“If you want to talk about grace, here is where it begins.” So said A. J. Williams-Myers, longtime head of the Black Studies Department at SUNY-New Paltz, as he addressed a small, by-invitation-only congregation at the Crispell Memorial French Church in New Paltz on Saturday, November 9. It was an extraordinary aoccasion: a long-overdue funeral for the first black resident of Huguenot Street ever to have his remains interred in the historic graveyard alongside the town’s white founding families.
The exact identity of the deceased is not known, and according to Susan Stessin-Cohn, director of education at Historic Huguenot Street, “That’s irrelevant, in a way. He’s representing hundreds of others who lived here as slaves.” The remains consist only of a skull that was unearthed near the perimeter of the Deyo House when it was being renovated by Huguenot descendant and one-time New Paltz mayor Abraham Deyo Brodhead around 1894. Originally presumed to have belonged to one of the Esopus Indians indigenous to the area, the skull vanished into a box in the Huguenot Historical Society’s collections for decades, according to Stessin-Cohn.
Then, two summers ago, SUNY-New Paltz Anthropology professor Kenneth Nystrom was called in to analyze the skull. His forensic measurements revealed that it actually came from a middle-aged man of African descent. The fact that he had been buried near the Deyo House indicates strongly that he had been a slave belonging to that family.
That the families of New Paltz’s Huguenot settlers – usually depicted as plucky, resourceful, hardworking refugees from persecution in France – nearly all owned African slaves is an embarrassing bit of history that, in the past, was glossed over on the heritage tourism circuit, said Stessin-Cohn. She has made it her mission in recent years to raise awareness of the issue, extensively researching old newspaper advertisements recruiting bounty-hunters to recapture escaped slaves throughout the Hudson Valley. She points to evidence that a whipping post was established in New Paltz and that at least four people, undoubtedly slaves, were living in the cellar of Huguenot Street’s Abraham Hasbrouck House.
“Every family on the Street had slaves, from about the end of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century,” she said. “There’s no evidence of the Underground Railroad in Ulster County at all. It’s not a pretty picture. People weren’t freeing their slaves until they had to,” when slavery was outlawed in New York State in 1827. “If anyone needs restitution, it’s us here.”
That ugly history of a town whose prosperity was built on slave labor raises serious questions of karmic debt in these hopefully more enlightened times. So when the skull was more positively identified, Stessin-Cohn and her HHS colleagues got excited about the possibility of using it to manifest a bit of that “restitution,” at least on a symbolic level. What if the old burial ground at the French Church, which had stopped doing burials of Huguenot descendents by the time of the Civil War, could be opened one more time to offer a belated welcome to one of the many Africans who lived and labored here, their names mostly lost to history? A coffin for a skull would need to be no bigger than a hatbox; surely a spot could be found.
And so, last Saturday, at long last it came to pass: The remains of that unnamed African, once held captive not by the waters of Babylon but near the banks of the Wallkill, were recommitted to the earth in a place of honor alongside the Duzine, nestled in a handsome wooden box handcrafted by Carsten Stoever and marked for posterity by a tombstone exquisitely carved by contemporary Huguenot Street resident Nils Kulleseid. The marker, made from a recycled chunk of historic bluestone pavement from Kingston, is etched with an African motif of a sunburst encircling a bird with its head facing backward The symbol illustrates the philosophical concept of Sankofa, translated as “It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.”
Mary Etta Schneider, president of the HHS Board of Directors, and Rebecca Mackey, interim executive director of Historic Huguenot Street, welcomed the participants in what they called “a big, bold and long-overdue step in our history.” Dr. Williams-Myers spoke eloquently about the historical context for the “special, auspicious, wonderful occasion” and evoked a powerful sense of homecoming for this stranger in a strange land. The Reverend Dr. G. Modele Clarke, a former professor at Marist College and senior pastor at Kingston’s New Progressive Baptist Church, gave the invocation and benediction.
Together, Clarke and Williams-Myers lowered the small coffin into the grave, then offered prayers in Bantu and Kiswahili as well as English while pouring libations of water from an earthen vessel. Violinist Evan Stover played fiddle tunes of the period for the processional and recessional; and there was scarcely a dry eye in the house as the rich and resonant voice of Clarke’s wife, the Reverend Evelyn Clarke, rang out classic spirituals including “All God’s Children Got Shoes,” “Ain’t That Good News,” “Steal Away to Jesus” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
The burial service ended with the congregants taking turns filling the grave with shovelfuls or handfuls of earth, and a reception followed at the DuBois Fort Visitors’ Center with wine, tea and hors d’oeuvres provided by the Village TeaRoom & Restaurant. Among the honored guests, there were two descendants of Huguenot Street slaves whose family trees had been researched by Stessin-Cohn. Joan Miller, a retired supervisor for AT&T living in Yonkers, recounted the many battles in which her freed great-great-grandfather Richard Oliver had fought in the Civil War before succumbing to malaria.
Donna Jeffress, a teacher at the Linden Avenue Middle School in Red Hook who lives in Kingston, shared the remarkable story of her white great-grandmother, Katherine Plant, who in 1880 fled an arranged marriage with a rich farmer to elope with Wesley Sampson, the black laborer with whom she had fallen in love. Unable to find a clergyman in Ulster County in those days who was willing to wed an interracial couple, Plant resorted to disguising herself as black by rubbing her face and hands with burnt cork like a minstrel-show performer.
As Stessin-Cohn noted, “We can’t change what happened in the past,” but maybe we can learn from it and shape the future in a more positive way. HHS plans to make education about the contributions of slaves to the history of New Paltz a more visible component of its mission, and Stessin-Cohn wants to bring more of that message to area schoolchildren. Meanwhile, whether you call it restitution or grace, Saturday’s reinterment ceremony constituted one small-but-meaningful step in the right direction.
Visitors are welcome to admire the new headstone and pay their respects to the memory of the enslaved residents of early New Paltz during daylight hours at the Old French Church Burial Ground. For more information on Historic Huguenot Street, visit www.huguenotstreet.org.