Seeking Our Fortune in the North: March 2021

“Seeking Our Fortune in the North” Available Again
by John Conway

HURLEYVILLE – An important booklet documenting the history of one of the earliest migrations of African Americans into Sullivan County is available again thanks to Myron Gittell and his Load N Go Press.

Mr. Gittell has reprinted the 1998 booklet, “Seeking Our Fortune in the North” by Dr. Myra Young Armstead, with profits from the sale of the booklet going to the Sullivan County Historical Society and Museum in Hurleyville and the Sullivan County chapter of the Association for the Study of Afro-American Life and History.

“Seeking Our Fortune in the North” is an academic study highlighting the relationship between the evolution of the resort industry and the migration of African Americans from the American South into Sullivan County in the 1950s, and focuses on the town of Fallsburg, where Dr. Armstead grew up.

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,” Dr. 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.”

Dr. 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.

“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.”

Dr. 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.

Of course, not all African Americans worked in the hotels. Dr. 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, and by the end of the time period covered in her study, she writes, blacks had gained access to virtually all avenues of employment.

Mr. Gittell says the book will be available at the Kristt Company in Monticello, Canal Towne Emporium in Wurtsboro, and at the Hurleyville General Store. Sale price is $10.