The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.
― George Orwell
I've often wondered what it must have been like to have lived in New Paltz, NY if I had been born enslaved, or emancipated in 1827 and remained indentured until the age of 25, or born free only to be out of work and forced to end my days in the Poor House. I drove through the town for more than a decade to visit my daughter and son-in-law in Kerhonkson on the west side of the Minnewaska Ridge, famous for its rock face climbers call "The Gunks," short for the Munsee word Shawangunk, the language of the indigenous Esopus people. All those years I was oblivious to local history. I'd never stopped to read the signage in front of the library, or walked on Historic Huguenot Street past the old stone houses with their dirt floor cellars. It was not until I moved to New Paltz in 2018 that I began to wander the town with intention and learn the history of its Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers, all of them enslavers. Once the indigenous Esopus people were killed, infected with European diseases, or fled north and west, African slaves provided the town of New Paltz with a constant supply of labor for use in farms, mills, and homes during the town's first 150 years. Indeed, most families in Colonial America, including our Founding Fathers, succumbed to the temptation of free labor, rationalized it, and participated in slavery's long sordid history. All of this is well documented. Yet the signage in the town and the tours I went on before Covid hardly mentioned slavery. I also began to ask, "Where were the descendants of those slaves? Why is this town so White?" According to the latest census, less than 7% of a population of 15,000 are Black, and they are mostly migrants from other areas or students and professors on the SUNY college campus. "Jim Crow," my friend Jerrie Stewart mumbled one day at lunch. Jerrie is a descendant of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. She runs a blog about her family's history, and is active in the ongoing efforts at Monticello, together with the Martha Jefferson descendants, to update the narration of the tours and protect The Burial Ground for Enslaved People on the property, among other projects.
But it was the day I met Jennifer DuBois Bruntil in the women's locker room at the pool where we both swim that I began my local education in earnest. Jennifer 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, as are the names of all the other "patentees," the thirteen original Huguenot settler families who arrived after the Dutch and the English during the colonial period.
Jennifer Dubois Bruntil was working at Historic Huguenot Street in 2018 and had written a sweet children's book called Hugo the Huguenot which depicts the Esopus People, but does not mention enslavement. I wondered why not, but didn't ask as Jennifer is as sweet-natured as the Hugo she created for her book. But it was around this time that the campus began a process of self-examination: some of the dormitories were named after the colonial settler families. After several months of "testimony," the names were changed. Facebook exploded with vituperative comments.
I wrote an article about this "dormitory controversy," for the Poughkeepsie Journal as the decision making process and its backlash reminded me of the International Center for Transitional Justice's truth and reconciliation work in South Africa and Bosnia which I had studied when I was working on my book—Another Day in Paradise—about humanitarian workers. It occurred to me that the Town of New Paltz, and probably many other towns across America, north and south, might benefit from a similar process.
I do not claim to be an historian but rather a journalist and educator. I have studied what others have researched about the town's history and opined on my blog for local newspapers. More than once I have received emails prevailing upon me not to tell lies about the town; one demanded a public apology. What this would entail I dared not ask. I have kept in touch with the programming on Historic Huguenot Street and been impressed with ongoing efforts to make changes, including recent hires such as Josephine Bloodgood, a curator, who has been expanding and deepening the work of two previous onsite historians, Eric Roth and Susan Stessin-Cohn—currently the Town of New Paltz Historian. I am certain that not all the patentee families, who still live in the town, would be pleased with these ongoing efforts to intensify research and correct narration. Nonetheless, and to their credit, the Board of Historic Huguenot Street hired Eddie Moran in 2022 as another, more visible bridge from past obfuscation to present-day reinterpretation and redemption. Tall and lean with bright attentive eyes, a steady gaze, and a well enunciated speaking voice, Moran is a 25-year-old colonial settler descendant who knows his history and has the generous and patient persona of a seasoned professor to convey it. His official title is Tour and Interpretation Manager, but he's also an enthusiastic tour guide, and intrepid researcher.
I met him on a grey Saturday afternoon on one of his newly designed Black History Month tours. We were standing in the living quarters of the Deyo house refurbished and expanded in 1790 to demonstrate the Deyo family's "ascendancy" as prosperous citizens of New Paltz. "Ascendancy," is Moran's word and I had never heard a settler descendant utter it before. The Deyo family's slaves lived in the attic or the cellar of the house, Moran told us, but the slaves' history—where they were from, who their ancestors were—is mostly lost. "Unlike my history," Moran says ruefully. "Mine is not lost." That's because he has access to family trees and learned early in life that he is descended from settler colonial families. He often refers to them as relatives while, at the same time, and almost in the same paragraph, he introduces damning information about the treatment of their chattel property and the intentional erasure of slave history by "my organization," meaning Historic Huguenot Street. Moran brought copies of documents, laminated in plastic, to be passed around. The audience was rapt. It was as if the Deyo family's slaves were within proximity, standing as shadows behind us, waiting to be understood, and acknowledged.
"We just don't know about so much," Moran says, and continues with the admission that "my organization contributed to the historical erasure." By "my organization" he means Historic Huguenot Street, his employer. This is an unequivocal admission, and a turning point for Historic Huguenot Street and the town. Some of the elliptical signage is now also amplified by explanatory paper "markers," he explained, and some of it will be replaced, an expensive and slow process.
Moran also volunteers for the History Committee at the Margaret Wade-Lewis Center, founded to preserve the Black experience in the Hudson Valley through the lens of free and enslaved lives. It's currently running offsite programming while a donated historic building, the Ann Oliver House, begins renovation this summer. Moran hopes that the tours of both organizations will inform one another, and that all the historians and curators will work together—in a process of truth and reconciliation—to build a complete and unedited history of New Paltz.
Historic Huguenot Street will re-open 5-days a week for tours after Memorial Day:
The Margaret Wade-Lewis Center will be celebrating Juneteenth on June 19th: