Making life as hard as possible for free African Americans, impairing their movement and economic prospects—even if that meant the state would forgo the economic benefits of talented people who wanted to work—was designed to prove that Blacks could not operate outside of slavery.
― Annette Gordon-Reed, "On Juneteenth"
I was walking with a friend on Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY when we came across a "For Sale" sign on the front lawn of one of the 18th century stone houses.
"How'd you like to live here?" someone said behind the stone wall that divides the property from the street.
It was a guy wearing a baseball cap eager to get into conversation. My friend used to be a docent on this historic street and, as it happens, is married to a descendant of one of the thirteen French Huguenot families who settled here, displacing the Munsee Lenape natives, enslaving them, sickening them, or fighting with them. Like the Dutch and English before them, the French Huguenots enslaved Black labor to work in their houses and on the land. An African American burial ground, probably no more than a pit, sits nearby the house for sale, owned by the Huguenot Hasbrouck family. It went up for sale last June for more than a $1,000,000. In an Albany Times Union article announcing the sale, there is no mention of slavery.
I stood back, curious how the conversation would unfold. I did not want to insert my opinions into the conversation. It was a Sunday, we were on a leisurely walk, trying to relax, and my friend is married to a Huguenot descendant, so it's tricky, though it shouldn't be.
The guy selling the house said he'd lived there for fifty-five years and he loved history so he was eager to find a buyer who also loved history. That got me to thinking about ethical obligations. What would I do if I'd lived in this house for fifty-five years, was a descendant of the enslaving settler family, and wanted or needed to sell it? Would I be concerned that if I mentioned the slave cellar, now a rec room, the value of the house would decrease? How would I proceed?
A week or so later I went to an event sponsored by the local library's "inclusivity and diversity" committee. The library—the Elting Memorial Library—was built by a slave-owning Huguenot family. After the Civil War, Peter Elting had loaned money to a small Black community living on Pencil Hill Road. Emancipated, entrepreneurial, in search of work, they had built homes and also wanted their own church as the United Methodist Church in town was segregated. Unable to repay the Elting loan, which was never forgiven, the community eventually disbanded and left New Paltz for Poughkeepsie, Newburgh, Kingston, and points unknown. Their departure, probably by the turn of the 20th century at the latest, only begins to answer the question: Why are there no descendants of the slaves left in New Paltz? And why are there so few Black people living here today? Is there any evidence of Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, Racial Covenants in land deeds, segregated schools, indentured servitude, rape, or lynching? Is the rumor of a terrorist fire-bombing of the Pencil Hill Road AME Zion church reported in a recent Kingston Daily Freeman article true? How do we approach these lacunas and myths in local history today? How do we shift and amplify the narrative? What is our responsibility as citizens and neighbors? How do we move forward? What kind of a town and nation do we want to live in?
Soon after I arrived in New Paltz, NY, in the spring of 2018, I heard about a upheaval on the SUNY campus. Why were the Black students so upset about the names of Huguenot families on their dormitory complexes? What was going on? A lot. After a whole year of testimony, the dormitories were renamed, the beginnings of reconciliation and reparation. Then the pandemic hit and the process of re-constituting the narrative history of New Paltz slowed. Nonetheless, various re-interpretation projects proceeded at Historic Huguenot Street, in the Village by the Historic Preservation Commission, and with the tenacious work of Town Historian, Susan Stessin-Cohn, who had, among other finds, unearthed a Poor House under the Ulster County Fair Grounds; she commissioned a statue to memorialize it. Who was living in that Poor House I wonder?
Hopefully, the library and Historic Huguenot Street itself will eventually honor the slave labor which contributed to the construction and wealth of the town with an acknowledgment before each program similar to a Land Acknowledgment:
It is with gratitude and humility that we acknowledge that we in the town of New Paltz and environs are learning, speaking and gathering on the land and in the houses built with the help of kidnapped enslaved labor. We pay honor and respect to the slaves who labored here and their descendants and we are committed to building a more inclusive and equitable space for all.
I mentioned this idea to my friend, who quickly had his own "reparation" idea: What if his family's educational fund was offered to descendants of New Paltz slaves—if they can be found? That suggestion warmed my heart.