I read with interest the article titled, Present-day Hasbroucks react to the new names for SUNY-New Paltz college buildings.
I understand the hurt and disappointment that this decision is causing for many people, just as I understand what the current names on these buildings mean to current students — and what it would have meant for the College, our future students and the broader New Paltz community if the names did not change. In recent conversations with a Huguenot descendant and other community members, I have learned that some are not aware that a significant part of our decision — beyond removing and replacing the building names — is to take concrete steps to tell our local and campus history more fully than we have in the past. That includes the many positive contributions of the Huguenot patentees and their descendants.
It is not our purpose to discredit, humiliate or shame Huguenot descendants. In contrast to views expressed in the article, we do not plan to “redefine [the Huguenot families] solely by the fact of enslavement,” as there is so much more about the contributions of the Huguenots and their descendants that we want current and future students and visitors to know. Educational attainment — building, sustaining and hosting top-tier educational institutions that serve all ages — is a longstanding New Paltz community value; Huguenot descendants are an important part of that story. At the same time, it is important that we acknowledge slavery, as practiced by many European settlers, and its historic and current legacy and impacts on our increasingly diverse student body and their lived experiences to this day. Students articulate that we cannot claim to be an inclusive community if we require them to eat and sleep in buildings that honor specific individuals who had owned slaves. They and others argue that the contributions European settlers were able to make to the college were gained through the economic advantages of enslaving others. It is perspective on those individuals but not an indictment of the generations that followed.
Huguenots came to America to escape religious and political persecution in Europe, a key element of this history that we will share. During our process — as documented in the Hasbrouck Building naming report and as I have written and spoken about frequently — we discussed the role of Abraham Bruyn Hasbrouck in representing Sojourner Truth (namesake of our campus library) in her successful 1828 legal action to regain custody of her son, who had been sold illegally into slavery in the South. We know that many Huguenot descendants were staunch abolitionists before emancipation of slaves in New York and in the next several decades leading up to the Civil War. Descendants fought in the Civil War, heavily on the Union side. Descendants played a key role in securing Normal School status for the New Paltz Academy after it burned down in 1884. After another fire destroyed the school in 1906, they were instrumental in fighting off significant public and legislative pressure to relocate the Normal School to Kingston rather than rebuild here. It’s no stretch to say that SUNY New Paltz would not exist without their efforts.
So why remove the names? As many readers are aware, I ultimately supported changing the names on these buildings. That was not my initial position when we began our review in August 2017. I entered this process with an open mind and reached that conclusion after attending our forums and listening to the views of students and others; reading and analyzing the report of the Diversity and Inclusion Council, the group that led our process; learning more than I ever have before about the racial and economic legacies of slavery; and considering how the College can best serve an increasingly diverse student body. This was not an easy decision for me, and I knew that whatever I decided would leave some disappointed or angry.
The Huguenot patentee names were originally assigned to the wings of the first residence halls on campus built in the 1950s on the Old Main Quad, now known as College and Shango halls. They were transferred almost 20 years later to the newly built residence halls and dining hall along Route 32 known as the Hasbrouck Complex. Campus records from the early 1950s clearly document that the Huguenot names were originally assigned to campus buildings explicitly to recognize the first Huguenot settlers in New Paltz and lists the patentees by name. (Like many European settlers, tax records and wills indicate that they owned slaves.) This is an essential point, because it counters the long-held view that the building names honored the long history of generations of descendants during their 350 years in the Hudson Valley.
I have been asked if we will remove the Elting name from our gymnasium. The building was named for numerous members of the Elting family who served admirably as trustees of the Normal School and State Teachers College in the first half of the 20th century. I won’t support removing their name because, while their ancestors in New Paltz may have owned slaves, our purpose is not to discredit or humble descendants for actions their ancestors may have undertaken.
The decision to replace the building names has been approved by the SUNY New Paltz College Council and the SUNY Board of Trustees, who ultimately have the authority to change building names on SUNY campuses. The changes will be implemented this summer in time for students’ return in the fall.
I certainly do not expect everyone to agree with this outcome, but I want to assure community members that our future efforts to share local history more openly and fully will actually increase understanding of and appreciation for the contributions of Huguenots and their descendants among students, employees and visitors. Indeed, we heard repeatedly from students who participated in the process that we had done a poor job of educating them about the rich and complex history behind campus building names and key elements of the area’s past. Until this process, they were not aware of the Abraham Bruyn Hasbrouck-Sojourner Truth connection, or the role of Huguenot descendants in the formation of educational institutions in New Paltz, including the predecessors of SUNY New Paltz. We intend to do something about that.
To achieve these goals, we are planning a park-like contemplative space and intentional educational programming about the history of our campus, our community and region in ways that this becomes a common shared experience for all members of our community but especially for our students and future alumni. These stories will be part of our orientation for new students and employees. Additionally, we are retaining the name “Huguenot Court” on one of our campus streets.
Portraying our shared history more openly and inclusively is relevant to our educational mission and to current issues in American society. Even as some persist in the belief that we live in a post-racial nation, we recognize at New Paltz that our nation and our society is still a work in progress. We cannot erase or ignore the reality of how racism and inequality impacts our world. We try to prepare our students to face what our country is today and encourage them to shape what it will be in the coming decades.
Our work includes creating room for differing viewpoints to coexist, and working to bridge such differences. We have an opportunity to act now based on a broader and more inclusive consideration of history and contemporary issues, mirroring actions by Historic Huguenot Street (HHS). HHS shared valuable expertise during our process, listened and contributed to our discussions, and assisted in including Huguenot descendants in this process. Of course, the decisions to change the building names rest solely with the College and SUNY, and we recognize that this process was difficult for HHS in many ways. We look forward to continuing our mutually beneficial partnership with HHS, and are eager to align educational programming on campus with HHS programming about the complex history of our region.
There is a symbol of Sankofa on a headstone in the French Church cemetery on Historic Huguenot Street. Historic Huguenot Street leadership erected it there during a 2013 ceremony to inter the remains of an African American, the first burial in that cemetery since the Civil War and the first-ever of a non-European. This action was part of Historic Huguenot Street’s recent efforts to share an inclusive narrative about the history of our community, including an honest and open treatment of the impact of European settlement on the indigenous Munsee, slavery as part of the Huguenot legacy, and the role of slavery in shaping contemporary views of race in America.
Sankofa has a clear linkage to our building names discussion. 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. This idea embodies the spirit of the Diversity and Inclusion Council’s views about not erasing history but rather committing to continuously discussing and engaging the complexity of human experience and the stories that become part of our history. My hope is that our naming process will set the stage for more open dialogue and greater understanding among our students, the SUNY New Paltz community and the broader community about race and historical legacy. Such efforts are consistent with our educational mission and our mandate to provide access to New York citizens of all backgrounds.