Last Saturday, Historic Huguenot Street presented a well-attended, thought-provoking program of writers’ reflections on the little-discussed history of slavery in the founding of the Town of New Paltz. The 12 Huguenot “original patentees” who signed the 1677 land agreement with the Esopus Munsee were all slave-owners, so black lives have been a part of the history on the historic street since its beginning, yet the stories of those enslaved have only recently begun to be discussed.
“Reclaiming Our Time: A Live Performance by TMI Project,” produced in collaboration with The Slave Dwelling Project, was hosted at the New Paltz Reformed Church. Five writer-storytellers took a turn reading a brief monologue they wrote in response to having spent the night in one of the historic Huguenot houses, in a cellar kitchen that was once used as slaves’ quarters.
The foundation for the evening was laid months ago, when the writers participated in one of TMI Projects’ immersive programs of workshops. The nonprofit organization focuses on telling the stories of those in our society who are marginalized in some way. Their purpose is to make storytelling an agent of change, working with writers to develop their voices in service of raising awareness and inspiring compassion, ultimately bringing about social, legal and political change.
The writers’ experience culminated in the sleepover on Huguenot Street, accompanied by Terry James, a living-historian and board member of the Slave Dwelling Project, which is a South Carolina-based nonprofit that identifies former slave dwellings and organizes activities around them to educate the public on the importance of preserving these historical artifacts.
The presentation last Saturday, initiated by Kara Gaffken, director of public programming at Historic Huguenot Street, brought writer-storytellers Victory Reese, Dara Lurie, Tameka Ramsey, Tina Lynn Dickerson and Micah Blumenthal in front of an assembled group inside the New Paltz Reformed Church. Each read their material from the altar, standing in the spotlight with those listening sitting in semi-darkness. This gave the memoirs a eulogistic quality at times, not inappropriate given that several writers discussed feeling the presence of their ancestors during their overnight stay in the slave quarters.
Their observations were pithy, thought-provoking and at times, humorous, inspiring the kind of rueful laugh one makes when a truth hits its mark. The TMI Project is on to something, it occurred to this listener; is there anything more powerful than an articulate voice speaking their own truth? And sitting in the dark being read to, especially in the environment of a church, inspires a feeling of safety and communion with others present that opens up the soul.
The musical contributions of Reverend Evelyn J. Clarke and Theresa V. Briggs were an integral part of the evening, which began with Briggs softly playing piano as attendees filed in before the presentation began. Clarke’s voice, when she sang, went right to the heart, ringing out through the church in songs related to the experience of enslaved peoples. Briggs joined her on the altar several times, singing harmony, punctuating Micah Blumenthal’s reading with songs once sung by a people in bondage.
After the readings ended, a Q&A session was held, led by Eva Tenuto, executive director of TMI Project. In speaking with Ulster Publishing’s Dan Barton several years ago, she described the concept behind TMI Projects as being this: “If we identify the stories we most need to tell, then write and share them in a compelling, satisfying way that allows others to identify, even if the specific details of their experiences have been nothing like ours, we can change the world, one story at a time.”
The discussion during the Q&A was as interesting as the program of the evening had been, moving from the experience of the writer-storytellers to raising questions about the widespread racial inequities in society.
One attendee raised the issue of SUNY New Paltz considering whether to retain the names of buildings on campus currently named for slaveholding Huguenots. College president Donald P. Christian, who was in the audience along with 50 students, stood to take that question, answering that the matter is still under consideration but that the college is happy to include any interested parties in the discussion. A recent petition to rename Hasbrouck Dining Hall to honor a former food service employee was denied. Christian said that action would have been inconsistent with Board of Trustee policies.
The event was sponsored by a Humanities New York Action Grant, the DuBois Family Association and the Reformed Church of New Paltz.