Acknowledging the History of Slavery in New Paltz: SUNY Dorms To Be Renamed
We speak with Historic Huguenot Street on engaging with the town's past, present, and the role historic sites play in these debates.
Crispell Hall at SUNY New Paltz
On March 20, the SUNY Board of Trustees approved the renaming of six residential halls on the New Paltz campus named for French Huguenot slaveowners who had been founding members of the town. The names were changed following a lengthy process that took stock of student, faculty, and public opinion — a decision that, as shown in a recent New York Times article, has not been without controversy in the Ulster County town. Opting to focus on Hudson Valley locations of signifance, SUNY's College Council approved the following names: Shawangunk Hall, Awosting Hall, Minnewaska Hall, Mohonk Hall, Ashokan Hall, and Peregrine Dining Center.
The former six names (Bevier, Deyo, Hasbrouck, Dubois, Crispell, and Levefre) can be seen all around New Paltz, a town which takes its heritage very seriously. Nowhere is this legacy being so seriously considered — and reconsidered — as at Historic Huguenot Street (HHS), an organization founded in 1894 to preserve a number of stone houses inhabited by the European settlers in New Paltz. We spoke with Director of Public Programming Kara Augustine and Executive Director Liselle LaFrance about their organization’s mission, how they engage with New Paltz’s history of slavery, and the role historic sites play in these debates.
How has your organization’s purpose changed over the years?
Kara Augustine: Over the years the historic interpretation of the site has expanded and diversified to include not just that of the French Huguenot settlers but all the people’s and cultures who inhabited this land, not just for the hundreds of years that the European descendants were here, but also for thousands of years before that. That includes everything from the Esopus-Munsee Native Americans — in 2017 we built a replica wigwam here on the site so we can better interpret those histories and cultures — and it also includes the other European colonists, the Dutch settlers and the English settlers. It also incorporates the enslaved Africans that were here on this street and in the colony.
Liselle LaFrance: I think the other significant change in recent years has been our commitment to engage our audiences in a dialog rather than just imposing a historical narrative on them and getting them to make connections between the past and present. We’re really working hard on that piece of it. A few years ago the museum was able to invest in professional staff and took a whole new approach to the interpretation overall and I would give Kara a lot of credit for that. Over the past five years the programming has really made that shift.
How do you teach about and acknowledge the role of slavery at Historic Huguenot Street and in New Paltz generally?
KA: It’s something we certainly by no means sweep under the rug. These people were a very important part of the foundation of the history of New Paltz. The French Huguenot settlement, that land trade with the Native Americans was made in 1677. Three years prior to that one of the French Huguenots who is considered one of the founders of New Paltz, he purchased two enslaved Africans at an auction in the town of Esopus. Which means that, from our standpoint, that the day that a French Huguenot stepped foot on this land, likely so did an African. So, that history runs just as deep as the standard Huguenot history and interpretation, as well as the Dutch, of course. So, incorporate that into all of our daily tours. We also incorporate it into special public and educational programming including school programs, I might add.
The main thing and the main way that we interpret the history of slavery on the street and in the region is through the narrative of Sojourner Truth. Sojourner Truth was both born and enslaved locally in Ulster County and actually was owned by a family that lived in the New Paltz patent for a time. Now that family did not live necessarily on Huguenot Street but New Paltz used to be much larger than it is today and that family did live here. Based on her narrative we can pretty much assume that the individuals who were enslaved by the Huguenots, by the Dutch colonists, and their descendants likely lived under similar circumstances that she lived under and was enslaved under. That’s how we interpret the history of slavery here on the street.
Unfortunately we don’t have these firsthand accounts and primary documents like diaries or journals from the enslaved because most of them were not being taught to read and write in English or Dutch or French. And if they did jot down something, it probably wasn’t saved for any particular purpose. What we do have in terms of primary documents that do record the existence of slavery in New Paltz and on Huguenot Street are often tax records, individuals would have been taxed for the enslaved that they owned. There are last will and testaments, because these individuals were considered to be someone’s property, they would have been passed down as such from one individual to their heirs. We also see a lot of runaway slave ads for this region, which really speaks to the strength and bravery of these individuals, that they got up and ran from their captors.
LL: Beyond the general tours, the other programming we do includes large public events like Juneteenth. We have a celebration of Juneteenth scheduled for June 2nd this year, and it’s going to celebrate the contributions of black veterans in this region. The special events she talked about include dramatic presentations called ‘In Her Words,’ which highlights women who lived on the street, including a young enslaved woman named Rachel. Kara worked closely with the slave dwelling project, which is based in South Carolina. They came up here and did an overnight program up here in one of the slave cellars. We also do publications and exhibits, including John Hasbrouck, who had been enslaved and was the first black man to vote in New Paltz.
So diversifying your programming is a priority?
LL: Absolutely. It’s an institution-wide commitment, our mission calls for it, our vision calls for it, and we seek every opportunity to do that.
What has the reaction been like locally?
LL: I’d say very positive. We can tell by the attendance at our lecture series, and we get a lot of repeat attendees at our public programs. I think our event audiences have diversified organically as a result of these types of initiatives, and people ask about the next opportunities, so I’d say it’s overall been very positive.
Then what do you see as the role of your organization in terms of these sorts of conversations?
LL: In terms of the issue in New Paltz and the renaming at SUNY, that’s what distinguishes the two institutions and what lens we’re looking at that issue through. For HHS it’s our goal and our charge to really help as broad a public as possible to understand the historic forces that have shaped this country, to help them make connections between the past and the present.
We try to do that through all these initiatives. Whereas the university was responding to a campus community concern. And so everybody kept trying to get us both to weigh in, but we’re coming at it from different angles, because of our missions.
What do you think is the best way to honor New Paltz’s heritage while also teaching about the reality of slavery?
AE: My perspective is always to be as honest an open and accurate as possible in those interpretations. Never leaving anything out is very important. The history of slavery and African history and heritage here on the street runs so deep, and it’s not something we ignore. We want to bring it to the forefront. In a way these people contributed to the community immensely, and that heritage should be recognized and celebrated, while at the same time being very sensitive to the fact that these folks were enslaved here and making sure that interpret that history as appropriately as possible.
LL: And I think that historic sites in general have a huge challenge because historically they — and we — have liked to present ourselves as ‘neutral.’ But the fact is there is not neutral presentation of history, and you have to acknowledge that you have a point of view as an institution. Most historical societies, including Historic Huguenot Street, were founded for celebratory reasons, and they fortunately have evolved over time. So the more honest we are in acknowledging that we do have a point of view, and you can’t be ‘neutral,’ but the more you can let the historical records speak for themselves, the better off you’re going to be, and the better history you’ll present.