New Paltz Town historian Susan Stessin-Cohn let town council members know last month that she had secured a place in the Smithsonian Institution for a rare slave registry kept by the town clerk in the 18th and 19th centuries. She was even ready to drive the document there herself, needing only the formality of approval.
Her request for that approval was formally denied at the June 1 meeting, in large part because historians at Historic Huguenot Street (HHS), where the register is presently stored, expressed concerns. Stessin-Cohn, herself a former HHS staff member, had rebuffed suggestions they even be consulted, reminding board members that it’s simply a storage facility for some documents under the purview of the town clerk. It’s the only place such relics can be stored, and there’s nowhere they could safely be displayed in town. At the Smithsonian, she’d told board members, the register would be properly cared for and rotated into displays.
The argument against allowing the register to leave the town was sufficiently compelling to Marty Irwin that he made a motion to forbid it from ever happening, saying that he wanted to make sure it was “protected and preserved in New Paltz.” That idea fell flat, out of a concern that it would illegally constrain the actions of future board members.
Deputy Supervisor Dan Torres agreed that there was no support to offer the register as gift or loan, but didn’t think such a public declaration was appropriate without at least first speaking with Stessin-Cohn about the concerns raised. Torres was the one who in 2015 first recommended Stessin-Cohn for the position of historian, together with Carol Johnson, who curates the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at Elting Memorial Library. Stessin-Cohn was appointed as sole historian in 2016, after board members were incorrectly advised that Johnson was no longer interested.
In the end, the motion which passed was to deny the request, which Torres characterized as “rude” and unnecessary. ++