Professor Melissane Parm Schrems rediscovers and shares the history of African ties in the North Country that often goes unknown.
Many are not familiar with the individuals and communities of African descent who were integral to the founding story of the North Country. Their history and the contributions they made to the region are being rediscovered, taught, and shared by Melissane Parm Schrems, associate professor of history, coordinator of Native American Studies, and current Archie F. MacAllaster and Barbara Torrey MacAllaster Professor in North Country Studies.
“I am interested in the diversity of the North Country’s historical narrative,” says Schrems, who has taught at St. Lawrence for more than 15 years. “African American life in this region is one part of that diversity. I haven’t yet had a conversation about North Country history where I haven’t had a chance to introduce or explain the roles people of African descent have in the history of our region.”
Schrems incorporates her research into courses and directs students in projects she has designed to increase awareness of this North Country diversity. Her course, the History of African Americans in the North Country, is about more than teaching students history. It’s about teaching them to present the history to a wider, public audience that reaches beyond the campus. “I encourage students to present rather than preach their work to a volunteer audience, to reveal the inaccuracies in the narratives most of us think we know.”
One such project begins with students reading Sally Svenson’s Blacks in the Adirondacks: A History, as well as other books documenting African American history in New England. The students then create digital humanities projects showcasing the historical narratives of these North Country residents.
Students are often shocked, Schrems says, by the ethnic diversity of the region’s history when acknowledging the Iroquois as the first peoples. Added to them are the French, African, Caribbean, Dutch, English, and German peoples. “One group’s narrative does not replace the previous one,” says Schrems. “One group is linked to the others. The history of Colonel Louis Cook, an 18th and early 19th century Abenaki of African descent and adopted Akwesasne Mohawk military leader, is one example of the region’s diversity. Another is the Midwife of Fort de La Présentation.”
Schrems is dividing her time between three projects: the histories of African Americans in the North Country, the life and travels of David Parish, and the life of the Midwife of Fort de La Présentation. Fort de La Présentation was a fort built by the French in 1749 in what is today Ogdensburg, New York. The Sulpician missionary and the fort’s founder Abbé François Picquet was sent to solidify Catholic France’s relationship with the Iroquois in the face of Protestant English and Dutch interest.
“Picquet brought two enslaved people of African descent with him from France, one who was the architect of the fort, and one who served as the midwife,” says Schrems, who has served on the Fort de La Présentation board of directors. Schrems has chosen to focus on the midwife whose name is still unknown. “I’ve been intrigued with the midwife who took care of the Iroquois people in the settlement that grew up around the fort.” The midwife’s story draws on the ethnic, religious, business, social, and diplomatic histories of the region.
Schrems is also collaborating with Selina French, supervisor of St. Lawrence’s Costume Shop, on period dress that would reflect the style of clothing worn by the midwife at Fort de La Présentation. “Material culture is an important and useful way to communicate historical narrative to a broader audience,” says Schrems, who has presented lectures in period dress for effect. “My hope is that dressing in period clothing and interpreting the midwife’s North Country experiences will enrich the historical narrative of African-descended life in the North Country, thereby capturing the public’s attention to a greater extent than just my lecturing about it might.”
When asked why the many histories of Africans and people of African descent are absent from the history of the North Country, Schrems points to the Civil War and the national narrative that grew as a result of the Union’s victory. She explains how the North wrote the dominant historical narrative and cast themselves as the heroes and the South as the villains, assigning racism as a Southern failing.
“Of course, there was racism in the North. However, the North compared its expressions of racism to events in the South with the vast majority of Northerners absolving themselves of their complicity. ‘Not being racist’ evolved into rejecting ethnic diversity which excluded, among others, Africans and those of African descent from the dominant narrative. The myth of a monoracial, all-white New England and North Country persists. But in the real world, blacks were loggers, craftspeople, and entrepreneurs. They were clergy and they owned cure cottages. Their presence has been common in this region beginning in the 18th century,” she explains.
Schrems and her students are challenging this narrative and other racial assumptions with evidence from their research. Most important for Schrems, however, is teaching students that the motivations of African Americans living and settling in the Adirondacks and the North Country were in many ways the same for the early white settlers they are in today’s communities. “Everyone is chasing opportunities.”
The Archie F. MacAllaster and Barbara Torrey MacAllaster Professorship in North Country Studies was established in fall 2014 through the generosity of MacAllaster family members and friends to honor the legacy of Archie and Barbara MacAllaster, Class of 1950 and 1951, respectively. The position recognizes a faculty member who makes a three-year commitment to focus research on the North Country, as well as teach one course each semester that incorporates a significant focus on North Country-related history, issues, and events.
“I am grateful for the MacAllaster Professorship,” says Schrems, who was awarded the three-year term professorship in 2018. “It has allowed me to extend the timeline of African North Country presence all the way back to when this region was part of New France. It offers me and my students an opportunity to research the North Country through a wider historical lens.”