SUNY New Paltz delays vote on renaming buildings

Lefevre Hall in the Hasbrouck complex (photo by Lauren Thomas)

The national debate over how to acknowledge a history riddled with slavery reached a critical local moment last week, when members of the SUNY New Paltz College Council were asked to remove the names of community founders from a complex of campus buildings erected in the 1960s. After hearing considerable — and sometimes contentious — public comment on the issue, council members voted to postpone the decision to their next meeting, which is as yet unscheduled, but will be held during the spring semester.

Background

There are six buildings in what is known as the Hasbrouck complex; the dining hall carrying that name along with dorms named Bevier, Crispell, Dubois, Lefevre and Deyo. These six family names were those of the 12 original European patentees who formed the Duzine, the governing body for the Huguenot settlers in what would eventually be called New Paltz. Those buildings were constructed in the 1960s. Prior to that, each of those names was conferred upon a literal hall in an older student housing building on the campus.

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In the decades since those buildings were erected, from time to time the fact that those 12 patriarchs owned slaves has been raised as an issue of concern, particularly for African-American students at the university. Most recently the topic was broached in 2017, at a time when conversations about buildings and memorials American historical figures known to have owned slaves, as well as the practice of displaying symbols of the confederacy on public buildings, was in full swing. SUNY New Paltz graduate and longtime Sodexo food services employee Darold Thompson — himself a person of color — died that year, and an online petition to rename the dining hall where he worked in his memory garnered 2,366 names.

President Donald Christian responded to that show of support, explaining that while existing policy precluded that particular honor, he was initiating a campus- and community-wide discussion about the names of those six buildings, and determine whether they should be retained or removed. In the e-mail laying out a lengthy and transparent process, he noted, “These buildings were named explicitly to recognize these families, not individual family members, and not specifically the founding members,” and that determining the appropriate course of action would require “empathy and careful listening.” Specifically, members of the SUNY New Paltz Diversity and Inclusion Council were tasked with studying this question and providing recommendations, and ultimately determined that removing the present names would be the better choice. This was, in the president’s words, a “very serious undertaking” which included reaching out to members of the campus and wider communities, including alumnae of the college, as well as consulting with state education officials.

Christian, who framed the two-step process — first, asking if the present names should be removed or retained, and only then deciding on new names, if appropriate — supports that finding, but is not himself authorized to make the change. In fact, this is a decision which must be weighed at multiple levels of the immense state university bureaucracy. That’s why college council members began considering the question at their November 1, meeting. If they eventually decide on name changes, these must be ratified by members of the SUNY Board of Trustees. It is Christian’s wish that, regardless of the outcome of those discussions, a single resolution encapsulating the will of the community be forwarded to trustees for consideration.

Interim college council chair Eli Basch said that, in his memory, the last time public comment was entertained at one of their meetings was some 15 years ago. Usually these meetings are held high in the administration building, with coffee and pastries available for council members and the very few audience members; to accommodate the anticipated interest this meeting was moved to a larger room in the student union building where staff members issued wrist bands and a police officer watched members of the public.

Erasure and redemption

Two major themes have arisen in arguments supporting retaining the existing names: that to change them would be to erase history, and that such an action does not acknowledge any of the good works performed by members of these families, during the slavery period or subsequently.

Robert W. Hasbrouck Jr., president of the Hasbrouck Family Association, provided this statement: “The founding fathers were virtually all slave holders. Should we remove the names from the Washington and Jefferson Memorials (or demolish them) because they were slave holders? Acceptance of slavery was an unfortunate but pervasive cultural/social/economic milieu in that era. The men who endorsed ‘all men are created equal’ certainly gave no thought to including under that the non-whites in the country (not to mention the women)! Fortunately, we have progressed a long way since then (although more is still needed), but it is unrealistic to project our current value system onto those of long ago who lived (honorably in their own opinion) under a different system. Furthermore, the SUNY buildings were named for the founding families, not the individual patentees, [a]nd in the Civil War many men from these families fought and died to end the institution of slavery. In the case of the Hasbrouck family, we can also point to the fact that Abraham Bruyn Hasbrouck successfully represented (pro bono) Sojourner Truth in a precedent-setting case resulting in recovery of her child illegally sold into southern servitude. The overall contribution of these families to the founding, development and prosperity of the New Paltz area provides ample justification for honoring their names on the SUNY buildings.”

Sojourner Truth, originally named Isabella Baumfree and later taking the name Van Wagenen, lived during a time when slaves in New York were slowly manumitted. Male children born during that period were to be freed at the age of 28, while the women gained independence at 25 years old. In no case was a slave to be sold out of state, which is what happened to her five-year-old son, Peter. Securing his freedom in a Kingston court was one of the first times a black woman took a white man to court, and won.

There are family associations for several other historic New Paltz families, but no response was received from any of their representatives by press time.

College council member Ronald Law, who other than student representative N’Della Seque, is the only black member, offered comments as a member of the public which raised tension levels in the room because they did not comport with what had been said by earlier speakers. “I believe in redemption, and in a teachable moment,” he said, and told the students of color present, “You are bigger than what that name is.” He, too, invoked the name of Abraham Bruyn Hasbrouck as an example of family members taking a different tack.

Law started his education at New Paltz in 1970, eventually becoming president of the student body. By then the names of those six families had been transferred from halls to new buildings, although the original plaques remain to this day in what is now called Shango Hall. It was renamed after a major deity in the religion of the Yoruba people of western Africa, whose name is also spelled Chango and Sango in English. He is also venerated in Santeria — also called Lukumi — which is a modern-day polytheistic religion syncretized from Yoruba, Catholic, and native Cuban religions, among others.

The name “Shango” was selected because of its association with strength and perseverance, as well as its African roots. The hall was repurposed as a “new embodiment of African American culture,” according to the diversity council report, but students had to explicitly opt into living there, and was open to students of all races. During Law’s time as a student, that experiment was deemed to be segregation, and he was one of those who defended the concept because many black students felt better served in such an “ethnic” environment.

Council member Eleanor Venables, one of those who live locally, recalled the good turns done by a member of the Lefevre family to her and her husband; they were provided lumber to build their home without immediately paying for it, she said, and later stopped by with cookies. Of the current members of the six families she asked, “Should they be ashamed?”

Addressing concerns that changing these building names would actually be erasing history, Christian said that he disagreed. Instead, he said that the intent is “portraying [that] history more fully.”

On a similar note, student Jordan Hunt asked, “What history are we erasing?” Hunt’s comment speaks to evidence in the diversity council report that during the naming process — both of the original dormitory building and the complex of six buildings later — enslavement was entirely ignored and the deeds of those Huguenots were disproportionately lionized, in keeping with the sensibilities of those days.

Sleeping with the enemy

Generations on a college campus are short; students graduate in an average of 4.3 years. With little historical context provided in recruitment literature and campus tours, it should not be surprising that most present students only recently became aware of the history of this complex of buildings, even though the issue was raised in 1997, and again in 2013. Those who spoke before the college council, as well as others recorded on video for a presentation at that meeting, expressed both surprise and considerable discomfort with that history.

Student Les DeMayers said that to “call the name of your oppressors” when arranging to meet for a meal or to meet at one’s home should not be required. Another student referred to the names as those of “our ancestors’ oppressors and masters.” Breanna, who did not provide another name, called it “absolutely demeaning and sickening” to have to live and eat in buildings carrying such names.

“It’s hard to represent this school when I know it doesn’t represent me,” said Nicole Cruz. She was one of several students who lead tours of the campus and felt there is cognitive dissonance inherent in that role.

The building-name discussion comes on the heels of the discovery of propaganda about the group Identity Evropa on campus late last month. Identity Evropa — which, despite the spelling, is apparently pronounced “Europa” — was founded in 2016 after the Unite the Right rally and has already earned the Southern Poverty Law Center hate-group designation. According to the content of the group’s web site, members take pride in their European heritage, yet are also opposed to immigration into the United States, where the group itself is based. Targeting college campuses with recruitment efforts is a common tactic.

While he did not attend the meeting, local activist Eli Campbell remarked, “To properly address the legacy of slavery and genocide in America since 1492, symbolic actions like renaming buildings are only the beginning of a real conversation about justice. Those buildings should be renamed, but we should continue that conversation to its logical conclusions: what would justice for the descendants of slaves and indigenous people look like in 2018, beyond symbolic actions and gestures? . . . SUNY New Paltz [administrators are] making the right decision in choosing to confront our history rather than ignore it or revise it in favor of tradition, but there is so much more that we can and will do in our community to help bend the arc of the moral universe.”

Christian, in his comments to council members, expressed that colonial slavery in the Americas has had a unique and particularly egregious impact, one that is felt through all systems of society and across generations to the present day. “We all live with this legacy,” he said, and as he learned more about the topic he listened with “deepening empathy” to those voices calling for the name changes.

While the testimony was largely respectful and entirely one-sided before Ronald Law spoke, in response to his comments the atmosphere shifted. One student was escorted out of the room by the police officer present when he refused to respect the ground rules, and interim chair Basch was accused of expressing white privilege by allowing Law to go over the allotted two minutes of time while others present were expected to adhere to that rule. Audience members also began applauding some speakers — Basch has requested no cheering or jeering, to avoid a chilling effect — which may have been more a commentary on the perception of his leadership than the content of those comments. In his attempts to restore order, Basch assured attendees that not only were their comments heard by council members, but “your presence has spoken very, very, very loudly.”

Black studies professor Anthony Dandridge urged calm, noting that “ideas are complex” and that those espousing different points of view “are human too.” Law offered to speak to students in Dandridge’s classes to expand upon his position, and the professor accepted the offer.

Dina Dubois is a former president of the Dubois Family Association, although she serves in no official capacity for that group at this time. She offered her personal opinion when contacted via e-mail, writing, “imagine that you are a descendant not of a DuBois or Deyo, but a descendant of a person who was held as a slave by those families [o]r even that you are not a descendant of slaves of those families but are descended from people who were enslaved, how would you feel living in a dorm named after a slave owner?

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“I try to feel better about my slave-owning DuBoises because Katherine DuBois in her will manumitted her slave Rachel to be freed at her death. I don’t know if she was released from slavery at her death or not, but it makes me feel better that she wanted that to happen.

“W.E.B. DuBois is related to the DuBoises of New Paltz [and wrote that] his great-grandfather Dr. James DuBois, a physician in Poughkeepsie, was descended from Jacques in the fifth generation . . . . perhaps the DuBois dorm could be named W.E.B. DuBois. That doesn’t help think about changing the other dorms that have New Paltz founders names on them.”

Research reveals truth and misconceptions

Members of the diversity and inclusion council produced a 160-page report which was released May 1 of this year, about two weeks after the April 15 deadline Christian initially set for that work to be completed. The conclusion reached by council members was that the names should be removed, and other ways be found to honor those families, members of which have been instrumental in supporting the university and education in New Paltz generally over many generations. During the intervening months, council members conferred with representatives at Historic Huguenot Street, pored over historical records, and sought feedback from students, faculty, staff members and residents of New Paltz.

That extensive document revealed that the history of those building names has become confused and distorted. Specifically, in the report it is established that the notion that these six buildings were named for families rather than individuals was debunked. As laid out in the report, “The bulletin announcing the opening of the complex explicitly stated that ‘[t]he six units of the new dormitory have been named for the original patentees of the village of New Paltz.” That flies in the face of the common understanding held by the president of the Hasbrouck Family Association, by staff member Bruce Du Bois who reiterated that belief in 1997, and by President Christian when he initiated the present discussion in 2017.

Ergo, the understanding that these six buildings were named not for individuals but families has been proven apocryphal, which allows the debate to be focused on the specific acts of those individuals. That might be seen as simplifying the discussion, given that W.E.B. DuBois and many other persons of color are descended from these prominent New Paltz families.

Decision and next steps

In advocating for more time to consider the question, college council member Vincent Cozzolino echoed a rationale advanced in 1969, when faculty opponents of the proposed black studies department made that same argument. John Neumaier, then president of the college, forced that vote through; he is reported to have said that “the discussion . . . has gone on at least three hundred years” at the time. Defending his position, Cozzolino acknowledged that he’d had the research findings for some time, but the extensive commentary made at the meeting drove his request to “give us more time” to make a decision.

President Christian, while perhaps as passionate as Neumaier in his day, does not have the authority or influence over the college council that his predecessor did over members of the faculty. Council members agreed to hold a decision in abeyance and take it up at their next meeting, which while not yet scheduled is likely to take place early in the spring semester. They did agree to Christian’s request that they create a subcommittee to consider alternative names, should the decision go that way, so as to be able to act on both measures at the same meeting.

There are 2 comments

  1. TheRedDogParty

    Who among us is not guilty of some behavior that is wrong? The original patentees had many faults. Keeping their names on these buildings is a teachable moment. Shall we demand reparations from present day descendants of these families?

    We all have a debt to history; attemting to erase that history rather than acknowledging it is a mistake. Let’s try not to make that mistake again.

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