Last week, two public meetings sponsored by the SUNY New Paltz Diversity & Inclusion Council (D&I Council) were held on the campus, their subject being what the college is terming the “Hasbrouck Complex Dialogue.” Students, faculty, staff and interested community members, including descendants of the Huguenots who founded New Paltz, were invited to participate in a discussion of what to do about the buildings on campus that were named after families who, prior to the Civil War, are now known to have owned slaves. About 50 people attended the first session, held in the Lecture Center last Thursday evening, and the sentiments expressed were as diverse as those expressing them.
Primarily at issue are Hasbrouck Dining Hall and the dormitories surrounding it in the so-called Hasbrouck Complex: Bevier, Crispell, LeFevre, Deyo and DuBois Residence Halls. Completed in 1968, these buildings’ names originally belonged to the college’s earliest campus housing, located within College Hall on the Old Main Quad. In August 2017, as demonstrators clashed in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a statue of a Confederate general from a public park, students petitioned the college to rename Hasbrouck Dining Hall after Darold Thompson, an alumnus and longtime employee. SUNY New Paltz president Donald Christian responded by organizing the D&I Council.
In addition to fostering public dialogue on the issue, the D&I Council was charged with researching the intent of the original naming process: Were the buildings named after specific slave-owning Huguenot patentees, or after multiple generations of the same families? This proved a complicated question with a vague answer, according to the timeline reviewed at the Thursday session by Reynolds Scott-Childress, assistant professor in the college’s History Department and co-chair of the D&I Council.
According to the historical materials prepared by the council, the real honorees were probably the members of the generation of Huguenot descendants on the Board of the New Paltz Academy who financed that institution’s conversion into a State Normal School in 1886, following authorization by the New York State Assembly. The original Academy had burned to the ground just two years earlier, and the new building constructed to replace it was in significant debt. In order to join the Normal School system — the precursor of SUNY — that debt had to be entirely paid off, and the new building brought up to state standards. More than half of the funds raised came from the Academy board, who included three Deyos, two DuBoises, three Eltings, three Hasbroucks, three LeFevres and six other members, one of whom had a Freer mother and two of whom were married to Hasbroucks.
The Hasbrouck Complex buildings never had first names associated with them — only family names. The council’s review of historical materials has not definitively established whether the college’s intent was to name them after the first Huguenot settlers of New Paltz, the post-Civil War generation who essentially birthed the college or the families in general. Whether this vagueness is problematic or comforting, with regard to the question of associations with slavery, seems to depend on the person responding – and to be, in the words of one participant in last week’s discussion, “very generational.”
The strongest sentiments against retaining the existing names came primarily from SUNY students, while most older community members tended to look at a longer timeline. (Members of the press were asked not to identify contributors to the discussion by name, so that they “will not feel stifled.”) Several young people of color in the audience expressed discomfort with living in buildings that may have been named for slaveowners; one who identified herself as Latina said that she found it “difficult to come to terms with the fact that torturing someone was legal.” A student compared the experience to “me having to live in Hitler Hall, as a Jewish woman.” However, another student pointed out that her experience as an intern at Historic Huguenot Street had led her to appreciate the story of former slave John Hasbrouck, who “became the first black man in New Paltz to own enough taxable property to be able to vote.”
Huguenot descendants in attendance seemed more comfortable with the idea of the dormitory names referring to the accomplishments of their families over many generations. One descendant urged that the suffering of the original patentees as refugees from religious persecution not be discounted. Another professed herself “sad, horrified and ashamed of my ancestors” upon learning that they had owned slaves, but added, “Dialogue is painful, but we must not hide from it.” “You can’t erase history,” said another. “If you try, it will repeat itself. There are skeletons in everybody’s closet.”
One student argued that even naming buildings after a much-later generation of Huguenot descendants is objectionable, since the family wealth contributed toward the establishment of the Normal School was partially derived from the exploitation of slave labor. But ironically, the question of who funds what may prove the ultimate determining factor in the naming question. As council member Emma Morcone pointed out in her opening remarks at the forum, “The final decisions about naming buildings do not rest at the campus level.” SUNY-wide, she said, “There has been no honorific naming in the last 25 years without a significant monetary gift.” In other words, renaming a dining hall after one of its deceased former employees, however fondly remembered, isn’t likely to happen in a not-for-profit institution where any “bricks-and-mortar” entity represents an opportunity to tap the sort of deep-pocketed donor who enjoys “naming opportunities.”
There’s still time to add your opinions to those already gathered by the D&I Council, even if you were unable to attend either forum last week. There’s a survey you can take online at www.newpaltz.edu/diversity/hasbrouck-dialogue/survey, or you can e-mail your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org. More “listening events” will be held in February. In March the council will begin drafting a report and recommendations, to be delivered to President Christian by April 15. To quote a participant in the Lecture Center event, “History is history; but one thing we can do is move forward.”