All posts by Russ Tarby

From Saratoga to slavery: Real-life nightmare lived by a 19th century New York state black man inspired new movie

Three up-and-coming black artists have combined to create a riveting film about slavery based on the 1853 autobiography of a free negro who lived in Saratoga Springs.

The result is 12 Years a Slave, now playing at Regal Cinemas at Destiny USA Stadium 17; 466-5678.

British director Steve Rodney McQueen, 44, produced the $20-million movie with a screenplay written by John Ridley, 48, a native of Milwaukee, Wisc. McQueen cast a talented English actor of Nigerian descent, Chiwetel Ejiofor, to star as Solomon Northup,

a real-life carpenter and fiddler who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.

Chiwetel Ejiofor from 12 years a Slave

 In the film, Northrup is transported to New Orleans, Northrup is forced to take on the identity of “Platt,” an escaped slave from Georgia. He’s purchased by a relatively benevolent plantation owner named Ford. After surviving an attempted lynching led by a racist carpenter, Northrup is sold to Edwin Epps (played by Michael Fassbender), a cruel Louisiana cotton-grower who believes his right to abuse his slaves is biblically sanctioned. For instance, he repeatedly rapes a young slave girl named Patsey (played by Lupita Nyong’o), and eventually forces a reluctant Northrup to whip the woman.

 In Louisiana, Northrup meets a Canadian laborer named Bass (played by Brad Pitt), who earns Epps’ displeasure by expressing opposition to slavery, but this convinces Northup to confide in Bass about his kidnapping. Northup asks for help in getting a letter to Saratoga Springs. Bass risks his life in taking such action in the South but agrees to do so.

 While working in the fields one day to break dirt for planting, Northup is called out by the local sheriff who arrives in a carriage with another man. The sheriff asks Northrup a series of questions to match him to the facts of his life in New York. Northup recognizes the sheriff’s companion as a shopkeeper (Rob Steinberg) who he knows from Saratoga and realizes the man has come to free him.

Though Epps resists and Patsey is distraught, Northup leaves immediately. After being enslaved for 12 years, Northup is restored to freedom and returned to his family, which now includes his son-in-law and grandson named Solomon. Endnotes recount the inability of Northup and his legal counsel to prosecute the men responsible for his being sold into slavery, as well as the mystery surrounding unknown details of his death and burial.

Richard Corliss of Time magazine heralds the film and its director by writing: “Indeed, McQueen’s film is closer in its storytelling particulars to such 1970s exploitation-exposés of slavery as Mandingo and Goodbye, Uncle Tom. Except that McQueen is not a schlockmeister sensationalist but a remorseless artist.” Corliss draws parallels with Nazi Germany. “McQueen shows that racism, aside from its barbarous inhumanity, is insanely inefficient,” he wrote.  “It can be argued that Nazi Germany lost the war both because it diverted so much manpower to the killing of Jews and because it did not exploit the brilliance of Jewish scientists in building smarter weapons. So the slave owners dilute the energy of their slaves by whipping them for sadistic sport and, as Epps does, waking them at night to dance for his wife’s cruel pleasure.”

The film earned McQueen a New York Film Critics’ Circle award as Best Director of 2013. The Film also won a Golden Globe Award  for Best Picture, January 12, 2014.

12 Years a Slave premiered at the Telluride Film Festival in August and has been widely lauded by critics. The film, released by Fox Searchlight Pictures, began its American run on Oct. 18 and is scheduled to be released in England on January 24, 2014.

A daunting challenge: What to do with Interstate 81? County Leg rejects boulevard idea favored by Van Robinson

Interstate 81 has cast a shadow over Syracuse since 1961.”Urban renewal” was the catchphrase of the day, and a vibrant city neighborhood known as the 15th Ward was the victim.

The 20-foot-high four-lane expressway created an imposing physical barrier between the mostly African-American residential area known as “The Bricks” and Upstate Hospital and the Syracuse University hill.

“It was a city divided,” remembers Syracuse Common Council President Van Robinson. “In fact, at that time I called it the ‘Berlin Wall.'”

Now, as I-81’s cement and girders slowly crumble under the weight of half-century of heavy traffic, transportation experts and municipal planners are re-thinking the highway that bisects the city. And they don’t want to make the same mistake twice.

Instead, they’re actively soliciting ideas and advice from the public about how to deal with the 1.4-mile stretch of I-81 that runs through the city.

The I-81 Challenge

They’re calling the decision-making process The I-81 Challenge, a community dialogue overseen by the New York State Department of Transportation (DOT) and the Syracuse Metropolitan Transportation Council (SMTC). Since 2009, The I-81 Challenge has hosted more than 40 small-group and focus meetings as well as three large-group meetings, including its most recent May 21 at the Oncenter.

While most of these meetings took place downtown, on May 1 more than 100 citizens and public officials turned out for an I-81 Challenge presentation at the Holiday Inn on Electronics Parkway in the town of Salina. Onondaga County Legislator Kathy Rapp (5th District-R) opened the meeting by recalling some of the bitter feelings created when I-81 suddenly wiped the 15th Ward off the map.

“When I-81 was first built in the 1960s,” Rapp said, “the biggest complaint heard was that there had not been enough public input. This time, Central New Yorkers have plenty of opportunity for input and you can continue to have input.”

Deb Nelson of the state DOT emphasized that the 1-81 process is “not yet at the project phase,” which she estimated to be “at least a couple years” down the road. At a county Legislature Planning Committee meeting in April, SMTC spokeswoman Meghan Vitale told legislators that the DOT wanted a decision by 2017. That could be just in time. Engineers believe that most of the deficient bridges in the primary study area will be seriously deteriorating by 2020.

Timetable TBA

Whatever the timetable turn out to be, the Federal Highway Administration will soon become involved, Nelson said. “So this decision will not be made in a vacuum.” To emphasize that point, SMTC Director James D’Agostino said that in 2012 more than 480 people attended The I-81 Challenge meetings and some 250 participated online at

The planners are considering five primary options: leave it as is, repair it, rebuild it as is, construct a tunnel or depressed highway, or create a boulevard running through the city. Going forward, the state will narrow those options to the ones most feasible and affordable. Then, the project would undergo federal and state environmental reviews before construction.

Discussions at previous I-81 meetings showed “no clear consensus,” Vitale said. Everyone could agree, however, that whichever option is chosen, it will cost a pretty penny. Its final price tag would fall between a low of $500 million to renovate the exiting viaduct to a high or $1.9 billion to build a mile-long tunnel through the city.

Funding such projects is “traditionally” shared by the federal government at 80 percent, state government 15 percent and local government 5 percent, D’Agostino said.

‘Boulevard’ under fire

On May 7, the County Legislature weighed in with its opinion by passing a resolution opposing the boulevard option. The legislators who introduced the resolution – including Rapp, a Republican, and Linda Ervin, a Democrat representing the 17th District – oppose the boulevard idea because it would “halt traffic flow with a series of traffic lights.”

Clay Republican Legislator Casey Jordan said a boulevard “would be a huge mistake…It would effectively eliminate one of the main attractions of living in this area: the ease with which you can get around the community.”

Van Robinson disagrees. Replacing the viaduct with a street-level boulevard would breathe life into the city’s shriveling urban core, he said, and I-81 could go around the city the way I-481 has done since 1970. Robinson, who founded the local chapter of the NAACP, has wanted to remove I-81 since he first arrived in Syracuse decades ago. He ignited the ongoing dialogue with public statements he made in 2001.

Circle the city?

Although Rapp helped write the recent resolution, she’s less concerned about the boulevard idea and more concerned about a possible re-routing of I-81 around the city.

“We have in front of us maybe one of the biggest planning decisions to face this county in the next 100 years,” Rapp said. “We’re asking planners at the DOT to be sure that we continue to have a federal highway coming through our city and not going around our city.”

The Legislature’s May 7 resolution states, “any solution which would remove I-81’s vital function from its present alignment would irreparably cripple the regional economy and corresponding employment which has grown up around the highway network.”

Rapp is specifically wants to protect the investments of businesses in her 5th District which located in Salina to be near I-81 exits and entrances. “I’m representing the concerns of my constituents,” she said, “people who have invested their life savings to locate their businesses near the highway. I’m trying to protect their interests.”

Deb Nelson from the DOT stressed that I-81 planners are closely examining how any changes would affect local businesses. “Economic analysis is a critical piece,” Nelson said. “We’ve made it a priority…We need more public participation because a lot of decisions need to be made.”

Two liaison committees established

In 2011, the SMTC and state DOT formed two new committees to strengthen communication channels throughout the Syracuse region. The Community Liaison Committee (CLC) is comprised of representatives from community organizations whose missions cover issues including the environment, social justice, local neighborhoods, education, civic engagement, urban design, business and economic development and housing. The Municipal Liaison Committee (MLC) consists of representatives of municipalities within the SMTC planning area. While not decision-making bodies, both the CLC and MLC will play a critical role in The I-81 Challenge by:

-Disseminating information about The I-81 Challenge to their constituents.
-Providing input on community concerns.
-Ensuring diverse points of view are represented.
-Commenting on materials and methods for public involvement.
To join either committee, call 422-5716.

The Syracuse Chiefs Honor Jackie Robinson: We’ve Come a Long Way

In Syracuse despite our Abolitionist past, we’ve endured a rocky road to equality. Our area has Locations on the Underground Railroad, Freedom Trails and is known for freeing fugitive slave in “the Jerry Rescue” memorialized in the heart of Syracuse, Clinton Square.

Change in American society moves at a snail’s pace that being said, once people realize that the world around them is changing attitudes change.

In the area of sports Syracuse stands out with well documented books and movies about when we were during an era when an African-American major League Baseball players was unheard of essentially unacceptable. College football didn’t escape the scourge of racism as Syracuse University’s Ernie Davis discovered.

Films document portions of their lives as these athletes struggle for acceptance in what was an all-white world. Syracuse University’s Ernie Davis was an American football running back, the first African-American athlete to win the Heisman Trophy. Davis is the subject of the 2008 Universal Pictures movie biography The Express, based on the non-fiction book Ernie Davis: The Elmira Express, by Robert C. Gallagher.

The Syracuse Chiefs has become an instrument of change, building a new stadium, displaying evidence of their history in the facilities lobby. On display in the stadium is a picture from the 1800s of the Syracuse Stars (very early Chiefs) with two of the three African American players in the International League. The Chiefs has an African American Manager Tony Beasley, now in his second year at the newly re-branded NBT Stadium.

The ball club has enhanced their efforts reaching out to the general community for support of the team. The recently announced Jackie Robinson Day is an example as to just how much change has occurred locally in the venue of sports.

Starting in 2004, Major League Baseball began honoring Jackie by deeming the date “Jackie Robinson Day.” His accomplishments have been celebrated in both Major League and Minor League ballparks across the United States since.

Photo: Syracuse Chief’s Manager Tony Beasley,

Syracuse Chiefs pay homage; new movie recalls the man who broke baseball’s color line

For the tenth year in a row, professional baseball officially celebrates Jackie Robinson Day again on April 15, and the hometown Syracuse Chiefs invited kids ages 6 to 12 to attend that evening’s game for free. To earn the free ticket, all the kids had to do was submit a drawing of Jackie in action.

Jack Roosevelt “Jackie” Robinson broke baseball’s color line by becoming the first black major-league player when he suited up for the Brooklyn Dodgers on April 15, 1947. More than 26,500 fans – including an estimated 14,000 African-Americans – passed through the turnstiles at Ebbets Field that day to see the Dodgers face the Boston Braves. Robinson played first base and scored a run as the Dodgers won, 5-3.

Starting in 2004, Major League Baseball began honoring Robinson by deeming the date “Jackie Robinson Day.” His accomplishments have been celebrated every April 15 at Major and Minor League ballparks across the United States. Before establishing a holiday in his honor, baseball also took the unprecedented step of retiring his uniform number 42 throughout the sport.

Now, on Jackie Robinson Day, every professional baseball player in America pays tribute to Robinson by wearing his number 42 on that day.

“It’s just awesome to remember him throughout the game of baseball by having everyone wear his number on this occasion,” said Chiefs second-year manager Tony Beasley. “You don’t get to wear No. 42 anymore, so it’s a special memory and a special day. He meant so much to the game. And the way he carried himself with dignity and respect, he deserves this.”

This year, Hollywood is also jumping on the Jackie Robinson bandwagon with the April 12 release of 42, a feature film biography starring Chadwick Boseman as Jackie and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey, the Dodgers executive who brought Robinson to the big leagues and changed baseball forever. Directed by Brian Helgeland (L.A. Confidential and Mystic River), the Robinson biopic was produced by Warner Bros. and Legendary Pictures.

In 1950 after his first three seasons in Brooklyn, Robinson portrayed himself in a major motion picture called The Jackie Robinson Story co-starring Ruby Dee as his wife, Rachel. Three television movies were later made about him, A Home Run for Love (1978), The Court-Martial of Jackie Robinson(1990) and Soul of the Game (1996).

Robinson, who won the Rookie of the Year Award in 1947 and later was named the National League’s Most Valuable Player, spent 10 seasons with the Dodgers and helped his team win the World Series in 1955. He retired with a lifetime batting average of .311 before the 1957 season and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1962.

Last year in Syracuse on the 65th anniversary of Robinson’s first major league game, longtime local news anchorwoman Jackie Robinson (no relation to the ballplayer who died in 1972) threw out the ceremonial first pitch after Syracuse Police Chief Frank Fowler introduced her to the crowd. Syracuse’s Jackie Robinson was the first African-American anchor to break the color barrier at NBC3 radio.

In preparation for 2013’s Jackie Robinson Day, the Syracuse Chiefs asked kids to “Draw Jackie in Action,” pictures to be displayed at NBT Bank Stadium during the 6 p.m. game against the Buffalo Bisons on Monday, April 15. Each student who submitted an entry received one free ticket to attend the game to see their work and the other entries on display at the ballpark. The contest deadline was March 22.

A large-than-life image of Robinson and his number 42 adorns the left-centerfield wall at Syracuse’s NBT Bank Stadium.

The Chiefs – the top farm club of the Washington Nationals -will again be managed by Virginia native Tony Beasley who spent four seasons as third-base coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Nationals. The Chiefs play their 2013 home opener at 2 p.m. Friday, April 12, versus the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.

While the Chiefs fared rather poorly last season, Syracuse fans still relished the ballpark experience as the stadium welcomed a new concessionaire – Ovations Food Services which cooks “everything fresh” – and unveiled a new 30 feet high by 55 feet wide digital scoreboard.

Sixteen home games are scheduled at NBTS in April, including a rare double-header against the IronPigs starting at 2 p.m. Sunday, April 14. Field-level ticket prices range from $9 to $20, while upper-deck seats cost $8, and $4 for kids and seniors. Parking costs $5 per vehicle; 474-7833;

Black cat incident recalled:
Syracuse’s white ballplayers taunted Robinson mercilessly

by Russ Tarby

No word yet on how the new Jackie Robinson biopic, 42, will depict the infamous “black cat incident” that supposedly occurred at Syracuse’s MacArthur Stadium during Robinson’s 1946 season with the Montreal Royals.

The 1950 film The Jackie Robinson Story presented a watered-down version in which two fans try to taunt him with a black cat, and Robinson walks over to them, takes the cat into his dugout and pets it.

In both of Robinson’s own autobiographies – My Own Story (1948) and I Never Had it Made, (1972) – he remembered, “Syracuse rode me harder than any other city in the circuit. They were tough on me both on the field and in the stands.” He recalled an incident in which a Chiefs player threw a live, black cat onto the diamond and shouted, “Hey, Robinson, here’s your cousin!”

The umpire called time out until the frightened cat had been carried off the field, Robinson wrote, but here’s where his memory locates the incident not in Syracuse but at Montreal’s old Delorimier Stadium. “Following this incident, I doubled down the left field line and when the next player singled to center, I scored. Passing the Syracuse dugout, I said to one of the players, ‘I guess my cousin is pretty happy now.'”

Chiefs historian Ron Gersbacher believes that the black cat incident occurred when the Chiefs played against the Royals in Montreal, and baseball box scores bear him out.

On Wednesday, Aug. 7, 1946, the Chiefs were playing a game at Delorimier Stadium when Robinson walloped a double and scored a run as the Royals overwhelmed the visitors, 9-4. There’s no record of Jackie smacking a two-bagger to left during games played at MacArthur Stadium that year, so Gersbacher’s probably right.

Regardless of where it happened, however, the black cat incident still stands as a vivid and dramatic example of the kind of abuse directed at Robinson by intolerant fans and ballplayers alike.

Fifty years after the fact Chiefs second baseman Garton DelSavio told Post-Standard columnist Sean Kirst that his white teammates – several of whom hailed from the Deep South – “called Robinson some of the foulest names he’d ever heard, the worst things you can scream at another man.”

In fact, Chiefs catcher Dick West told Kirst that before Robinson’s first at-bat at MacArthur Stadium on April 24, 1946, “Our whole bench was hollering at him, and he looked down at me and said, ‘You got some players from the South.'” West, who was from Kentucky himself, recalled, “I looked up and said, ‘I don’t feel sorry for you. You can go to hell.'”

So the hostility was putrid and plentiful, but the Chiefs kept the cat in the bag until they came to Canada that summer.