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Virus Without Borders: Chapter Forty-One

The Memorial Bench by Craig Shankles, a Huguenot St. resident and professional sculptor. He researched the history of enslavement in New Paltz and was horrified. "I wanted to do the right thing," he told me. The bench was his first memorial.   http://www.stoneandsteeldesigns.com/
Photo © copyright Carol Bergman 2020

 

 

Chattel

 

One in five New Yorkers was a slave…They dug the roads, and their own graves at the Negro Burying Ground.

                 

                 -Jill Lepore, "These Truths; A History of the United States"

 

 

I had thought I would write about voting today, the turning up and turning out, the waiting on lines the first day of early voting, the patience, the conversations, the determination despite the persistent dangers of the pandemic, a celebration of hard-earned universal suffrage. But after returning home from a commemoration at the African American Burial Ground in New Paltz, I felt sad rather than elated, or sad and elated. Elated by the texts I was receiving about casting a ballot, sad as I walked down Huguenot St. after the event. We had stood near—or  on—a field of bones and ash, no more than a burial pit, covered by a verdant lawn, a tarmac road, houses, cars driving by too fast, bikers, peak weekend. It was not a comfortable sensation standing in proximity to abandoned unmarked graves except for a sign and a concrete memorial bench with a thick, broken metal chain, that was placed there twenty-years ago when a racism study group commissioned the work. The stone memorial bench has stopped me cold many times; it is a powerful image. I thought of my grandfather's grave in Vienna, which all through World War II  had been a mound without a stone, or even a wooden marker. My grandfather, who died before the round-up, was spared the cattle car, the enslavement in the death camp before the killing, and then the killing itself, all family connection obliterated in that not so long ago genocide.

 

The survivors of once large, extended Jewish families—including my own—are  forever scattered in a diaspora, not unlike the African slaves brought as chattel to the New World. Reparations for the latter are overdue. Families riven, and then reconstituted, or newly assembled, families without inherited well-tended burial plots, or inherited wealth, their ancestors thrown asunder into the ground, bones and viscera commingling.

 

The burial ground on Huguenot street has never  been excavated. Should it be now? Would it matter? How would descendants of the slaves feel if they had a voice in these commemorative decisions in a town settled by Dutch, English, and French Huguenot slave-owners?  What would they say? How would they want their ancestors who labored and suffered here remembered? Is the commemoration for them, for the descendants of the slave owners, many of whom still live in New Paltz, or for everyone? 

 

Though New Paltz is a very white town--a story in itself-- thoughtful restorative justice initiatives continue, with more projects underway. The elliptical, mythic, false American narrative is shifting.

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Sundays in the Mountains; A Look Backwards & Forwards

Photo © copyright by Carol Bergman 2020

 

Huguenot Street in New Paltz is a palimpsest, layers of history, some undisturbed, some excavated. It's my favorite walk in town, sheltered from the wind in winter, sun dappled but not fierce in the warm months. The Dutch Reformed Church anchors the street and it's bursting with parishoners on a Sunday. People pray here, people say, "Have a blessed day," when they open a door at a doctor's office, or the bank. They can also be stand-offish, guarded to the point of rudeness, suspicious, intimidated, afraid. This is the America I knew existed but never experienced first hand until I moved north of the city, beyond the suburbs, along the route of the mighty Hudson River. I'm still learning, I'm still reading, researching, and writing about what I discover here. Some days I am exhuasted by new insights, new projects, new people; on other days I am more relaxed than I ever was when I lived in the city. I had always thought, or assumed, that the competitive, ambitious, striving, assertive, materialistic pulse of the city was the only pulse that mattered. I was wrong.


I arrived here in the spring of 2018 in the midst of a "monuments" controversy on the SUNY New Paltz campus. Several dormitories were named after the slave-owning Huguenot families and the African American students wanted those names changed. Because it is a state university and the whole town is a monument to the Huguenot slave-owning families—whose descendants still live here—the university had to go through a laborious testimonial process; it took months. Any decision had to be approved by New York State, not the Huguenot descendants, and that was difficult for the families. Controversy writ large, bad feeling, hatred. The outcome, unlike the outcome in the Senate, was not pre-ordained, however. Indeed, the university fell on the right side of history; the names have been changed.


Because it touched on a subject that has always been one of my subjects—the way history is told, and for whom—I plowed right in. Within weeks I'd written a guest editorial for the Poughkeepsie Journal. Needless to say, I expected to be praised for my two cents, invited to seminars, consulted on my very important opinion. Instead, I experienced a kind of shunning. The shunning intensified when I was interviewed by the local paper about my book, "Say Nothing." Alas, my picture appeared next to the profile and I became instantly recognizable in this very small town where people refer to me, when I'm introduced, as a "newbie." My still urban, sophisticated, well-traveled self, did not anticipate any of this. Blind to life outside the New York City bubble, where I still happily commute to teach, see friends, and imbibe culture, I was humbled.


I have heard some New Yorkers say that New Paltz is a "'hick" town with only a handful of decent restaurants. This condescension now riles me so I guess I have adapted, finally, to living here. Who are we to say that a town we know so little about is a "hick" town, that the highly educated, privileged prism through which we view America and its conundrums is the only prism with which to view our beleaguered, divided country, much less solve its problems.


I needn't tell you, dear reader, where my politics reside—born and raised in a European democratic socialist family—I am on the "left" in the American political spectrum. But I have studied the politics of my new gun-toting, hunting, under-educated, semi-literate environs, as well as it's more privileged residents, and concluded that 45 is right in one important respect: the hinterland is another land, another country, decimated by cutbacks in educational opportunities, unemployment, outsourcing, and the opioid crisis, which has hit New York State hard. Any answers forthcoming must be local, grassroots, federally and state funded, and unstinting. I cannot count the number of young people I've met here who have had to quit school to work, whose loans are off the charts, and who cannot find a well-paying unionized job with benefits once they graduate. Even a day trip to New York City seems like Neverland to them.


Those of us who are educated, established in our careers, the owners of property and bank accounts, those of us who are altruistic, those of us who care, must help as much as we can and remain active and consistently empathetic, without condescension. Beyond the 2020 election, that is the only way we will take back America.

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Getting the Story Right

The presentation of the flag of the Mohican Nation to Historic Huguenot Street on September 20, 2019. Photo © copyright Carol Bergman

 

 

 

Listen to us and the great good spirit will reward your goodness. If you should finally shut your ears may that great spirit forgive you.

 

Hendrik Aupaumut in a letter to the New York State Legislature, 1790

 

 

We were sitting under a big white tent on Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, NY on land that many still believe belongs to the descendants of the indigenous people who settled here more than 7,000 years before the Europeans arrived. It was an historic occasion, and an emotional one. Henrick Aupaumut's letter had been presented to the historic site as a gift, and it tells a complicated story within and between it's formal, diplomatic words. Written after the American Revolution, it argues for the restoration of land stolen by the Dutch, British, and French Huguenot colonists from the indigenous inhabitants of upstate New York and beyond. Hendrik Aupaumut  had fought on the American side during the war; he expected to be heard.
 
So vast and diverse was the land on which the indigenous population once roamed, that historians can define swaths of settlements, but no clear borders. Nomadic, intermarried, culturally and linguistically connected, the suvivors of war, disease and even enslavement, migrations and diplomatic councils were constant, more so after the Europeans arrived. Once eracinated and dispossesed, there was little hope of return to sacred land, a concept the tribes still hold dear. Their rich history is still not properly taught in our schools. 
 
Mary Etta Schneider, President and Board Chair of Historic Huguenot Street, and a French Huguenot descendant herself, got up to speak. I have heard her speak before, but never with so much feeling. "We are on a journey," she said. "We are learning. And we want to get the story right."  The audience went silent. Perhaps they were expecting a sterile academic lecture and nothing more. Indeed, there was a lecture, eventually—and a fascinating one—by  scholar Lisa Brooks, but first there was a ceremony. Two councilmen from the Stockbridge-Munsee band of the Mohican Nation were in attendance—they had traveled from Wisconsin—as well as the tribe's Preservation Officer, Bonney Hartley, who sits on the HHS Board.
 
As in times of old, Algonquin was spoken and translated by the speakers themselves, which in itself was startling, that this language is still extant and used.

 

Mary Etta Schneider's hand went over her heart as she returned to her seat after the gifts were exchanged. This is a continuing and permanent partnership, she had promised. The flag of the Munsee-Stockbridge Band will now fly on a pole on Huguenot Street.
 
It was an important gathering—truth and reconciliation—and one I will remember for a long time. I congratulate Historic Huguenot Street for their continuing efforts at re-interpretation of the fault lines in our history that haunt our historic sites, and this particular site in the town I now call home.

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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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Hugo the Huguenot

Photo courtesy Jennifer DuBois Bruntil
I met Jennifer DuBois Bruntil in the women’s locker room the first week I moved up to New Paltz. We’re both lap swimmers and I’d noticed that she has a smooth competitor’s stroke and mentioned that I ,too, had once been a competitive swimmer. I don’t do flip turns any more, nor do I rotate my head side to side to breathe, though I still love to swim. That was the beginning of our conversation.

Jennifer is a trained teacher who, at the time, was working at Historic Huguenot Street as the School Programming Coordinator. She 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.

I was intrigued and started to read everything I could about the history of New Paltz from the first Dutch settlements to the present day. Dear Reader, I went to the local library. There I found various books on the shelves, an archivist, a huge collection of memorabilia, and a link to 66 libraries in the Mid-Hudson Valley for loans.

As soon as I began to read, I wanted to know more:

What happened to the Esopus people? They were the First Americans to live here. Unlike the descendants of the Dutch, English and French Huguenot families who still reside in New Paltz, their history is mostly absent from a history of New Paltz photo book for sale at the library. Yet the Algonquin language the tribe (still) speaks is evident everywhere—the Esopus creek, the town of Esopus, Kerhonkson, and so much more.

The tribe was decimated by disease, enslaved by the Dutch “settlers,” pushed west into Wisconsin and Canada by the US government—a trail of tears—and by the time the Huguenots arrived, their numbers had diminished significantly, they were in survival mode and struck financially beneficial deals. By all accounts, they lived mostly peacefully with the Huguenot settlers who themselves had escaped persecution. It’s a complex, fascinating and troubling story that still resonates today.

“The subject of my town’s local history had been on my mind for a few reasons. For one, I am a descendant of the New Paltz Huguenots,” Jennifer DuBois Bruntil explains in an article she wrote for the Poughkeepsie Journal in December, 2016 to publicize her children’s book, “Hugo the Huguenot.”

Although Jennifer had never considered herself an author, the idea for the book began as a poem in her head in the middle of the night. She got up and wrote it all down, consulted friends, found a local illustrator, Matthew Kelly, and started to raise funds through Kickstarter. The book is charming, informative and, for the most part, historically responsible. More than a simple “congratulations on getting published” is due here. To her credit, Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has included four beautifully illustrated pages devoted to the Esopus presence on the land the Huguenots purchased. Missing, however, is any reference--even in the background illustrations-- to the African slaves in New Paltz. Yet, the history of slavery in New Paltz has been carefully documented by historians Eric Roth and Susan Stessin-Cohn in the Huguenot Historic Site's“register” of slaves (1799-1825). They write:

“Often overlooked is the fact that African slaves provided the town of New Paltz with an abundant supply of labor for use in the farms, mills, and homes during the town's first 150 years. The institution of slavery thus provided the Huguenots and their descendants with much of the labor upon which to build their communities, prosperity, and longevity.”

The register is fascinating to read:

https://www.hrvh.org/cdm/ref/collection/hhs/id/718

Few families in Colonial America, including the Jews in New York and our Founding Fathers, remained innocent as the barbarity of the slave trade intensified. Either they owned slaves themselves, were complicit in the “legalization” of the institution, or succumbed to the temptation of free labor.

Jennifer DuBois Bruntil has ended her modest children’s book with the arrival of the Huguenots in America, before they purchased slaves themselves. A sequel would undoubtedly have to include all this subsequent, disturbing history explained simply, but honestly, to young readers. During the educational tours at the Huguenot Historic Site, students are taken to different "stations" where they find out about the Esopus at one station, and family life, including slaves, at another. None of the local history is ignored. And during the summer months, SUNY New Paltz Professor Joseph Diamond supervises students as they dig for artifacts left by the settlers, the Native Americans, and slaves, in front of the DuBois Fort, the Esopus Wigwam, and elsewhere in the carefully preserved, landmarked area. This year he hopes to excavate part of the road. I plan to stop by to observe their progress and will report again in another blog post. Stay tuned.

***

“Hugo the Huguenot” is available online or at the Huguenot Historic Site gift shop in the Fort:

https://historic-huguenot-street-museum-shop.myshopify.com/products/hugo-the-huguenot

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