Free at Last; Disrupting Systemic Racism in One Small Town
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave-owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood."
- Martin Luther King, Jr., August 28. 1963
Get in good trouble, necessary trouble, and help redeem the soul of America.
- John Lewis Selma, Alabama, March 1, 2020
I walked past Esi Lewis's house on Huguenot Street in New Paltz yesterday, just a stone's throw from the loosely designated African American Burial Ground—no penetrating radar has ever been done—and close to the Elting family burial ground across the street. And though it was a bitterly cold morning, the thought of Esi living there with her family warmed me.
There is irony in Esi's modern home on Huguenot Street with its neighboring stone houses built in the 17th century by the slave-owning French Huguenot families. An accomplished Black lawyer, born and raised in New Paltz, her mother was the Chair of the Black Studies Department at SUNY. When Esi returned to New Paltz after many lawyering years in the city, she decided to run for the Town Board where her father also served. One commitment led to another; she has now also been appointed the "steward" of the New Paltz Black History Museum and Cultural Center, which hopefully will be open in a year.
"It is well-documented that the Huguenots were slave owners," she wrote eloquently in her proposal for the project. "For the forced labor that toiled on this land we have mere signage. Most, if not all of the properties that were built and or owned by the first Blacks and hold the history of the African Americans in New Paltz have been turned over to white ownership.
The ONLY anti-racist action under these circumstances is to restore the Ann Oliver House at 5 Broadhead Avenue to Black ownership and create an African American Cultural Center on this historic property."
Enslavement has been designated a crime against humanity by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and it is my preference to refer to it as such from now on. Such crimes require reparations, or truth and reconciliation commissions; as Americans, shamefully, we are just at the very beginning of this process. The Center Esi envisions will be an act of reparative justice for New Paltz. In many ways, it already is. She is interviewing contractors, applied for not-for-profit status, and for grants. She held an—outdoor and masked—Kwanzaa celebration on the lawn on December 31, which was both festive and informative. The crowd was substantial and included the Chief of Police, his wife, the mayor, and other guests.
The Ann Oliver House was built in the First Free Black Neighborhood by Jacob Wynkoop, a free Black man. His mother Jane Wynkoop, born a slave and freed in 1827, purchased the property because the vote was only granted to landowners; she wanted her two sons to be able to vote. Jacob fought in the Civil War, and became a contractor and builder when he returned. He is buried in the Rural Cemetery here, a prominent citizen, his contribution to the Union Army and the community unrecognized until recently.
The Village of New Paltz—the Town Historian, the Village Historic Preservation Commission, and the Town Board—worked hard to preserve the derelict Ann Oliver House. When the restoration is complete, it will become a companion to the Jacob Wynkoop Anna Banks House at 6 Broadhead, under the care of Historic Huguenot Street, which is already a stop on one of their curated walking tours.
The relationship between the Black History Museum and Cultural Center and Historic Huguenot Street, an entity in and of itself, partially funded by the descendants of the Huguenot families who still live in town, will undoubtedly evolve in the months and years ahead. Some of the Huguenot descendants have been notably resistant to surfacing their troubled history. Yet, I am hopeful that a changed perspective and a new Director of Curatorial and Preservation Affairs at Historic Huguenot Street, Josephine Bloodgood, will ensure continuing improvements. In an email exchange with Ms. Bloodgood, she expressed abiding support—on behalf of Historic Huguenot Street—of the new center.
There is no statute of limitations on murder and crimes against humanity. Indeed, it is past time to confront false narratives, obfuscations, and buried history, wherever we live.