American living in the village, and one of just a handful in all of Sullivan County.
In 1930, when the population of the county was just over 35,000, and the area stood poised on the brink of its Golden Age, census figures reveal there were 91 African-Americans living here. That’s just over one-quarter of one percent of the population.
As the resort industry began to grow, and especially once year-around resorts became popular in the 1940s and ‘50s, more and more African-Americans became permanent residents here. By 1980, as the Golden Age was becoming a distant memory, the number of blacks in the county had grown to 4,385 or nearly seven per cent of the total population.
This relationship between the evolution of the resort industry – and in particular the advent of the Golden Age – and the increase in the number of African-Americans in the county is well documented in a noteworthy 1998 publication entitled “Seeking Our Fortune in the North,” by Dr. Myra B. Young Armstead of Bard College. It is one of the few dedicated studies on the subject.
“The African-Americans who came to populate Sullivan County between 1930 and 1980 were largely of southern origin,” Armstead concludes. “In the words of one, ‘We were seeking our fortune in the North.’ For the most part, they found what they wanted. Apparently mostly from economically depressed towns and rural areas devoted to agriculture, they were pleased to make new homes in the communities of the Borscht Belt. In their new setting, they enjoyed the familiarity of small town life, the beauty of the mountains, the plethora of jobs – albeit mainly unskilled – in a then healthy tourist economy, a degree of upward occupational mobility, relatively progressive racial attitudes, and the satisfaction of developing new and autonomous black institutions.”
Armstead notes that Fallsburg hotels such as the Brickman and the Irvington were in the forefront of extending employment opportunities to African-Americans, a notion borne out by the fact that the town of Fallsburg has traditionally been home to a larger number of African-Americans than any other Sullivan County town. She wrote:
“Brickman hotel chef Sam Marin– who worked in Florida during the winter – was largely responsible for that establishment’s use of southern black seasonal workers after 1951 or so,” she writes. “Marin informed the hotel owner, Ben Posner, of the availability of laborers from the western Georgia/eastern Alabama area and of their need for work. Posner then facilitated these workers’ arrival in the county by sending them transportation monies. Very quickly, what began as a trial engagement of a dozen or so of these migrants ballooned within a few years to the regular summer employment of over 90 individuals.”
Ben Posner, grandson of the hotel’s founder and, with his brother Murray, a longtime owner of the Brickman, confirmed most of this shortly before his death in June of 2008 at the age of 93.
“Sam Marin was the executive chef at my hotel for 29 years,” Posner said. “In the early 50’s, during the winter, Sam worked in Miami Beach. It was there that he met several African-American men who worked in the kitchens of the Miami hotels.
“When he asked me to employ these men, I sent them money for transportation to my hotel. They had to drive straight through from Miami to South Fallsburg, because restaurants and motels in the South would not feed or accommodate them.”
Armstead estimates that beginning in 1950 through its close in the 1980s, the Brickman’s average summer staff of 300 was typically one-third African-American. Most of these workers were employed in the kitchen or as maintenance workers, she writes.
“It is true that in the ‘50s most of the Blacks we employed worked in the kitchen and in the maintenance department,” Posner agreed, “but over the years, we had African-American waiters and busboys, bellhops, office staff, chauffeurs, entertainers and musicians, cooks, chefs and bakers, as well.”
Of course, not all African-Americans worked in the hotels. Armstead notes that many of the women who first arrived here found work as domestics. Others took jobs in one of the several commercial laundries operating in the county in those days.
“Harold Kronenberg, former owner of the Woodridge Steam Laundry, which operated from roughly 1938 to 1990 and serviced the area hotels, recalled that in the boom years his business required 100 employees, 70 to 75 per cent of which were black. Most of these were female.”
By the 1960s, African-American women especially had made forays into a number of occupational fields, including postal work, switchboard operation, nursing, and teaching.
That is not to say that there wasn’t resistance to these advances, Armstead points out.
“Even in the hotels where blacks regularly found employment, throughout most of the period, perhaps as late as the 1970s, one of the most coveted jobs in the area hotels because of the potential accumulation of tips associated with it – that of waiter – were ‘closed to Negro people,’” she writes. “Apparently, these prized dining room positions were monopolized by young white students, wisely squirreling money away to pay for college expenses, while the often less lucrative kitchen, maintenance, carhop, and bellhop positions were open to blacks.”
This resistance was eventually broken down, and by the end of the time period covered in her study, Armstead writes, African-Americans had gained access to virtually all avenues of employment.