Edward “Ned” Sherman

Ned Sherman Portrait (Cleveland Historical Society Archive)
Ned Sherman Portrait (Cleveland Historical Society Archive)

In 1807, Thomas Jefferson was President of the United States, slave trade was legal in most states, the American flag had 15 stars and Robert Fulton was on the verge of inventing the steamboat.  It was also the year that a black man named Edward Sherman was born in Upstate New York.

It’s hard to image that in the span of this man’s century-long life, he would see the War of 1812, the creation of the Erie Canal, the Battle of the Alamo, the California gold rush, the creation of the Pony Express, the Civil War fought, slaves freed and given the right to vote, three U.S. Presidents assassinated, the Wright Brothers fly and the birth of the automobile was just around the corner.  However, one of the most incredible events, occurred in 1878, when a black man, who could neither read nor write, was voted village mayor right here in Cleveland, New York.

Details of Ned’s early life have yet to be discovered as records, especially for black families, are scarce in the early 1800s.  According to an article celebrating his 100th birthday, we do know that he was born on June 10, 1807, presumably in Saratoga, New York. [1]  Then there is a large gap in his childhood years, which most local researchers concur were lived in the Saratoga area, although research into regional census data for Saratoga has revealed no specific references to Edward.

The following physical description was provided by the Oneida Central Blade in 1878:

“In personal appearance, Ned Sherman is five feet eight inches in his gum shoes, about the color of an Egyptian night, beard slightly tinged with gray, a portion of his countenance very open and the balance looks as though somebody had mistaken it for a bank vault and tried to open it with a jimmy – probably the effect of small-pox.  He is as affable an end man in his conversation, as unlettered as a turnpike guide board, and as unassuming as a bill poster … Ned, although not strictly prepossessing, will not be a bad looking person when carved ebony comes in fashion again.” [2]

Early postcard depicting mule drivers on the Erie Canal.
Early postcard depicting mule drivers on the Erie Canal.

Our first census find is in Herkimer in 1850. [3]  Name, age, race and occupation ties in directly with the description George Walter describes in his short article, later republished by Jack Henke:

“When [Ned] reached the age of twenty-one he moved to Herkimer, where he obtained a job driving mules on an Erie Canal packet boat.  Ned used to recall the many times he drove the mules along the canal towpath from Buffalo to Albany.

When the canal was frozen during the long winter months, Ned found employment as a barber in Herkimer and nearby Mohawk Valley villages.” [4]

The same census indicates that Ned was living with the Catherine family.  The 1855 New York State census of Herkimer shows the same family with an A.C. Sherman living with the family, but not Ned.  A direct correlation to A.C. Sherman has not been uncovered.  However, the 1855 New York State census from Constantia, indicates that Ned Sherman and his wife, Elizabeth moved to the area in 1851.  There were no children indicated at this time. [5]  This ties in again to Walter’s declaration that Sherman moved to Cleveland in 1851.  Here, he continued to practice as a barber and work at various other area jobs.

“Sherman found employment with Charles Kathern and later worked for William Foster.  He also ‘chored’ about the village.” [4]

“In 1851 he went to Cleveland with Charles Cathem [Kathern] and for many years was in the employ of Mr. Cathem [Kathern] and the late William Foster.” [6]

Between 1851 and 1865, Ned and Elizabeth have three children, Clara, Fannie and Lulu Bell.  Also of significance is the fact the Elizabeth’s sister, Harriette Wilson is living with family.  Her relationship to Ned is denoted as “wife’s sister” and her marital status is indicated as being single and not widowed. [7]  This provides the only reference to Elizabeth’s maiden name.

It seems that the Sherman family was fairly well received in the community.  In fact, Ned may have been considered somewhat of a social individual.

“Uncle Ned Sherman was a Negro who had two distinctions – he knew how to get a free drink and he was probably the first man of his race ever to become a village president.

A few oldsters in Cleveland, Oswego County, still remember Uncle Ned hanging around the Globe Hotel waiting for a free drink.

When someone ordered a beer or something harder, Ned would slip a finger into the drink the first chance he got.  The patron would refuse to drink it, but Ned never hesitated.” [4]

Elizabeth and Ned have two more children, Charles K. and Hattie E. by 1871.  Then in the summer of 1875, Elizabeth comes down with a severe fever and dies on July 10th. [8]

Ned Sherman (Cleveland Historical Society Archives)
Ned Sherman (Cleveland Historical Society Archives)

In the mid to late 1870s, support for the Greenback Party took root amongst many across the country, particularly in the northern states.  Given the party’s focus on unions, labor and anti-slavery principles, it’s not difficult to see why Greenback Party support flourished in the Cleveland area.

Roughly three to four weeks before the April 1878 village election, the Cleveland Greenback Club caucused on a Saturday evening to put in nominations for their candidates.  It appears that frustrations may have run high, but the group was intent on defeating particular members running under the Union ticket.  Among the nominees put forth was A. A. Yale for President, a position he captured on voting day.

Although Ned Sherman was not considered for the ticket, he was mentioned by name for his contributions to the Greenbackers:

“Among the many who labored industriously for our ticket, none were more active than Ned Sherman.  Ned deserves credit for his effective work.” [9]

Approximately four weeks later, Mr. Sherman would find himself being voted in as a replacement for Mr. Yale, upon his resignation.  The events leading up to Ned’s mayoral election were summarized in the Oswego Daily Times as follows:

A Negro Elected President of the Village of Cleveland

Cleveland, May 14 – Mr. Ned Sherman (colored) was elected President of the village yesterday, to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of the Greenback President Yale.  Sherman’s majority was 20 over two white men.

Syracuse Standard: Cleveland, Oswego County, has recently passed through all the throes attendant upon the introduction of the various foreign elements into its municipal affairs.  On the second Tuesday in April, at a charter election the incumbents of trusteeship were duly elected, but the Board by a lawful majority insisting upon the appointment of a Catholic as sexton of their cemetery grounds provoked the resignation of the President and final disruption of the body.  As remedying this condition of things, a special election was ordered for last Monday.  Ned Sherman, a colored man, was, as a matter of burlesque, placed in nomination, and received a large complimentary majority as chairman.  He was placed in a carriage, and a procession of honor with music, torches, etc., paraded the town.  Four different nationalities are represented in the other members.  Cleveland fully illustrated the possibilities of free America.” [10]

Many local papers had references to the election, but one of the most comprehensive articles was posted in the local Cleveland Lakeside Press:

Model Village

There has been a stirring time in Cleveland since Monday last.  On that day a special election was held to fill the office of President of the village, made vacant by the resignation of A.A. Yale, and our distinguished colored citizen, Ned Sherman, was elected to fill the position.  This move was made by a few religious fanatics and rabble of followers, chiefly to insult the Board of Trustees and the Catholic people of the place.  The Village Board had made an appointment of a poor but honest workingman to do what work was needed in the village Cemetery.  This man appointed happened to be an attendant at the Catholic Church, and because of this a perfect storm of howls and shrieks and denunciations forthwith filled the air, and were hurled at the Board.

Reason, these men had none for their contemptible conduct; it was only pure cussedness.  Their excuse, however, is that it is a Catholic Board, and that they are throwing the affairs of the village into the hands of Catholics.  What supreme nonsense and bigotry from men supposed to possess intelligence!

Even if the Board were Catholics – (which is directly the opposite, for there is not one of them who are considered so in the strict sense of the term, and who would not, if they were, allow themselves to bias) – are the Catholic portion of the community not equal to others?  Have they no rights that anybody are bound to respect?  If this place is to be managed for the exclusive benefit of a class – if the others are to have no voice or say whatever – why, they would like to know it, so that the privileged set should be forced to shoulder all the necessary expenses, taxes, etc.

Monday night, a torchlight procession paraded the streets, led by the Band, the new President being seated in a carriage behind the team of Wm. Foster, Jr. and a great jollification was indulged in.  Some eggs were pelted at the procession as it passed along.

But some time during the night, a party of the opposite side bought a quantity of black muslin at Morse’s store, and a large piece was strung across Lake Street, and strips were tied on the door knobs of all who sympathized with the Negro movement.

Of course the leading and honorable business and professional men of the place are justly indignant at these proceedings, and condemn the principals who brought the slur on the village.

Also from the Lakeside Press is the following interview with Mr. Sherman:

Our Reporter’s Interview with His Honor

In an interview with his Honor, our representative was favored with the political views of that able functionary and other information that may prove interesting to our readers:

Reporter – “To whom do you attribute your election?”

Mayor – “To the Returning Board.  If they had not returned at three o’clock I wouldn’t have got a vote.”

Reporter – “You are, I believe, an independent man.  With which party do you propose to cast your little ‘bark’?”

Mayor – “That’s what give me the headache.  I am a Republican by color, a Democrat by affinity, Greenbacker by conviction, and was elected on a Know-nothing ticket.  I have been communing with the spirits, hoping to find a way to extricate myself from this purgatory of politics, but I haven’t …“

Reporter – “Will you inform me as to the nature of these spirits you speak of?”

Here on eye of his Honor put on a look of injured innocence, and the other contracted and expanded like a flash, bringing to the reporter’s memory the time he was punished because his eye did the same thing at a girl in school.  The teacher defined it as a wink; the reporter took a more gin-erous view, considering it ment-ale diplomacy.)

Reporter – “Oh, I did not intend to cast any reflections …”

Mayor – Reflections, young man!  Reflections!  Who can help but reflect when they ornament our churches with ‘blue ribbons’ and propose superseding whisky with bell-punchers in our bars.  American citizenship has degenerated wonderfully the last few years.  I’d as soon run agin my brother as run agin the man I did.  I don’t run down my opponents.  I differ from most of men, I think he is my equal, and if he was popular with the boys, would have made to scratch to beat him.”

Reporter – I think I didn’t get your meaning in relation to your political intentions”

Mayor – I don’t feel at liberty to divulge them just now.  While I am desirous to follow the wishes of my constituents in all that’s honorable, I am not desirous to have Ben Andrus following me.  It creates suspicion.  And he is always out of tobacco.”

Reporter – How about the Sexton?”

Mayor – “I believe in economy … What do we want with a sexton …?  Doesn’t the Bible say ‘let the dead take care of the dead’, and I’ll run this Board by Scripture if it busts the whole business.”

The reporter left then, as Ned was considerably drove by business and invitations to dine with parties he couldn’t very well refuse. [11]

Ned served just a single term and I’ve encountered no accounts taking issue with the results from his time at the reins.  In fact, several accounts are just the opposite:

“What seems more clear, those historians are starting to discover, is that Sherman did a pretty good job – and was probably the first black municipal leader in the history of New York State.” [12]

Throughout it all, it appears that Mr. Sherman remained grounded regarding his accomplishments.  The following quote was reproduced from the Oswego Sun in the Lakeside Press.  It was taken from a visitor on the 4th of July:

“We were shaved the other day by that erudite gentleman, the chief magistrate of Cleveland village.  Of course you know to whom we refer, – the Hon. Ed Sherman.  ‘Taint every day a man has the honor of being shaved by the President of a village like that, upon the anniversary of American Independence.” [13]

The 1880 United States Federal Census, indicates that Ned taken a second wife, Harriett.  It is very possible that this may be Harriette Wilson, Elizabeth’s sister, however there is no known indication that this is or is not the case.

Ned went on to live a long active life, passing away shortly after celebrating his 100th birthday.  The actual location of his burial is unknown, but believed to be in the Village Cemetery in Cleveland.

“Historians believe Ned Sherman lies in an unmarked grave in the village cemetery. He’s not in Cleveland’s small private cemetery at the edge of town where two black Civil War veterans – Edward Wilson of the Massachusetts Colored Volunteers and Henry Feeler, a private in the Connecticut volunteers – were buried.” [8]

Mr. Sherman lived a life that spanned wars, slavery, prosperity and recession.  He broke boundaries paved roads.  I guess the best way to sum up this man is this single quote contributed to the Lakeside Press:

“’Where are our great men?’ asks an exchange, in an editorial.  Why, the address of one is Ned Sherman, Cleveland, N.Y.” [14]


[1] Syracuse Herald, “Lived A Century,” Syracuse Herald, p. 21, 16 June 1907.
[2] Cleveland Lakeside Press, Cleveland Lakeside Press, 29 June 1878.
[3] Administration, National Archives and Records, 1850 United States Federal Census, Herkimer, Neww York, 1850, p. 57.
[4] G. W. Walter, “The Negro President,” in Tales of Oneida Lake, Utica, New York: North Contry Books, Inc., 1993, pp. 93-95.
[5] New York State Archives, 1855 New York State Census, Constantia, New York, 1855.
[6] Cleveland Historical Society, First Mayor of Cleveland, New York: Edward Sherman, Cleveland Historical Society Archives.
[7] New York State Archive, 1865 New York State Census, vol. ED#1, Constantia, New York, 1865, p. 3.
[8] D. Case, “A Place in History for Ned Sherman, d. 1907,” Syracuse Post-Standard, 22 February 2003.
[9] Cleveland Lakeside Press, “Charter Election, Our Greebackers’ First Effort!,” Cleveland Lakeside Press, 13 April 1878.
[10] Oswego Daily Time, “Negro Elected President of the Village of Cleveland,” Oswego Daily Times, 16 May 1878.
[11] Cleveland Lakeside Press, “Model Village,” Cleveland Lakeside Press, 18 May 1878.
[12] S. Scanlon, “Cleveland May Have Had First Black Mayoor in State,” Syracuse Post-Standard, pp. B1, B5, 22 February 2003.
[13] Oswego Sun, Cleveland Lakeside Press, 13 July 1878.
[14] Cleveland Lakeside Press, Cleveland Lakeside Press, 22 September 1877.

Note:  Special thanks to Kathy and Joni for their assistance with this blog.


  1. Thank you for writing about Ned Sherman. His story needs to be told and this is a good description of the man and Cleveland life.

  2. What an interesting article about Ned Sherman. Thank you for sharing this information.

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