Last Friday, a yearlong process scrutinizing the naming process for the dormitories in the Hasbrouck Complex on the SUNY New Paltz campus — Bevier, Crispell, LeFevre, Deyo and DuBois Residence Halls — culminated in a letter from college president Donald P. Christian recommending “that the names on these buildings should be removed and replaced.” Speaking on behalf of the SUNY New Paltz Diversity & Inclusion Council (D&I Council), an ad hoc group formed in August 2017 following demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia over the removal of a statue of a Confederate general from a public park, Dr. Christian wrote, “I will take that recommendation to the College Council this fall.” He also provided a weblink to an extensive report that the D&I Council released on its findings: www.newpaltz.edu/media/diversity/Hasbrouck%20Renaming%20Report-Web.pdf.
“College presidents do not have the authority to change building names. That authority rests with the New Paltz College Council and the SUNY Board of Trustees,” Christian continued. “In addition, the report recommends, and I endorse, that we develop approaches to more fully tell our history, including the legacy of slavery and the indigenous people who originally settled here; and we develop alternative ways to recognize the many contributions of the Huguenots and their descendants.”
“These buildings were named for the original Huguenot patentees who were the first European settlers in New Paltz. Like other Europeans who settled in New York and other mid-Atlantic states, they enslaved Africans. The campus building names have been contentious on campus for many years, and official action to review them was long overdue,” Christian acknowledged. “The Council was particularly moved by the belief expressed frequently by students that no one should be asked to live, sleep and eat in buildings honoring people who enslaved others. The current names make some students feel unwelcomed and not at home here, when a sense of belongingness is a key factor in students’ success…. I regard making such a change now as consistent with our community values of fostering a diverse and inclusive learning environment, including taking active anti-racist steps such as this.”
Contending that changing the names of the dorms would not be tantamount to “erasing history,” the president went on to note that the college’s educational mandate “includes recognizing and acknowledging the history and legacy of slavery, in particular Northern slavery, and the enslaved labor that was key to the economic success of European settlers and the region. That full history should include the Munsee people who were the area’s inhabitants at the time of European settlement, and their diaspora to the Midwest. It also includes honoring the many contributions of the Huguenot settlers and their generations of descendants. Many of those descendants were abolitionists; fought in the Civil War, heavily on the Union side; and played a key role in the establishment and survival of educational institutions in New Paltz that were the forerunners of SUNY New Paltz.”
A furor broke out on New Paltz-related social media sites following the release of Christian’s letter to the college community, with some commentators sarcastically suggesting that every historic building named after a Huguenot family must, according to the Council’s logic, be razed. Others, including Huguenot descendants who had participated in last January’s public forums on the issue, took a more measured tone. On Monday, Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) issued a response on behalf of its board and staff stating that they “appreciated being included in the process initiated by President Donald Christian to examine the building names on campus, and HHS supports the campus’ commitment to serving and celebrating its diverse student body. Clearly SUNY New Paltz has to make its own decisions of how to make this happen.”
“The thoughtful exploration of sensitive social issues is the hallmark of great educational institutions,” the HHS statement read. “Historic Huguenot Street and its board are deeply committed to honestly examine the impact that the Huguenot and other European colonists had in New Paltz, including the difficult truths of their role in displacing the area’s original inhabitants, the Esopus Munsee, and that the colonists embraced slavery as a strategy for economic gain. Our public programming, preservation activities and tours of the site incorporate these truths… Historic Huguenot Street’s job as a museum is to ensure that this important dialogue continues – to tell the truth about the complexities of American history to the extent that it can be known, and to help the public understand its impact on lives today. History matters.”
In the conclusion to his letter to SUNY New Paltz staff, faculty, students and alumni, Christian cited “Sankofa, a word and concept from the Akan tribe in Ghana. This translates as ‘It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten’…African-American and African diaspora scholars interpret Sankofa to represent the need to reflect on the past to build a successful future, or remembering our past to protect our future. Sankofa is often depicted as a bird with its feet facing forward while it turns its head backwards to fetch a valuable egg that is at risk of being left behind.”
That same word and image were inscribed on a gravestone added to the burial ground at the French Church on Huguenot Street in 2013, when the skull of an African slave that had been unearthed near the 1692 Deyo House was finally given a respectful interment after decades of storage in the Huguenot Historical Society’s collections. On this subject, the official keepers of New Paltz’s Colonial heritage and SUNY educators looking toward the future seem to be on the same page.