With Rebecca Mackey at the helm as interim director, Historic Huguenot Street has entered a time of transition following the departure of executive director Tracy Doolittle McNally this fall.
McNally started as the director in late 2011, replacing Eric Roth, and she decided to leave Historic Huguenot back in September. Mackey — who had been HHS’s director of visitor services — stepped in to fill the leadership role in late October.
She’s worked for Historic Huguenot Street since 2008, starting lower on the totem pole and gradually rising through the ranks. Working there has fed into the new interim director’s lifetime passion for history.
“As an adult, I went back and got a second degree in history. And I saw an opportunity to become involved in the organization, right when I was finishing up that degree,” Mackey said. “I actually started as a docent. I went on to be running the museum shop and some of the programs — and then the director of visitor services.”
A visitor services director at Historic Huguenot Street ends up doing a lot of work, because it is a small organization. She ran the guided tour program, helped coordinate educational field trips to the historic stone houses and helped shape what visitors experienced when they got to Huguenot Street.
Historic Huguenot Street was an immediate fit for Mackey, who had at one time wanted to be a history teacher.
“History has always fascinated me,” she said. “But I also knew that I didn’t feel that the traditional classroom was the way for me to relate those stories. So museum work — particularly historical museum work — really appealed to me.”
The new gig was a surprise. McNally left her post for personal reasons. But Mackey has found the job challenging and rewarding so far.
“It’s difficult, but in a good way,” she said.
Mackey isn’t opposed to taking the executive director’s job if she’s offered it permanently, but she noted that the historical site’s board members don’t fully know what they want in the future. McNally’s departure has opened the door to some soul searching and reflection.
“We’re not sure on either end. We’re doing a lot of strategic review: what our staffing needs are; where our organization is going in the next few years,” she said.
Mackey added: “We’re trying to find the best staffing model that addresses that. It may be an executive director. It may be a CEO. It may be one of each.”
Historic Huguenot Street has done a little better than some historical sites, which suffered during the Great Recession. For Historic Huguenot Street, one upside of the Internet age has been the ease of genealogical research. Many a long-lost Huguenot descendant has been lured back to New Paltz to walk through their ancestors’ homes.
One point they’re looking to change is to expand the focus. “We’re known as Historic Huguenot Street, because obviously that’s our physical location. But there’s more history here than just the Huguenots. We want to bring more of the stories of the slaves to light and the Native Americans — all of the people who lived here in New Paltz and were part of the early story of this area.”
One recent event typifies where Mackey sees Historic Huguenot Street headed — the re-interment of an African-American slave’s skull.
The unidentified slave’s resting place near the Deyo House was disturbed during a renovation in 1894. The skull sat in storage, lost in Historic Huguenot Street’s archives for years. A SUNY New Paltz anthropology professor determined that the skull was that of a middle-aged black male — not an Esopus Indian as previously thought.
Mackey, the HHS board of directors and Susan Stessin-Cohn contacted pillars of the black community locally, welcoming them to an invitation-only reburial ceremony at Crispell Memorial French Church. Crispell’s churchyard burial ground holds many prominent French Huguenot settlers. But it’s also been closed to burials since the Civil War.
The unnamed slave is the first black person laid to rest there.
New Paltz’s founding families kept slaves and those Africans undoubtedly helped build and maintain those historic stone houses. Historic Huguenot Street officials said the ceremony was restitution for and acknowledgement of Ulster County’s shameful past. Slavery was outlawed in New York in 1827.
“I was honored to be involved in that,” Mackey said of the reburial ceremony.
It’s unclear how long the search for a new director will take. When Eric Roth — McNally’s predecessor — left Historic Huguenot Street in 2010, the search for a new director stretched on for almost a year. Two interim directors were named before McNally was selected.