One cannot live in New Paltz for long without observing that, despite its self-image of being a community that embraces diversity of all kinds, it’s an awfully white town – especially when the college students go back to their families for the summer. But this wasn’t always the case. There were periods in history when there were significant influxes of Black immigrants.
As we now know, many of the Huguenot and Dutch settlers of the Wallkill Valley owned slaves from Africa. After slavery was outlawed in New York State, in 1827, local freedmen began establishing their own homesteads, while escaped slaves from the South found their way here via the Underground Railroad, assisted by Quaker congregations. At the end of the Civil War, some Northern soldiers actually brought liberated slaves back home with them as “contraband.”
Following Lincoln’s assassination, it became clear that Reconstruction wasn’t going to deliver the “40 acres and a mule” originally envisioned to help former slaves gain a foothold in the Southern economy. Jim Crow laws and widespread lynchings in the late 19th and early 20th century spurred what became known as the Great Migration of rural Southern Black people to Northern cities, especially when World War I created industrial labor shortages.
Some of that wave also brought migrants to rural areas in the Northeast seeking opportunity. The construction of the New York City Aqueduct system between 1907 and 1915 drew unskilled workers from many places: Black folk from the South as well as recent immigrants from Italy and Ireland. Some of them stayed on and created their own upstate communities. Who were these people, and why didn’t they stick around beyond the mid-20th century?
New Paltz’s town historian Susan Stessin-Cohn has been pursuing this question for decades now, finding clues that begin to tell the story of the Huguenot settlement’s residents of African descent right from its beginnings. Her efforts have been crucial to the identification of the slave cemetery on Huguenot Street and to the preservation of the memory of such colorful characters as architect Jacob Wynkoop and storyteller “Aunt Judy” Jackson. In 2016, she and co-author Ashley Biagini published the book In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley, 1735-1831.
Stessin-Cohn’s latest project is an online exhibit titled “Tales of a Congregation: African American History through the Lens of the AME Zion Church of New Paltz, NY.” Anyone can read it here: https://omeka2.hrvh.org/exhibits/show/ame-zion-church-in-new-paltz.
The seeds for this effort were sown more than 20 years ago, when a group of researchers met at the Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection at the Elting Memorial Library. “Whereas in the mid-19th century, there were approximately 150 people of color in New Paltz, by the mid-20th century, that population had dwindled to 13,” Stessin-Cohn writes. These local historians wanted to know: What had become of this little community-within-a-community?
During the pandemic, Stessin-Cohn finally found herself with the time to prioritize this line of research. Again working with Biagini, she got support from SUNY New Paltz and SUNY Albany, and enlisted three college students as interns, collaborating mostly remotely. “Krishika Sureshwaran, Marissa Hayes and Thomas Wood need to be especially commended for their dedication, perseverance and enthusiasm for this project. All three continued working on this exhibit after their school terms were over,” she notes in the Acknowledgments page of her online exhibit.
The collaborators found themselves intrigued by references in archived clippings from the town newspapers, the New Paltz Times and New Paltz Independent, to a Black congregation who raised money to build a church of their own on Pencil Hill. Together, though physically separated, Stessin-Cohn, Biagini and the interns combed through local records seeking any reference to the AME Zion Church of New Paltz. Oddly, there were no photos of the church, which was razed in 1945.
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church movement got started in 1796, when Black members of a Methodist congregation in Manhattan found it necessary to establish their own place of worship where they would be free from discrimination and unfair treatment. Their first church building had been chartered by1801, and membership grew quickly. By 1843 there were 45 AME Zion Church congregations in eight states and DC, 17 of them in New York State alone. The church in Rochester, founded in 1827, was a hotbed of the Abolitionist movement, a base of operations for both Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman.
In New Paltz, many Black residents belonged to the local Methodist congregation, and some to the Dutch Reformed Church, but were required to sit in separate sections. “They weren’t welcome in the white churches. Black folk were allowed in the balcony,” Stessin-Cohn says. According to the exhibit, “The simple reason for the creation of the New Paltz AME Zion Church is that the New Paltz Black community wanted religious autonomy and there was a big enough Black population to create it.”
Like the construction of the sloop Clearwater, this new church building began with a series of picnics, the first one taking place in 1869 “at Josiah Hasbrouk’s place.” Subsequent newspaper accounts cite the efforts of the “colored people of New Paltz” to raise funds to establish the church, which was finally built in 1871.
According to an article in the New Paltz Independent, the 23-by-32-foot property on Pencil Hill Road on which the church was constructed had been “donated” by Edmond Eltinge. But that apparently was not the case; Eltinge expected to be paid $550 (an inflated sum at the time for such a small lot). The construction costs of $573 depleted the funds that had already been raised, and the congregation was plagued for the rest of its days by its inability to pay down the debt to the Eltinge family while also hiring ministers and maintaining the church building. More than one reverend came into conflict with the congregation in later years, alleging that their agreed-upon stipends had not been paid.
Newspaper accounts tell the tale in tantalizing snippets, most often as reports of fundraising events such as ice cream socials and camp meetings, turkey and oyster suppers, picnics and concerts. “There was never money,” Stessin-Cohn says sadly. “I keep thinking, in the 1870s, how exciting this must’ve been. You get so excited for them, but it was such a struggle.”
“Tales of a Congregation” pieces the account together and fleshes it out with the stories that have been preserved of notable congregants, trustees and ministers of the AME Zion Church of New Paltz. The distinguished Reverend Thomas James wrote a memoir in 1887 of his escape from slavery and later career as a schoolteacher, minister and Abolitionist. It was he who licensed Frederick Douglass to preach, after meeting him in New Bedford in 1839.
One of the founders of the congregation was Fulton Cox, whose house on Pencil Hill still stands. He was a freedman brought from Georgia back to New Paltz by Captain Peter Eltinge at the close of the Civil War; in an 1865 letter, Eltinge referred to Cox as “a first class darky servant.” The enterprising Cox quickly transcended that patronizing description; according to the exhibit, “his property was considered to have the largest vineyard in all of New Paltz. Fulton had a small business running while working for Edmund Eltinge and was elected as the town’s roadmaster.”
Though he was “a primary figure in the creation of the AME Zion Church,” later in life Cox had a mysterious falling-out with the other church elders. He broke away to join the “almost entirely white” New Paltz Methodist Church in 1874 and ended up leaving it a bequest of $500. The Methodist Church put up a marble plaque in honor of Cox and his large donation, which was unearthed in the church’s attic during the research phase of the “Tales of a Congregation” project.
These and other fascinating Black Paltzonians of yore come to vivid life in the exhibit. But the ending of their story is sad: The debt for the land purchase was apparently never fully paid off and the building was poorly maintained; the roof collapsed during a fire-and-brimstone sermon in 1905. Attendance at church services fell steadily. By 1911 the newspapers were printing editorials urging the congregation to find other local churches that would take them in. In 1915 the AME Zion Church of New Paltz effectively closed. The building was renovated in 1928 and was used as a Church of the Nazarene for a while, but was demolished in 1945 and the parcel of land sold off in 1952, to one Raymond William.
What happened to this community of color? Why didn’t the Black Aqueduct workers who settled on Canaan Road stay on after that project was completed? Stessin-Cohn notes that, while many of the descendants of slaves in New Paltz went on to achieve upward mobility, they typically established their successful careers elsewhere. “Anyone who became anything left the area,” she says. The question of why Black residents were never afforded better opportunities locally is one that the larger community might well contemplate, in the interests of its own ethical redemption and its future as a genuine haven of diversity.
One major remaining mystery is the absence of images of the church and its congregation over its more than four decades of existence. Stessin-Cohn dreams that someone will memorialize it in a work of art, comparable to the paintings by Len Tantillo that were commissioned by Historic Huguenot Street. “I’d love to have a painting of that church and that street and the people who lived in that community,” she says. “For me, that street has more history than Huguenot Street, because they’re liberated.”