Upstream. A Mohawk Valley Blogzine.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Lemuel Smith And The Other Side Of Black History Month

I could easily write about Martin Luther King or Coretta Scott King, or Frederick Douglas’s magnificent speech at Rochester, New York, or how after preaching in a Black church in South Carolina in the 1940s my father was escorted to the edge of town and told by the police chief to never come back, or a whole host of other things for Black History Month.

But the fact is, where I live there is only one Black who has dominated our history, and that is convicted serial killer, Lemuel Smith.


Smith, a native of Amsterdam, is a frightening man and the killer of six people, including Donna Payant, the first and only female prison guard to be murdered in New York State. Judge John Clyne called Smith the “Poster Boy for Capital Punishment.” Smith terrorized this area for years. Not only was he a killer, he was a rapist and a thief.


I understand that Black History Month is about celebrating Black people who have not only advanced the lives of Black people, but the lives of all of us. Nevertheless, can we truly understand the Black Experience if we don’t try to understand Smith as well as King? Why is it that after forty years of Civil Rights, a young Black male is safer on patrol in Iraq than in Albany’s Arbor Hill or Schenectady’s Hamilton Hill?

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Union College Professor, Denis Foley, published a book on Smith a couple of years ago. The title is Lemuel Smith and the Compulsion to Kill: The Forensic Story Of A Multiple Personality Serial Killer. It’s a well-written but scary book. I recommend it, providing you have a strong stomach. Foley spent two decades corresponding with Smith and also interviewed him in person. What I like is the way Foley deals with the psychiatric aspects of crime.

Foley stopped on occasion and bought books at the book store I used to operate in Amsterdam. I sold his book in the store, and we talked about it a few times. He said that writing it was an emotionally draining experience.

I haven’t seen Denis for a few years. Currently he is involved in excavating the Erie Canal near Albany. The last time I talked to him he was writing a book on the Erie Canal. When writing about Lemuel Smith, Foley was going into uncharted territory. His challenge was to forge a relationship with Smith so that Smith would open up to him. He succeeded in doing that. His challenge in writing about the Erie Canal will be to tell us something that hasn’t already been said.

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