Juneteenth in New Paltz, NY
When we know and accept the unvarnished truth — in all of its complexity, conflict and context — it can change how we view things, including ourselves.
-Kevin Young, the NY Times, June 18, 2021. Mr. Young is the Andrew W. Mellon director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The choice of slavery was deliberate, and that reality is hard to square with a desire to present a pristine and heroic origin story about the settlement of Texas…Origin stories matter, for individuals, groups of people, and for nations. They inform our sense of self; telling us what kind of people we believe we are, what kind of nation we believe we live in.
-Harvard Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, from her book, "On Juneteenth"
Soon after I arrived in New Paltz, NY, in the spring of 2018, I heard about a great upheaval on the SUNY (State University of New York) campus just down the road from where we had rented an apartment. Why were the Black students so upset about the names on their dormitory complexes? What was going on?
I decided to find out. After all, I was now a citizen of this town, albeit a citizen journalist with research and interviewing skills. It didn't take long to discover that the town so many have called "charming," "idyllic" and "liberal," is a monument to the Dutch, English and French Huguenot slave-owning settlers. The 17th and 18th century stone houses they built are extant, the slave dwellings unmarked by any accurate signage. And the dormitories were named after French Huguenot families; their descendants still live in the town. After a whole year of testimony, these dormitories were renamed, and I wrote an article for The Poughkeepsie Journal.
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.
But questions remain about the slaves in New Paltz, their owners, and the emancipated slaves—where they went, how they fared. Why did so many end their lives in the Poor House? Where are their descendants today? Is there any evidence of Jim Crow laws, Black Codes, segregated schools, indentured servitude, rape, or lynching? Why is this idyllic, liberal town so white? How do we approach the 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?
These are some of the questions I am pondering as I plan a series of restorative justice workshops—to begin in the Fall—at the Unison Arts Center in New Paltz. I'll be speaking there tomorrow night as they launch their "Prejudice Project." Dear Reader, I hope if you are local, you will join me: