We are sharing Syracuse #BlackStories to show that our city has a history of incredible people with powerful stories honored and memorialized in our streets, buildings, and landmarks. This series shares the story of the forward-looking heroes and heroines through time who have shaped our city and the world over.
Syracuse #BlackStories: Sarah Loguen
Sarah Marinda Loguen Fraser witnessed a traumatic event when she was 23 and it would shape her contributions to the world of medicine forever. The eldest of her siblings after both parents passed, and the daughter of abolitionists, Sarah was accustomed to great responsibility. When she witnessed a boy injured in an accident and saw the ineffective response of onlookers, she vowed to become a doctor and help others.
Sarah was admitted to Syracuse University School of Medicine, currently known as State University of New York Upstate Medical University, that same year after months of apprenticeship with their family physician. She became the first woman to earn a medical degree from Syracuse University, the fourth African-American woman to become a licensed physician in the United States, and when she moved to the Dominican Republic became the first licensed woman to practice medicine there.
Her 1873 enrollment in medical school was celebrated by the local community but the lives she saved, the midwives she taught, the care she provided in Syracuse and the Dominican Republic is still celebrated today, more than 100 years after her practice began.
Syracuse #BlackStories: Langston McKinney
Langston McKinney is a chemist, a US Army veteran, a judge, and a 75-unit apartment complex. The latter of the list is more appropriately an honor bestowed by city residents but it demonstrates that one person can shift the balance of justice by striving to be true to their oath.
Judge Langston McKinney was born and raised in Miami, Florida and attended Howard University graduating in 1965. He completed a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and was recruited to become the first Black scientist in the Research and Development Division at Carrier Corporation in Syracuse. McKinney worked there until he enlisted in the US Army and benefitted from the G.I. Bill to attend Syracuse University College of Law.
Judge McKinney told the Southside Stand in an interview that there were four Black students in his incoming class and five Black students total in the law school in 1968 when he entered. But his curiosity to learn more, do more, and help others drew him into life-changing experiences for himself and Syracuse residents.
In an interview with Onondaga Historical Association, McKinney describes his excitement in his studies and early practice. he discovered that “you could do magical and wonderful things with this thing called the law,” he said. Among those magical things, he formed a civil rights research council which enabled him to help residents in Albany, Georgia fight voter suppression. He later graduated and went on to work in legal aid helping residents in what is now Pioneer Homes. With his help, tenants developed a framework for tenants rights and received legal assistance from McKinney both while he was at legal aid and when he went on to partner at his own firm Maye, McKinney & Melchor. He did this at a time when there were only four Black lawyers in the city of Syracuse.
When appointed to his first term as judge in 1986 by Mayor Tom Young, McKinney felt deeply that judges brought with them to the bench the sum of all the experiences that they’ve had. But what happens to the application of the law when judges and prosecutors lack lived experiences with racist conduct—either explicit or systemic? Judge McKinney so believed in fair and balanced law, he once ruled that there was such a racial disparity between the population of Syracuse and Onondaga County, that jury selections should be drawn from the city to truly reflect judgment by one’s peers in the community.
Judge McKinney was a young man whose curiosity for justice provided legal assistance to an entire community for generations as a lawyer, a judge, and a mentor. The naming of McKinney Manor, 18 buildings on 10 acres of land, is a small demonstration of the impact that 24 years as a city court judge has had on bestowing justice and care on others. On the bench, McKinney developed the Syracuse Community Treatment Court to provide treatment to defendant drug abusers facing nonviolent crimes as an alternative to jail; advocated for more inclusive representation on city juries; and spent countless hours working outside of the courtroom with youth and neighborhood groups, schools, churches and nonprofit boards. Judge McKinney is famously known for saying that justice is not contained to the courtroom but is a community effort. It is an effort that is both long-lasting in the heart of the city and in the heart of its residents.
Syracuse #BlackStories: Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten is a Grammy Award-winning folk singer, self-taught musician, and is remembered in a park marked by a monument on the city’s south side.
Lizabeth affectionately known as “Libba” was the granddaughter of freed slaves and the youngest of five children in a hardworking family. When Libba was 11 years old, she bought her first guitar at Sears and Roebuck for $3.75. Her unique left-handed style was marked by Libba playing the guitar with “all finger down strokes” like a banjo which was called “Cotton picking.” That style, though it was put to rest for nearly 50 years, eventually influenced countless musicians. It was at the time that she began playing, when she was 11, that she wrote her most famous song “Freight Train” but it wasn’t recorded until much later with Pete Seeger and became an American classic.
Libba Cotten, like many, tried to quiet her passion at the behest of others and to focus on the responsibilities of being a mother and a wife. At one point she was even forbidden to play secular music by her religious peers.After she married her husband, she focused on building a family and working as a cleaner, washing woman, and domestic aid. It wasn’t until she was separated and moved to Washington D.C to be near her daughter that she met the Seegar family—a family full of musicians with a home filled with instruments—that she began playing again. It was with their support that she began performing in concerts and festivals nationwide.
Libba’s career and music changed the trajectory of her life but not her convictions nor her roots. Her lyrics and melodies were tales about her life in the South and resonated with many. In the later half of the 1950s, after she had begun making recordings of her songs, her collection later became the album Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar, which was released by Folkways Records. After the release, Cotten’s songs traveled around the world and even caught the attention of British songwriters Paul James and Fred Williams who stole the copyright of her famous “Freight Train.” Libba never stopped fighting to be credited for her work. It was with the help of friends like the Seegars that the copyright was restored and Libba was partially compensated for her art.
Libba Cotten was honored wherever she went.The Grateful Dead produced several renditions of her songs as did other musicians like Joan Baez the Beatles. She was made a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Performance all in the later stages of her life. She was even honored by the Smithsonian Institution on her 90th birthday and had her guitar inducted into their collection after she passed.
When her statue was unveiled at Libba Cotten Grove in 2012, the Bob searing of the Onondaga Historical Association said that Cotten’s story had exceptional value for young people and was a testament to determination and perseverance against all odds. In her personal life, LIbba went on to earn her GED in her 80s and purchased a home in Syracuse.
When Syracuse dedicated the Libba Cotten Grove in November of 1983, Libba was the present to not just be honored but continue giving and sharing her music. According to syracuse.com, the then 90 year-old musician climbed the stairs of the outdoor stage to stand with the sixth-graders there to sing for the occasion. The chorus serenaded her with “Freight Train.”
Her songs and personal story have demonstrated that we all can leave a legacy no matter the age or circumstance. Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was named Syracuse’s first Living Treasure, an award which recognizes this community’s greatest asset, its people. The Libba Cotten Grove, a Syracuse Park, is at the corner of South State and Castle Streets, is a living memorial to this unique Syracusan.
Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten Statue – View photos of the dedication.