New Paltz to honor memory of former slave, “Aunt Judy” Jackson

Portrait of Julia “Judy” Jackson, often called “Aunt Judy,” circa 1892 in Clintondale. (courtesy of Katia and John Jacobs’ personal collection)

Take a moment, if you will, and look at the face of Julia “Judy” Jackson. It’s a rarity, in many more ways than one.

The photo was taken in 1892, or thereabouts. The caption on the back of this photo reads “Aunt Judy Lefevre, slave of Andries Lefevre.” It’s one of maybe three photos of people born into slavery that you’ll find in the region’s historical archive.

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There’s no one alive today who can tell you what Aunt Judy’s life was like. But she left a mark on the historical record – one that New Paltz town historian Susan Stessin-Cohn has mined from obituaries and old newspaper accounts; a history that she and town and village officials will memorialize at the end of this month, which is of course Black History Month.

By the time the photo was taken, Aunt Judy had long escaped slavery; she was by then a respected member of the New Paltz community, known everywhere for her keen memory of a century that was rapidly disappearing. Scraps of historical records that Stessin-Cohn has pieced together tell a tale that may be unimaginable today, but was unremarkable in her day.

Aunt Judy was born near the beginning of the 19th century; nobody knows exactly when. She was two years old when she and her mother were sold to the Jeremiah Merritt family on land that now encompasses the Ulster County Fairgrounds. At the age of 11, she was separated from her mother. Her life as a slave of the Merritts was “subject to vicissitudes,” according to a newspaper clipping published near the end of her life: “Her mistress was subject to the drink habit and would become intoxicated sometimes but did not treat her unkindly.”

The anonymous author also tells of how, as a girl of maybe ten, Judy was terrified to witness a troop of soldiers marching down a road during “the second war with England”: the War of 1812. Later, she told the reporter how she witnessed her master, who was a Tory, meeting with a group of “Indians” who she came to believe were acting as spies on behalf of the British.

At the age of 14, Judy was presented as a “wedding gift” from Philip Lefevre to his son Andries and his son’s future wife, Magdalene Elting. She remained a slave of the Lefevres until she was in her 20s, when she was freed by state edict in 1827.

Aunt Judy eventually married Tom Jackson and lived with him in Clintondale until his death. She ended her days as a resident of Mulberry Street in New Paltz, where she opened up her home for prayer meetings and to visitors eager to hear her stories. She died at her home at the age of 98.

Unfortunately, precious few of Aunt Judy Jackson’s stories have survived the years. That sad fact, according to Stessin-Cohn, is both typical of the times and all the more reason to remember a woman who was born a slave and became a beloved member of a community whose ancestors had once treated her as chattel.

Aunt Judy Jackson’s memory will be memorialized by town and village officials at a ceremony scheduled for Sunday, February 26 at 12 noon at Hasbrouck Park in New Paltz. For more information, call (845) 255-255 2351.

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