In 1932, a Black man was killed in the Adirondacks. An artist aims to honor him
Back in 2004, a mysterious collection of photos anonymously appeared at the Adirondack Experience, a museum in Blue Mountain Lake. They were taken in 1932 and show a dead, Black man tied to a toboggan surrounded by three white men.
Doreen Alessi-Holmes, the museum’s collections manager, said she was speechless when she first saw the photos.
"It’s very troubling to look at the propped up corpse of a human and people just sort of standing around like ‘yeah, sure, take our photo with this trophy,’ and I don’t know that that’s what they were thinking, but that is how it plays today when you look at those photographs," said Alessi-Holmes.
Now the museum is trying to unravel the mystery behind those photos and is partnering with a Black artist to bear witness to what really happened back in 1932.
Alessi-Holmes helped determine the general location where the Black man was killed, a place that can be accessed by an old logging road in the central Adirondacks near Newcomb.
On a warm, late summer day, Alessi-Holmes and her husband Shane Holmes, a licensed outdoor guide and IT specialist for the Adirondack Experience, led artist Keith Morris Washington down the logging road.
Washington is an artist and professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design whose work includes landscape paintings and portraits. More recently, Washington's work has explored Black identity in America, using art to highlight the violence that Black people have faced over the centuries.
For one project, titled "Within our Gates," Washington paints landscapes of lynching sites around the US. It’s what brought him here, to the Adirondacks.
"For me, part of this is to go to the places to bear witness, because it really is, for me, about honoring the memories of the victims," said Washington.
In this case, the victim was a Black man who encountered two white men in these woods in March 1932. According to historical records, they went their separate ways, but the two men reported the Black man to the police. A few days later a larger group tracked him down, a gunfight ensued, and the Black man was killed.
As Alessi-Holmes walked down the logging road, she pointed out features in the landscape, obstacles the man must have had to endure while he was being tracked down by the group of white men.
"As we’re moving forward keep your eyes on that ridge ahead of us because that is the Dunbrook Range and it’s an intimidatingly high and steep mountain and I just can’t imagine climbing up over that in the winter."
Washington will paint this landscape, but not the violence that occurred here. His pieces focus more on the natural features of the place, the beautiful and sublime aspects of it. He uses a series of "squiggle marks" to paint lush green grasses, tall trees, and wispy, blue skies.
His artistic process is more a tribute to life than to death. "Even when I’m painting, I’m not thinking about the tragic nature of the person’s life," said Washington, "but really trying to think about the ways in which I’m honoring the person’s life and documenting their history."
Another person who’s been working to document the history of what happened in these woods is Eliza Jane Darling, an anthropology professor and former public historian for Hamilton County.
"This is the history of our region and we need to understand what happened and we certainly need to establish facts," said Darling, "but in the second place, I think there is a question of social justice and justice for this man.”
Darling has poured over the police and coroner’s reports, piecing together what really happened over those few days in March. She’s also read articles about the manhunt and the man’s death, which made national news at the time.
Darling said the sensationalized media back then is similar to the racist stereotypes Black people still face to this day.
"The headlines that this made could have been taken from today’s headlines, they really could have," said Darling. "You know, the over-estimation of the man’s threat, the dehumanization involved in calling him a ‘wild man,’ the fact that his body was left exposed, the fact that someone called the police when there didn’t appear to be any crime having been committed."
Darling wrote two articles for Adirondack Daily Enterprise in 2021 (part 1 and part 2), laying out what she learned about the killing. According to records, the man is buried in nearby North Creek. Darling hopes one day to determine the identity of the man.
Near the end of the old logging road, Alessi-Holmes pointed out something fluttering atop some wildflowers. “There’s an American beauty butterfly over there right now and it’s on a plant that’s locally called pearly everlast."
The Adirondacks are a place of deep wilderness and a lot of beauty, but they’re also a place where prejudice and racism still exist. Artist Keith Morris Washington said that is still evident here today.
"As I was driving in yesterday, I saw a New York license plate and a Confederate plate underneath it," Washington explained. "It’s just like, yeah, you can’t get away from that kind of ignorance, I’ll put it that way kindly."
At the end of the road, Washington stopped to take a few photos and reflect on the experience.
"As I was walking to this place I was, in a sort of broad way, thinking about the victim and sending my thoughts to make a great painting for this person who we don’t know their name yet, even, so there’s a bit of a solemness to it," said Washington.
Washington's goal is to make a "beautiful painting of a location that has a tragic history to it." The Adirondack Experience will have the option to buy the piece and add it to its collection, putting more of the Adirondack’s history on display.