Historian Charles Swain, 73, dies

CATSKILL–Charles Swain, the Minorities Historian of Greene County, died on December 22, 2013 at the age of 73.

Although he lived and worked in Greene County, and was a resident of Athens during his adult life, he was active in Columbia County and beyond. In recent years he became a valued source of information on the history of African Americans in Columbia County for articles written for the Columbia Paper. From him, this reporter learned that many a shed found behind historic homes in our area housed slaves, and that the waterside brick factories located up and down the Hudson River provided the jobs that drew black workers up from the south in the early part of the 19th century. Until his health intervened, he attended Christ Church Episcopal in Hudson with his daughter Mary Jane, and his son Charles.

A lifelong resident of Greene County, Mr. Swain was born in Catskill in 1940 to a Jewish mother and a black Ethiopian Jewish father. He grew up in a white neighborhood and told this reporter during an interview in 2010 that he was the only black boy to learn to swim at the Red Cross summer camp in Valatie. His mixed race heritage made him sensitive to and curious about the racial reasons people react differently to others and led eventually to his calling as a historian.

For a time Mr. Swain worked as a corrections officer in Dutchess County, and as a tour guide at the Vanderbilt Mansion in Hyde Park.

Mr. Swain spent a lifetime collecting information about the contributions of blacks to American history. A special area of interest was the Civil War period during which his uncle and grandfather served in the black Buffalo Soldier cavalry regiments of the US Army stationed in the American West. In the course of his research he traveled to Kansas, Missouri and South Dakota via Greyhound bus during the 1970s with his son, Charles, a grade school student, in tow.

He lobbied the state to be appointed as Minorities Historian and became the first person to be so designated in the New York State in 1975.

Mr. Swain was an active participant in Civil War reenactments in which people portray roles of characters they research and bring them to life through historically specific costume and props. A dapper figure even when not in costume, he portrayed a black cavalry soldier with horse, tent and well broken in boots.

He was an enthusiastic rider and started out bringing a horse to events. Later he found that a life size black plastic horse presented less of a threat to children. He also staged rodeos and launched the first Annual Black Cultural Festival in Catskill in 1978.

His connection with other African American scholars was evident in the winter of 2010 when he attended the annual meeting of the Underground Railroad Conference at Russell Sage College and renewed friendships with many of the Capitol District’s African American historians who were in attendance that day.

A frequent visitor to schools and town halls in Greene County, where he made historical presentations that recognized the contributions of African Americans, Mr. Swain was driven by the desire to assert a black perspective into American history, to instill in black Americans of every age a sense of pride in their past, and to celebrate black accomplishment.

Mr. Swain is survived by his wife, Doris, his son Charles Anthony, his daughter Mary Jane.



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