When the Huguenots left Europe to escape religious torment, they knew a little something about oppression. So how did it turn out that those humble Protestant Christians who founded New Paltz came to own slaves?
Much of it came down to the vast, wild tracts of land ceded to the first settlers of the Hudson Valley and New York State in general. With huge fields to tend and communities to build, white colonists turned to the slave labor opened up at first by Dutch and then English slavers.
“Slavery was a reality in the Hudson River Valley,” said A.J. Williams-Myers, a black studies professor with SUNY New Paltz.
William-Myers lecture at Historic Huguenot Street’s Deyo Hall came as part of the solemn yearly commemoration of New Paltz’s slave cemetery. Discovered in the late 1990s, after being lost and forgotten for more than a century, the graveyard is the final resting place of New Paltz’s earliest black residents. Due to the efforts of several residents, there is now a historical marker and bench marking that site.
Williams-Myers noted that history often gave the Dutch some credit for their benevolence toward African slaves. While they allowed their forced workers to eventually gain freedom in New Amsterdam through indentured servitude, “they kept the children.”
While slavery is thought of as a Southern institution, the professor told his audience it was important to remember that New York was built on the back of slave labor. By 1790, there were roughly 21,000 people enslaved in the state.
Edgar Rodriguez was one of the 15 or so people who helped find the graves in the late ’90s. He said it all began with a clue from an old newspaper article in the archives at Elting Memorial Library.
“It was primary source information. The article said that the reporter had observed ‘a group of about 40 Negroes going north on Huguenot Street.’ We raised the question — there’s no cemetery north,” Rodriguez said. “That started the process.”