Why a black master musician chose North Elba for his home
Memories of London would seem an odd conversation topic for two Adirondack farmers in the 1850s. But suppose the friends found a moment to compare notes. You, too, saw the Thames? Well, I never! For one of them, the younger, the visit to the great city was the shining pinnacle of a career. For the elder, It was a bruising low point, a memorably dark night of the soul. But the rift in their experience of England was nothing next to what they had in common. Whether in London or North Elba, they were outsiders, curiosities. They stuck out.
John Brown, who in 1849* went to London to make his pile on a wool sale and instead got royally shellacked, stood out in that city not only for his broad Yankee accent, his lack of polish, his rustic garb, but for the blazing fervor of his abolitionist convictions (when he wasn’t watching his wool get auctioned off for pennies, he was trying bootlessly to convince rich English abolitionists to back his scheme to invade the American South).
As for William Appo, he stood out not simply because he was black—there were plenty of black Londoners in 1837—but because he was a black musician, a trained and prominent one, touring London with a combo so favorably regarded that he and the four other members of Francis Johnson’s band were invited to perform for the newly crowned Queen Victoria. Five “Self-Taught Men of Colour” (as the London Morning Post put it) knocking out Mozart and Bellini from their rented rooms on Regent Street and the Royal Surrey Theatre! The “American Minstrels” were the toast of the city, the first musical ensemble of its kind, black or white, to perform abroad.
Race, or strong feelings about race, not only gave Brown and Appo common cause, it was the reason they met. Each man would have been independently familiar with the abolitionist sentiments of the New York speculator and human-rights activist Gerrit Smith; each would have followed reports in the black press about Smith’s ambitious plan to parcel out 120,000 acres in the Adirondack frontier to three thousand free black New Yorkers in 1846 and 1847 (see “Forty Acres and a Vote,” October 2001). Smith’s intention was to encourage black city dwellers to get out of crowded slums and settle on freeholds of their own, and, in so doing, to make it easier for them to vote (from 1821 to 1870, a black male New Yorker had to show proof he owned $250 worth of taxable property to gain access to the franchise). So impressed was John Brown with this well-intentioned (if finally failed) scheme that in 1848 he bought a small North Elba property near an enclave of “Smith grantees,” aiming not only to work his farm but to help the homesteaders launch their new lives.
We know about John Brown. But what do we know about the other man who that year also bought North Elba land from Gerrit Smith? The nineteenth-century black historian Martin Delany described composer and performer William Appo as “the most learned musician of his race.” Why, in 1848, did Appo buy a farm in
North Elba? What motivated him?
On the face of it, Appo seems to have had nothing to do with the fledgling black colony known locally as Timbuctoo. He was not one of the “grantees”—he couldn’t be; he wasn’t qualified. When the grants were handed out he wasn’t living in New York, and in any case, he wasn’t hard up enough. He owned property. He had skills, prospects, a career. He only settled on his farm in any permanent way after he retired; most of the time he seemed to use it seasonally. Indeed, the late North Elba town historian Mary Mackenzie liked to describe him as “the first summer resident in Essex County.” Appo, she observed, would have had nothing socially in common with the hardscrabble world of the typical Smith grantees, many of them only a generation’ out of slavery. As an Appo family genealogist, Joseph Romeo, has revealed, William Appo’s father, St. John Appo, an immigrant from Haiti, owned several buildings in Philadelphia and was a confectioner and fruit seller. And if St. John Appo wasn’t rich enough to protect the family from hard times and bankruptcy on his death, he was certainly connected, his family well entrenched in Philadelphia’s black social elite. William Appo, privately educated, could play the violin. All manner of brass instruments. Cornopeon (valve cornet). Piano. Spoke and taught French too.
In 1824, when William Appo was sixteen, he and his brother Joseph joined a band led by the popular Philadelphia composer Francis, or “Frank,” Johnson. Johnson was married to William’s older sister Helen. Appo’s wife and Johnson’s wife ran a millinery together in the 1930s; a younger Appo sister adapted hymns to Johnson’s compositions (one historian reports that Ann Appo was the first African-American to perform on a church organ); and William Appo’s family moved in with the Johnsons when Frank died in 1844. The gifted families were close-knit.
Most likely you never heard of Frank Johnson, composer of three hundred tunes, the brilliant bandleader to whom a young Queen Victoria gave a silver bugle (at his thronged funeral procession, it rested on his casket). By the 1830s Johnson was the most acclaimed musician in Philadelphia, a sought-after scenemaker at events both black and white, “the inventor-general of cotillions,” one city diarist wrote in 1819. Socialites packed his stylish “Soirees Musicales.” From Richmond to Cape May, Paris to Detroit, Johnson and his band held audiences in thrall.
Band? Make that bands, plural: the protean Johnson led military marching bands, chamber music ensembles, string bands and full-bore fifty-piece orchestras. He wrote waltzes, polkas and cotillions. He played reels, dirges and quadrilles. He could do Mozart; he could do American popular music; he could do Strauss. Most every summer for twenty-three years he entertained the swells at Saratoga’s Congress Hall and United States Hotels (his was the first house band in the nation, it’s been said). Pedro Villarini’s oil portrait of Frank Johnson still hangs in a musty room of Saratoga’s Canfield Casino, along with a long-forgotten flyer announcing “Frank Johnson Day,” July 20, 1978.
Those Saratoga summers when Appo played with Johnson’s band help make sense of his interest in the Adirondack region. Perhaps, from Saratoga, the band ventured north to Lake George and Appo fell in love with the wild green prospect. But in the course of touring, Appo would have sighted plenty of fine country much easier to get to than North Elba, and he would have known of other black professionals with an affection for country life. Why buy land so far from any world he knew?
The answer may lie not in Adirondack history but in obscure notices in the city-based black. press. That’s where Appo’s slim biography gains a political dimension that helps explain his interest in the north woods. Appo may have traveled in tony circles bu he was, it turns out, no apolitical esthete. He read and sent money to an esteemed activist paper, The Colored American, and his wife, Elizabeth, worked on a fund-raising drive fo another black paper of note, Frederick Douglass’s The North Star. In 1839 Appo played a New York City concert to benefit the African captives of the Spanish slave ship Amistad—wrote a hymn for it too. In 1841 he was a delegate at a “Great District Meeting” for black Manhattanites working for political suffrage. And in 1843, only a few years before Gerrit Smith came up with the notion of giving away land, Appo was vice president of a large gathering of black antislavery activists in Troy, New York. The meeting was convened by Troy’s charismatic radical abolitionist minister, Henry Highland Garnet. The group passed resolutions to support a plan to send an African-American delegate to the World Anti-Slavery Society, in London. William Appo, who with his wife was living in Troy that one year, likely met a lot of people at that meeting, among them Thomas Jefferson and James H. Henderson, who would soon leave their Troy homes for a new life at Timbuctoo.
Garnet clearly made a powerful impression on the musician; Appo named a son Garnet and his grandson bore Garnet’s name as well. And when Henry Highland Garnet emerged as the most effective promoter of Gerrit Smith’s land distribution scheme, Appo would have paid heed. But what’s really interesting about Appo’s time in Troy is it occasioned his encounter with at least two men who would be his future neighbors, men from politically engaged families whose values he shared.
This is no small point. If Appo was a professional of great refinement with little in his curriculum vitae to suggest common ground with subsistence farmers like Henderson or Jefferson, he was also, no less than they, a black man in slave-owning America on first-hand terms with “negro hate.” Violent race riots wracked his home city of Philadelphia in 1829 and 1834. In Providence, hoodlums ganged up on Appo and his bandmates when they tried jamming with white musician friends. White bands refused to march with the Frank Johnson Band in parades. And one can only imagine the howls of rage that met Johnson’s integrated band concerts (first in the nation) in 1843.
On tour with Johnson’s band in the plantation ballrooms of Virginia, Appo would have seen slaves ministering to their masters’ every whim. At the United States Hotel, in Saratoga, he may well have encountered the gifted black fiddler Solomon Northup. In the Spa City Northup met the con artists who persuaded him to join a road show, then kidnapped, drugged and sold him into slavery for twelve desperate years. A free-born New Yorker and native Adirondacker, Northup never dreamed he was in danger. But when he told his story in his bestselling account, Twelve Years A Slave, his black readers got the message: No African-American, whether northern or southern, free-born or emancipated, was ever out of slavery’s long greedy reach.
Long after most of Smith’s grantees sold their lots, moved away, let the land go for taxes or simply died, Appo held on to his farm. (James Henderson froze to death in 1852 after talking up his Adirondack farm in a black newspaper in hopes of drawing more settlers to the region, and his friend Thomas Jefferson, John Brown’s teamster in 1849, moved back to Troy.) When Appo summered in North Elba, he taught music there too. John Brown’s family hired him for lessons, and he either sold or gave Brown a melodeon for his daughter Ruth’s wedding. Appo was a familiar presence at the Brown farmstead; when Brown himself could only manage to terrify a disconsolate granddaughter, she later recalled that Appo set her on a “rockee” and calmed her down. The year after Brown was hanged in 1859, Appo lived in the Brown homestead with eight others. And this too says something about his politics. It is unimaginable the staunchly abolitionist Brown clan would have countenanced a house guest who didn’t share its deep-felt political beliefs.
It is also hard to imagine Appo holding fast to his farm in the wake of three personal calamities: the execution of his friend Brown; the death of his young son William at the Second Battle of Bull Run, in 1862 (William had actually joined the army from North Elba in 1861, the first of three black North Elbans to enlist); and the death, a year later, of Elizabeth, his wife of twenty-five years and the mother of his first five children. But through all his winter stays in New York City or Burlington, New Jersey (where his daughter ran a music school), or Utica or Philadelphia, performing, sometimes publishing his music (“John Tyler’s Lamentation” is Appo’s one surviving composition), teaching voice, tuning pianos, getting by, William Appo cherished his Essex County aerie, at one point sojourning long enough to get listed in the 1860 Essex County census as a farmer and a music teacher with property valued at a hefty $450.
When Appo bought his land in 1848, the prominent New York City civil rights activist Charles Bennett Ray wrote his friend Gerrit Smith: “I am very glad Mr. Appo avails himself of your offer co purchase this Lot. I wish more such men would do in this like manner, and purchase thereabouts.” The abolitionist Ray wasn’t troubled by the social gulf between Appo and the Smith grantees. Appo was a catch—and not because he paid with cash. It was the gesture: Appo’s purchase of a 148-acre North Elba farm lot was proof that the cause of racial justice trumped the chasm of class difference. Cape May, had the sea breeze and Saratoga the springs, but North Elba had the beginning of a settlement called Timbuctoo. That Appo divided a portion of his land into small house lots and sold them to one Samuel Brown from Baltimore (the lots were not developed) further underscores his support of Smith’s settlement scheme—even if, in the end, more African-Americans of means did not “do in this like manner, and purchase thereabout.”
For Gerrit Smith and many of the black abolitionist leaders who tried and failed to encourage a migration of black pioneers to the “Smith Land,” North Elba finally registered as a bitter disappointment. But Appo loved the place from first to last. As for the much-bruited differences between him and the other homesteaders, they didn’t stop the retired musician from courting the young daughter of his neighbor Lyman Epps on the death of Appo’s first wife. Another Troy grantee, Epps cut a lasting swath through North Elba-helping found the local church, a singing school and Bible class, and volunteering as an inspector of elections and an overseer of a local road district. Like Appo, Epps was a loyal friend of the Browns. If he had better luck with his farm than other black grantees, it was probably because he knew to mix his crops and augment his income with music teaching and some guiding. Did it trouble him that his daughter Albertine was forty years William Appo’s junior? Whatever Epps may have made of it, the age gap clearly put no damper on the lovers’ ardor. Appo’s last child, Maud Epps Appo, was born in 1872 when he was sixty-four. She and her mother would hold on to the North Elba place until 1906.
As for “the most learned musician of his race,” he died in 1880. William Appo is buried with the Epps family at North Elba Cemetery. Not Philly, Baltimore, Manhattan or Troy, but North Elba. That was home.
Author’s correction (2021): John Brown went to England in August, 1849, not in 1848 as the article originally stated. And while Brown intended to buy his land from Gerrit Smith, it isn’t clear that he did. His good friend Smith may have decided to forgive this outstanding debt.