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What We Talk About When We Talk About Slaves

A memorial @ The African Burial Ground on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY. 
Photo: © copyright by Carol Bergman 2019

 

 

"Genealogical trees do not flourish among slaves."

 

Frederick  Douglass, 1855

 

 

"Such is the story that comes down to me."

 

Madison Hemings, son of Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson, Pike County Ohio, 1873

 

 


I've been reading American Colonial History, interviewing people, and researching in historic archives non-stop since my arrival in New Paltz just over a year ago in preparation, I thought, for a long narrative nonfiction project about the legacy of slavery in one small Mid-Hudson Valley town. How is it coping with new revelations and interpretations? I arrived in the midst of a dormitory renaming controversy on the SUNY campus--an echo of the discourse we're having about monuments across the country--and published a guest column in the Poughkeepsie Journal in September, 2018. I was excited by the prospect of being a peripheral narrator in this story: both a participant/citizen and a reporter/observer. But I had heard that a prominent historian at the Historic Huguenot Street Archives had been released from her duties after conflict with the Board of Directors some years ago. This did not bode well. I was trying to provide a fresh perspective, ask interesting questions, but it didn't take long for me to become persona non grata, and to receive emails reminding me—a bona fide journalist—that I could not have press tickets to certain events. It was enough to question whether my project was viable.

 

For a while, I worked around resistance, and even drafted an article, but I stopped after I attended a meeting of the Historic Preservation Commission to advocate for the landmarking of the Jacob Wynkoop houses—more below. I was no longer an observer/reporter; I had become an activist.


When a profile of me appeared in the local paper about my new murder mystery, "Say Nothing," a two-page spread with a photo, and only those near and dear turned up at the reading at a local independent bookstore, despite a lot of publicity, I knew that the gate had closed, that I was done. What had happened? It would take an investigative reporter with the clout and resources of a major newspaper to get the full story, but I have my hypothesis: I'm an outsider, a newcomer. Who am I, therefore, to remind the settled population here, many descended from the original settlers—to "lecture" them, as one vicious FB post said—that the legacy of slavery is visible, extant and troubling; Dutch, English, and French Huguenots all owned slaves.


One day in the late spring of 2019, surfacing from the dusty archive at Historic Huguenot Street, a tour bus parked in the visitor's lot. I stopped to watch what looked like a high school group and their teacher saunter toward Bevier House. For some reason they began to roam around on their own, without the assistance of a docent. The teacher was talking as I approached, but I didn't hear what he said; he was peering into the cellar window. I had done the same in recent weeks and found it haunting. I imagined the slaves sleeping on pallets on the dirt floor, spinning wool, or cooking, and struggling up and down the steep stairs leading to the outside entrance to the house--more steps--as they carried food, or laundry to their "master," Abraham Bevier, and his family. The 1790 census confirms that Abraham Bevier owned seven slaves. Did they all live in the cellar? And even if there was an interior staircase as an empathetic and charming Huguenot descendant recently explained to me--by way of softening the slaves'travail, perhaps--would that have made any difference?


I went up to the teacher and asked if he knew what he was looking at. "A cellar," he said. "A slave dwelling," I corrected him, wishing there had been a plaque to explain the dwelling and its relationship to the house, but the teacher seemed less than interested and quickly moved away to gather his students around the well, an educational opportunity lost. I was, at least, pleased that I had mentioned something.


Juneteenth, 2019, a holiday commemorating Emancipation after the Civil War. I went on a tour--to which I did get a press pass because it pertained to my project, presumably--of the Jacob Wynkoop houses in New Paltz with Kara Augustine, Director of Public Programming at Historic Huguenot Street. The story of Jacob Wynkoop, a prominent African American citizen of New Paltz, a Union soldier, born free to a slave mother in 1829, one year after New York State emancipated its slaves, has been known since the 1980's. He died in 1912 and is buried in the New Paltz Rural Cemetery in Plot A-74/82. And though he was a member of the New Paltz (interracial) Grand Army of the Republic's fraternal organization, there are no streets named after him, nor did SUNY New Paltz, to my knowledge, consider naming one of their dorms after him. He was a builder, contractor, and carpenter. Several of his compact, well-made houses—with their signature attic windows—are still standing here; one was an investment property. Today we might call him an architect and real estate developer, two occupations revered in this burgeoning valley.


Where are his descendants? Possibly in Poughkeepsie, New York City and points beyond, I have learned. Why did they leave New Paltz? Was the town unwelcoming, or worse? Why haven't his houses been landmarked, or marked with a simple plaque? Why is this ostensibly progressive town so ethnically homogeneous? Apart from the SUNY New Paltz Campus, with its diversity outreach initiatives and faculty from all over the world, the 14,000 plus citizens are mostly white, with a smattering of Latinos.


In this era of transformation, as we reckon with our fraught past and complex political present, the failure of Reconstruction in the South and integration in the North, the redress of African American slave descendants (HR-40) is gaining traction again in Congress. The removal of monuments is one thing, the acknowledgement of contributions by the survivors of enslavement another. Both are important.


https://www.newpaltz.edu/media/diversity/Hasbrouck%20Renaming%20Report-Web.pdf\


http://images.burrellesluce.com/image/6322C/6322C_5605


The author wishes to thank: Carol Johnson, David & Susanna Lent, Jennifer Dubois Bruntil, Kara Augustine, Josephine Bloodgood, Albert Williams-Myers, Susan Stessin-Cohn, Eric Roth, Alan Kraus, and Michael Groth for their scholarship and insights.

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Hugo the Huguenot

Photo courtesy Jennifer DuBois Bruntil
I met Jennifer DuBois Bruntil in the women’s locker room the first week I moved up to New Paltz. We’re both lap swimmers and I’d noticed that she has a smooth competitor’s stroke and mentioned that I ,too, had once been a competitive swimmer. I don’t do flip turns any more, nor do I rotate my head side to side to breathe, though I still love to swim. That was the beginning of our conversation.

Jennifer is a trained teacher who, at the time, was working at Historic Huguenot Street as the School Programming Coordinator. She lives in New Paltz with her family, not in the original farmhouse--they were dairy farmers--but in a house her grandfather built when he retired. However, to say she “lives,” in New Paltz is not accurate; her family has been anchored here for twelve generations. The DuBois name is everywhere in town.

I was intrigued and started to read everything I could about the history of New Paltz from the first Dutch settlements to the present day. Dear Reader, I went to the local library. There I found various books on the shelves, an archivist, a huge collection of memorabilia, and a link to 66 libraries in the Mid-Hudson Valley for loans.

As soon as I began to read, I wanted to know more:

What happened to the Esopus people? They were the First Americans to live here. Unlike the descendants of the Dutch, English and French Huguenot families who still reside in New Paltz, their history is mostly absent from a history of New Paltz photo book for sale at the library. Yet the Algonquin language the tribe (still) speaks is evident everywhere—the Esopus creek, the town of Esopus, Kerhonkson, and so much more.

The tribe was decimated by disease, enslaved by the Dutch “settlers,” pushed west into Wisconsin and Canada by the US government—a trail of tears—and by the time the Huguenots arrived, their numbers had diminished significantly, they were in survival mode and struck financially beneficial deals. By all accounts, they lived mostly peacefully with the Huguenot settlers who themselves had escaped persecution. It’s a complex, fascinating and troubling story that still resonates today.

“The subject of my town’s local history had been on my mind for a few reasons. For one, I am a descendant of the New Paltz Huguenots,” Jennifer DuBois Bruntil explains in an article she wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal in December, 2016 to publicize her children’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot.”

Although Jennifer had never considered herself an author, the idea for the book began as a poem in her head in the middle of the night. She got up and wrote it all down, consulted friends, found a local illustrator, Matthew Kelly, and started to raise funds through Kickstarter. The book is charming, informative and, for the most part, historically responsible. More than a simple “congratulations on getting published” is due here. To her credit, Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has included four beautifully illustrated pages devoted to the Esopus presence on the land the Huguenots purchased. Missing, however, is any reference--even in the background illustrations-- to the African slaves in New Paltz. Yet, the history of slavery in New Paltz has been carefully documented by historians Eric Roth and Susan Stessin-Cohn in the Huguenot Historic Site's“register” of slaves (1799-1825). They write:

“Often overlooked is the fact that African slaves provided the town of New Paltz with an abundant supply of labor for use in the farms, mills, and homes during the town's first 150 years. The institution of slavery thus provided the Huguenots and their descendants with much of the labor upon which to build their communities, prosperity, and longevity.”

The register is fascinating to read:

https://www.hrvh.org/cdm/ref/collection/hhs/id/718

Few families in Colonial America, including the Jews in New York and our Founding Fathers, remained innocent as the barbarity of the slave trade intensified. Either they owned slaves themselves, were complicit in the “legalization” of the institution, or succumbed to the temptation of free labor.

Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has ended her modest children’s book with the arrival of the Huguenots in America, before they purchased slaves themselves. A sequel would undoubtedly have to include all this subsequent, disturbing history explained simply, but honestly, to young readers. During the educational tours at the Huguenot Historic Site, students are taken to different "stations" where they find out about the Esopus at one station, and family life, including slaves, at another. None of the local history is ignored. And during the summer months, SUNY New Paltz Professor Joseph Diamond supervises students as they dig for artifacts left by the settlers, the Native Americans, and slaves, in front of the DuBois Fort, the Esopus Wigwam, and elsewhere in the carefully preserved, landmarked area. This year he hopes to excavate part of the road. I plan to stop by to observe their progress and will report again in another blog post. Stay tuned.

***

“Hugo the Huguenot” is available online or at the Huguenot Historic Site gift shop in the Fort:

https://historic-huguenot-street-museum-shop.myshopify.com/products/hugo-the-huguenot

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