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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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Flashing Lights

I was driving down  Plattekill Avenue on the north side of the university where cars are parked at an odd angle and the speed limit is 30 mph because students and faculty are always crossing at crosswalks, or in between crosswalks, often on their phones, or chatting to friends. Last summer, two pedestrians were hit and badly injured. New, brighter crosswalks with flashing lights and neon signs have been installed, but not everywhere, and the SUNY New Paltz Campus Police and the New Paltz Police are vigilant.

 

This is my new neighborhood. I'm learning what it means to drive everywhere, to be attentive at all times, to keep to the speed limit, to watch the signs change from 30 to 45 to 55 mph. The periphery of the campus is a speed trap, too, and I warn visitors that the cops hang out, they wait, they give tickets. I did not want this ever to happen to me. It's my neighborhood, I obey the law, I'm learning the rules and culture, I want the students and faculty to feel safe and be safe, I want to feel safe and be safe. I know that, hypothetically, a police force protects as well as enforces. But is this true all of the time? Regardless, I did not want to be stopped by the police in my new neighborhood, ever.

 

I wasn't late, I wasn't in a hurry to my teaching gig at another SUNY campus, about thirty minutes away, but Plattekill Avenue is a shortcut to Route 32 North. I stopped at a crossing for a couple of students, but then inadvertently rolled through the STOP sign a few feet further on.  The sun was out, I was daydreaming, thinking about a book I'm getting back to, about a weekend hike on the River to Ridge Trail now that the weather is warming and all the snow and ice have melted. I was  listening to music, I was in the right side of my brain. The campus police car pulled up behind me, lights flashing.

 

I had just been on the campus a few nights before at a meeting sponsored by the Black Student Union about a police brutality allegation and an upcoming trial—the town in an uproar—and the ACLU lawyer's advice to the students and all present— black and white alike: never resist, do what you are asked.

 

There had been a white supremacist march down Main Street last summer—acrimonious , dangerous—and  then, a few weeks later, a black student had been smashed in the face by a cop and lost all his teeth. A committee had formed of concerned parents, concerned citizens. The police are aware, as the line goes in "Homeland." They are aware, on alert, on tenterhooks. They do not want to be accused, they want to do their jobs. But smashing a black student in the mouth is not doing their jobs. 

 

White haired and olive-white-skinned, I had nothing to worry about, not really, but the fear of those young, earnest, students at the meeting had stayed with me. The African American men are especially vulnerable, the lawyer had said, which is nothing new in our divided, beleaguered nation.  But why should I feel so vulnerable? Because that boy who had been smashed in the face could have been my son, or anyone's son.

 

The cop had been hanging out; it felt like an entrapment, but I had to stay quiet. This wasn't a moment to resist or to complain. Even though I had only gently rolled, and there was nothing around, no other cars in sight, I had broken the law.

 

The young, handsome cop got out of his car and  stood just behind my shoulder and to the left, his hand on his holster. This is what he has been trained to do, I thought. It's not a time for questions. I am not here to interview him about the use of force or gun control, we are not friends.

 

I rolled down my window. I knew better than to reach for the glove compartment without instructions to do so, and I said, "Hello, Officer, did I do something wrong?" Where had I learned to be so obsequious, so respectful? I was thinking of my daughter's African American college boyfriend when I said this and what his father, a court officer, had taught him. He carried a badge in his wallet his father had gotten for him, but even that was not protective and I was scared when my daughter was in the car with him.

 

"You rolled through the stop sign,"  the officer said and smiled.

"Oh dear, that's not good," I said.

 

Then he asked for my papers and I gave him all my papers. He told me to sit tight and he went back to the car and took a few moments to run my license, insurance and registration through the computer. I also heard him recite my license plate into a two-way radio. I was now in the system.

 

I thought about my African American friends, I thought about my daughter's college boyfriend, how these moments of waiting must be the most tense, the most scary. This cop was alone, he was young, he was friendly, but I am white-haired and olive-white-skinned. Neither of us felt threatened so we smiled and spoke quietly and respectfully to one another. He warned me to be careful but didn't give me a ticket. He said, "Thank you, Ma'am." And I thanked him. He turned off his flashing lights and went on his way. And I went on mine, braking fully at every stop sign on the way.

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The Stallion & The Donkey

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2018
Once upon a time a black stallion and a donkey lived together in a shed on a horse farm in New Paltz, NY. They lived in perfect harmony with one another, the landscape and their owners. I visited them whenever I walked down Dubois Road, formerly the homestead—twelve generations ago—of Jennifer Dubois Bruntil’s French Huguenot family. I have written about Jennifer’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot,” in a post on May 7 and, since then, have walked the road on Saturday mornings, weather permitting.

The French Huguenots escaped from persecution in France and settled in this magnificent valley in the late 17th century. Despite their own struggles, they became slave owners. Historians at the Huguenot Historic Site (HHS) uncovered a slave register more than a decade ago. It documented what everyone knew: By 1790 there were 302 slaves in New Paltz belonging to 77 families, 13% of the population.

For more information about slavery in the Hudson Valley:

https://omeka.hrvh.org/exhibits/show/missing-chapter

Currently, there is a controversy on the SUNY campus about removal of Huguenot family names from dormitories—another “monuments” discussion. Decisions are forthcoming in a report that was due in April but has been delayed. Meanwhile, many roads in this town are named after the Huguenot families, including Dubois Road. What will the town do about them, ultimately, I wonder? Perhaps nothing. Perhaps a memorial to the slaves who labored here will also be erected. There are many possible solutions. The horse farm has changed hands many times over the centuries, but originally was on the Dubois tract or patent “purchased” from the Esopus tribal sachems. But that is another story.

Echoes of past lives are everywhere here, and so much history that still feels very present, very visible. Devoted New Paltz citizens, descendants of slave-owning families, have inherited some tough history. There is a reckoning now both locally and nationally. I hope it remains civil.

***

I grew up in the city and don’t know anything about horses or donkeys, but I was as captivated by these two gentle creatures living together without discord as I have been by the history of the area. They always came to my call: first the stallion, then the donkey. The stallion was taller than I am, a very large creature indeed. He would broadside his body to the fence, snort a bit, which I took as a greeting, and let me stroke him. I talked to him for a while, he went on his way, and then the donkey arrived. I had never seen a donkey up close before. Those ears and eyes and snout, so adorable. Biblical creatures, they have been used as beasts of burden for 5000 years.

I looked forward to these visits every week and to learning more about the farm, its particular history and its current owners. But this past Saturday, when I returned to the field where the horse and donkey grazed, it was empty, as was the shed. I picked up the newspaper at the end of the driveway and walked to the iron gate. There was algae bloom on the pond, the gate was closed with a bungee cord and the greenhouse was overgrown. This farm, like so many in America, is hurting. I soon learned from the grand-daughter of the owners that it is up for sale and that sadly, inexplicably, the beautiful black stallion has died. It wasn’t the heat; they’d been hosing the animals down all day. No, he had an attack of colic—horses cannot vomit to clear their digestive tract—and the vet could not save him. He was only sixteen, which is young for a horse these days.

The owners are bereft, as am I. Before leaving I walked into another field where the lone donkey was grazing peacefully. I don’t know if he feels the loss of his stallion friend—these are human emotions projected onto our beloved animals—but before I walked away I marveled at the dignity and simplicity of their lives.  Read More 
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