Harriet Tubman (far left), an escaped slave and abolitionist who guided more than 70 families to freedom via the network of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, eventually settled with her family (pictured here, along with neighbors) in Auburn, NY. | WILLIAM H. CHENEY, 1887
Since the days of Henry Hudson, the presence of African culture in upstate New York has had a significant and lasting impact on the region.
This article originally appeared in our February 2017 issue.
The 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 Rodriguez (or some spelling variant near that) left Santo Domingo 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.
Thirteen years later, in 1626 (12 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 was the center of an international market dependent on slaves. “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 21,000 enslaved New Yorkers, nearly as many as documented in Georgia. “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, but in fact, when it came to slavery, we really weren’t. 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 painting called “Van Bergen Overmantel,” by artist John Heaten, depicts the Marten Van Bergen farm near the Greene County town of Leeds. Historic Hudson Valley notes on its website 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, the Lyford Paterson Edwards and Helen Gray Edwards Professor of Historical Studies Bard College, calls this painting “a good representation of the presence of blacks in the Valley as slaves during the colonial period.”
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 (HHS), 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, who was completing an overnight stay in the Bevier-Elting House. McGill travels the country inviting community members to stay the night in historic slave dwellings such as these to bring awareness to their existence, history, and need for preservation. More of them 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; 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 New York 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 they would be freed after the war, they fought bravely and well. 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. In a telling bit of irony, Hamilton’s in-laws, the Schuylers of Albany, were slave owners. In 2005, construction workers were laying new sewer lines on land about five miles north of Albany known as Schuyler Flatts, that was once part of a large estate owned by the Schuyler family. They uncovered an unmarked burial ground with a total of 13 sets of remains. (Another set had been found in 1998.) Researchers at the New York State Museum used DNA analysis to determine that the six women, one man, two children and five infants were about 200 years old, and of African descent. The Schuyler Flatts Burial Ground Project was formed to honor them, and on June 18, 2016, the remains were moved to St. Agnes Cemetery, in plots donated by the Albany Diocese. The ceremony was held the day before Juneteenth, the holiday that commemorates the announcement of the abolition of slavery in the Confederate South.
Emancipation happened in fits and starts, and full emancipation in our region was realized when the last New York slaves were freed by July 4, 1827. It was the largest emancipation in 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 1825, precipitated the slow and steady migration from Upstate farms to river cities for employment. “Cities like Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, bustling river ports, offered work opportunities to blacks — especially after the state’s general emancipation occurred in 1826. Newly freed slaves were drawn away from rural work to jobs in the commercial sectors of the region’s towns and cities, with New York City and Albany as the two big nodes in the Hudson Valley system,” 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 presently known in the northeast,” according to Joseph E. Diamond, 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, yearly movements held by free slaves to oppose slavery and push for equal rights for free blacks, were held throughout urban centers of the North, 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 Rifton, sold to a family in New Paltz. In Troy, an African American named Henry Highland Garnet was Malcolm X before Malcolm X. Garnet led a radical movement from his position as the first pastor of the Liberty Street 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.
Setting a Precedent for Integration
In the 1930s, a newly minted lawyer named Thurgood Marshall joined the NAACP, becoming the Chief Legal Counsel in 1936. Marshall and his team of lawyers wanted to end school segregation nationally. To do that, they knew they needed to establish local precedents, and in 1943 they set one at the Hillburn School in Rockland County.
Hillburn Main School, known as the “white school,” was modern; the Brook School, the “colored school,” was unheated, unplumbed, poorly lighted and had lousy recreational facilities. Marshall’s team tried to enroll a black child named Allen Morgan at Hillburn; when he was, as expected, denied, black parents withheld their children from the Brook School to protest the separate and unequal elementary school system. It only took a month for the New York State Commissioner of Education to close the Brook School and order that all 49 children be admitted into Hillburn.
Famed actress Helen Hayes, a Nyack resident, said at the time, “I am sure that the white people in Hillburn will have faith in democracy and…meet the situation with tolerance and understanding. Their audience today is as wide as the world.”
Sadly, that worldwide audience saw every white family but one pull its children from Hillburn and send them to school in nearby Suffern or northern New Jersey. But they were on the wrong side of history. Marshall used the Hillburn case in winning the landmark 1954 Brown v. Board of Education suit declaring school segregation unconstitutional. The renamed Hillburn Elementary School closed in 1967, the same year Marshall was nominated to be the first African American to the U.S. Supreme Court.
After the Civil War, blacks continued to move from local farms to industrial centers in the Valley. New York City was a major destination, especially as rural black settlements like The Hills in Westchester and Skunk Hollow in Rockland lost residents in successive generations who could no longer profit from the area farmlands. In time, blacks also moved into the suburbs, moderately sized urban centers 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 was naturally separated from white communities.
Work, as always, continued to be the magnet drawing Southern African Americans north during the 20th century, and the Valley had one of the world’s most powerful pulls: IBM. After World War II, “IBM was really important, ahead of its time, a global force that recruited from professionals overseas and black colleges and universities,” Armstead says. By the late 1950s and 1960s, black professionals populated the area, as well as IBM’s workforce. “That generation is deceased or long retired now, but they became the first black heads of organizations, the first black teachers and school administrators,” 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 404 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.
Preserving an African American Holiday
Every spring, the city of Albany still celebrates Pinkster as a way to honor the city’s Dutch roots. This ancient religious and social holiday, though, survived long after the Dutch were replaced by the English — thanks to African American slaves, for whom Pinkster became the most important holiday in the year.
At Pinkster, slave owners allowed their slaves some time to reunite with friends and family members, some of whom lived far away, to celebrate, play games, dance to African music, trade goods and of course drink. By the early 1800s Pinkster was considered an African American holiday, with big celebrations in New York City and on Albany’s Pinkster Hill, now occupied by the State Capitol.
During the 1700s, slave owners grew more fearful of slave rebellion, and Pinkster was outlawed by the 1810s. It took 150 years before the holiday was revived in Albany and at places like Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow. Today, Pinkster is recognized as the oldest African American holiday in the United States.
Living in America
Mount Gulian, the Dutch Colonial estate of the Verplanck family in Beacon that is now a national landmark and museum, once was home to a slave named James F. Brown. Unlike most slaves, he was taught by his owners how to read and write, and he kept a diary of his work as a gardener, coachman and general laborer from 1826 to 1866. Most of it is rather mundane — weather reports, chores — but it also gives a remarkable look at life in the Valley leading up to the Civil War from the eyes of a 19th century African American.
Brown, well paid and well connected, enjoyed a success most African Americans did not. “But in other ways you have a window into black life at the time,” says Myra Young Armstead, who used details from his diary in the book, Freedom’s Gardener: James F. Brown, Horticulture, and the Hudson Valley in Antebellum America. He eventually was able to buy his own house and land, which gave him the opportunity to write his most poignant journal entry, on Nov. 8, 1837: “James F. Brown voted for the first time.”