African American History: A Past Rooted in the Hudson Valley

African American History: A Past Rooted in the Hudson Valley

David Levine

Reprinted with permission from https://hvmag.com/life-style/history/african-american-past-hudsonvalley/  

The origin story of what was to become the United States of America typically features two main characters: the native peoples who had lived on these lands for centuries, and the Europeans who took those lands from them. But there was a third cast member in this drama, one whose role is at best downplayed and at worst ignored: Africans and their descendants. In 1613, just four years after Henry Hudson’s crew sailed up the river that would bear his name, and seven years before the Pilgrims arrived in Plymouth, a mixed-race man named Juan Rodrigues (or some spelling variant near that) left Hispaniola for the New World, set up shop in and around Manhattan Island, traded with the natives for a time, squabbled with the Dutch—who called him a “black rascal”—and then disappeared from the public record as the first African to set foot in the Hudson Valley.

In 1626, just 10 years after the establishment of New Amsterdam, the Dutch West India Company shipped 11 African male slaves—whom they labeled “proud and treacherous”—into the colony, with women brought in two years later. Some slaves were moved to Fort Orange, the outpost that became Albany. As land patents divvied up the Valley, every patent holder whose name still graces the region stocked his farm with slaves. In 1664, when the Dutch handed the keys to the new kingdom to the British, about 800 Africans and their children inhabited the Valley, only about 75 of them considered free.

The British increased slave importation, and by the early 1700s New York State had more slaves than anywhere else in the colonies, more than the deep South, more than Boston, more than the Virginia plantations. “The two biggest slave markets in the country before the American Revolution were in New York City and Albany,” Dr. A.J. Williams-Myers, a retired professor of Black Studies at SUNY New Paltz, says. By 1790, the first federal census counted more than 19,000 enslaved New Yorkers; Georgia had 12,000. “New York was not a society with slaves, it was a slave society, dependent on enslaved Africans,” he says.

As New Yorkers, we like to think of ourselves as different from the south in regards to slavery. We were different only in that, numerically speaking at least, we were worse. Any history of African descendants in the Hudson Valley must first come to grips with this fact. From the earliest moments of European contact, African Americans have been part of the Valley’s dramatis personae. “Africans have been portrayed as in the shadow of history, when actually they were center stage,” Williams-Meyers says. “Where European people went, Africans went with them, shoulder to shoulder with their enslavers.” 

The oppressed as oppressors

As the Hudson Valley economy transitioned during the 17th century from the fur trade to farming, Africans helped make the region the most prosperous in the New World. Hudson Valley farms helped feed Great Britain, its newest colonies and its holdings in the Caribbean, and Africans did much of the work. A 1733 century painting called the “Van Bergen Overmantel,” by artist John Heaten, depicts the Marten Van Bergen farm near the Greene County town of Leeds. Historic Hudson Valley writes that “no other single artifact offers more information about life in colonial New York. Here African, Native American, and European people populate the landscape.” Dr. Myra Young Armstead, Lyford Paterson Edwards and Helen Gray Edwards Professor of Historical Studies at Bard College, calls this painting, “a good picture of what was going on and why the Hudson Valley was a big area of slavery.”

Even those who came here because of oppression became oppressors. The French Huguenot founders of New Paltz purchased their first of many slaves in Kingston in 1674, a hypocrisy not lost on a Huguenot descendant. “My ancestors fled France for religious and political freedom. Before leaving France they saw their own families tortured, enslaved, and killed. Yet these emigrants came to the New World and, for their own personal gain, forced other human beings to labor against their will,” Mary Etta Schneider, board chair of Historic Huguenot Street, said this summer. “For this I am ashamed.” 

Schneider was speaking in advance of a September 2016 event, in which HHS welcomed Joseph McGill, founder of the Slave Dwelling Project. McGill travels the country spending the night in historic slave dwellings to bring awareness to their existence, history, and need for preservation. More of these are in the north than most people know. “The history I learned in school was junk,” McGill says. “Slave dwellings are part of the history of this nation. They are hidden in plain sight.” Huguenot slaves were likely locked in at night so they couldn’t escape, Schneider said, and those who slept there along with McGill got “a sense of what it must have felt like to just reinforce that ownership, that lack of ability to have any control over your life.” Addressing another myth, that northern slave owners were “better” than southern ones, McGill says bluntly, “There were no great slave owners. When you assign a degree of severity, you start with bad.”

Long before Nat Turner, slaves in New York were rebelling against their owners. In 1712, 23 slaves killed nine whites in New York City, and rumors both real and unproved of slaves plotting revolts from the City to Albany kept tensions high throughout the 18th century. In 1794, three slaves—including two girls of 12 and 14—were hanged for setting a fire that burned much of downtown Albany; two were hanged from “the Hanging Elm Tree,” at the northwest corner of State and Pearl Streets (planted in front of the house of young Philip Livingston), the third on Pinkster Hill, site of the current Capitol. “Slaves and owners were on constant war footing,” William-Myers says. “The Hanging Tree in Albany shows you the use of fear to keep Africans in their place.”

Revolutionaries and warriors

And yet, slaves helped their masters win independence. “You cannot discount Africans’ input in the Revolutionary War,” Williams-Myers says. Though they often were sent to replace their owners in battle, under the assumption that whey would be freed after the war, they fought bravely and well. “They are never pictured as part of that, but they were there on the battlefield,” he says. Slaves held positions along the Hudson River as General Clinton made his way up from New York City, and fought at the battles of Saratoga, along the Mohawk River and throughout the region. “African warriors were one of the colonies’ secret weapons,” he says. “They were significant in winning the war.”

After the war, slaves weren’t freed right away, but Federalists like John Jay and Alexander Hamilton founded the New York Manumission Society in 1785 to promote abolition. It happened in fits and starts, and full emancipation was realized when the last New York slaves were freed by July 4, 1827. It was the largest emancipation in North America before the Civil War.

The Hudson Valley to a large extent welcomed freed African Americans. During this gradual emancipation, Quaker groups offered land—usually rocky, undesirable land, to be clear—to help freed slaves, and self-sustaining black communities sprung up in Rockland (Skunk Hollow, near the New Jersey border), Westchester (The Hills in Harrison and another community near Bedford), Dutchess (near Hyde Park, Beekman and Millbrook), Ulster (Eagles Nest, west of Hurley), and all the other river counties. Though legally emancipated, blacks weren’t entirely free yet, and the Valley, like the rest of the state, was in no way free from racism. Laws limited blacks’ rights to vote, to travel with whites on public transportation, to attend school and more. “You could argue that the earliest ‘Jim Crow’ laws actually appeared in the north, not the south,” says Dr. Oscar Williams, Chair of the Department of Africana Studies at the State University of New York at Albany.

The opening of the Erie Canal, in 1815, precipitated the slow and steady migration from upstate farms to river cities for employment. “Cities like Newburgh and Poughkeepsie offered jobs to blacks, while there was bigger movement to New York City or Albany, the nodes of the Valley,” Armstead says. Black institutional and social life took hold in these cities. Rhinebeck, for example, had a vibrant neighborhood of black artisans on Oak Street. African American Revolutionary War veteran Andrew Frazier and his family, who are buried in the “Potter’s Field” section of Rhinebeck Cemetery, owned land in the Town of Milan. In Kingston, the A.M.E. Zion Church on Franklin Street, the oldest African American church in Ulster County, owns the Mt. Zion African American Burial Ground on South Wall Street. The cemetery holds the remains of members of the U.S. Colored Infantry’s 20th Regiment, which fought in the Civil War. An extension of the Mt. Zion cemetery on South Pine Street is “one of the earliest, and potentially largest slave cemeteries known in the northeast,” according to an anthropologist who conducted an archeological survey for the city of Kingston in 1993. The Rye African American Cemetery, inside the Greenwood Union Cemetery, was established in 1860 as a burial place for blacks. It is on the National Register of Historic Places and is the final resting spot for African American Civil War veterans and the descendants of many slaves from Rye.

As the Civil War approached, the Hudson Valley was a hotbed of abolition. So-called Colored Conventions, movements held by free slaves to oppose slavery and push for rights for free blacks, were held all over country, including in Poughkeepsie, Armstead says. The Underground Railroad had important station stops along the river, such as the Beecher House in Peekskill and the Stephen and Harriet Myers House in Albany. Sojourner Truth started on her march to freedom as Isabella Baumfree, a slave born on an estate near what is now Ripton, sold to a family in New Paltz. In Troy, an African American named Henry Highland Garnett was Malcolm X before Malcolm X. Garnett led a radical movement from his position as the first pastor of the Liberty Street Negro Presbyterian Church. First working with abolition leaders like William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass, he gave a famous speech in 1843 at the National Negro Convention, a “Call to Rebellion” encouraging slaves to rise up in open revolt. His position was opposed.

Past, prologue

After the Civil War, blacks continued to move from local farms to industrial centers, and in their “Great Migration” from the South. New York City was a major destination, and in time blacks also moved into the suburbs, exurbs and growing river cities of the Valley. Freedom did not mean integration, however. As just one example, in the 1920s, land in the Nepperhan neighborhood of Yonkers, now known as Runyon Heights, was sold to blacks because whites didn’t want it and it was naturally separated from white communities.

Work, as always, continued to be the magnet drawing African Americans north, and the Valley had one of the world’s most powerful magnets: IBM. After World War II, “IBM was really important, ahead of its time, a global force that recruited from black colleges and universities,” Armstead says. By the late 1950s and 1960s, black professionals populated the area. “That generation is dying or dead now, but they became the first black heads of organizations, the first black teachers,” she says.

The history of African Americans over the last half century is a story of progress and regression, of course, both nationally and here in the Valley. The current political climate is restive. The struggle has been ongoing for 403 years now, ever since Juan Rodriguez stepped ashore and began battling the Dutch. The story has evolved, but it hasn’t ended. As William Faulkner wrote, the past is never dead. It’s not even past.

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