Let Sleeping Bones Lie
The question that remains in Boston, and across the country, is how we can amend the American story through our monuments without tearing them all down.
-W. Ralph Eubanks, "Monuments," in The New Yorker 10/24/21
It's been twenty years since a memorial sign and bench were installed in front of 174 Huguenot Street to commemorate the African American Burial Ground in New Paltz, NY, though it's more than likely that the African American Burial Ground is underneath the lawn of 176, and more a burial pit than a burial ground. The then owners of 176 refused to allow ground-penetrating radar and sent their lawyer to a African American Burial Ground Committee meeting to object to further excavation. According to Susan Stessin-Cohn, who was working at Historic Huguenot Street at the time, and is now the New Paltz Town Historian, a bulldozer had turned up human bones. Although it is not against the penal code of New York State to let sleeping bones lie, further investigation might have amplified the story of enslavement in New Paltz and the Mid-Hudson Valley.
Stessin-Cohn remained and remains undaunted. Years after this disappointment, she ceremoniously buried the skull of an African slave excavated from the perimeter of the Deyo House in 1894, and stored away in the Historic Huguenot Street archives ever since. Stessin-Cohn, along with the Board of Historic Huguenot Street, thought it was past time to memorialize at least one slave, thereby honoring all others who had lived and worked as chattel on the street.
The United States from 1619 onwards was a slave society. Until 1827 when slavery was outlawed in New York State, the Dutch, English and French Huguenot settlers in New Paltz owned slaves: 302 by 1790, which was 13% of the population at that time, according to the Register of Slaves unearthed at the Historic Huguenot Street archives by Stessin-Cohn and her colleague, Eric Roth. "If anyone needs restitution, it's us here," Susan Stessin-Cohn has said often over the years.
The remains of indigenous people are protected by Federal law, but the remains of slaves are not. When the bi-partisan African American Burial Grounds legislation pending in Congress is finally signed into law, it will provide both grants and assistance to communities to discover and protect these burial grounds. But it is not a mandate; the aid has to be requested. As for reparations for the descendants of enslaved families, that will take much longer, though it will happen, eventually.
Meanwhile, small communities throughout the United States are reassessing their histories, their narratives, and their extant physical monuments. New Paltz is no exception. Historic Huguenot Street has done a lot of reinterpretation in the three years since I arrived in the town, the SUNY campus has taken down the names of the slave-owning families on their dormitories, and there are plans by the Village of New Paltz, with the assistance of the Historic Preservation Commission, to commemorate the Black history of the town by landmarking a derelict house on Broadhead Ave., partially built by Jacob Wynkoop, a free Black man who fought in the Civil War and returned to New Paltz—where he had been born and raised—to become a contractor and builder. Several of his houses are still standing. He is buried in the (formerly) segregated Rural Cemetery.
No developer welcomes delay, no owner the stigma of a slave burial ground on their property, which may (or may not) affect the value of that property. Those are the rumblings I've heard as I researched this modest story. But denial and obfuscation will not make the physical remains of the enslaved population in New Paltz disappear. After years of meticulous research Susan Stessin-Cohn believes there are numerous African American burial grounds in New Paltz. With her annual stipend of $1000 and limited time, she does what she can, but there are no slave descendant Black residents that I know of in New Paltz—the result of a still under-reported Jim Crow culture— who will hasten what still needs to be done, or demand it.
Apart from the students and faculty on the SUNY New Paltz campus, the whiteness of the town, which most consider liberal-progressive, is a story, too. How did this happen? Where did the emancipated slaves go? A few built a community on Pencil Hill Road, but they became destitute and left the area, or may have ended up in the Poor House, now covered over by the Ulster County Fairgrounds and Pool, and memorialized with a statue commissioned by Stessin-Cohn.
Down at Monticello in Charlottesville, Va. , a committee of descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings, in collaboration with descendants of Thomas Jefferson and his wife, Martha, are working to create a contemplative space in a slave burial ground discovered near the parking lot. The burial ground, which holds over forty graves analyzed by ground-penetrating radar, remains undisturbed. New paths and plantings will be installed, as well as seating and signs to "reinvigorate" and protect the sacred space.
And closer to my home in New Paltz, the Pine Street African American Burial Ground in Kingston, NY is being restored and protected as a sacred space and educational benchmark by the Kingston Land Trust and Scenic Hudson in collaboration with Harambee, a nonprofit organization whose goal is to bring the community together through celebration and awareness of African-American Heritage. I look forward to participating in—and reporting on—a similar project in New Paltz in the not too distant future.