When we know and accept the unvarnished truth — in all of its complexity, conflict and context — it can change how we view things, including ourselves.
— Kevin Young, The New York Times, June 18, 2021. Mr. Young is the Andrew W. Mellon director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The Elting Memorial Library in New Paltz had a celebration in the garden on October 22, the first in a series of gatherings to combat hatred and foster change, according to the flyers. Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, will lecture on “understanding hate” on November 10 at 5 p.m. and retiring rabbi William (Bill) Strongin will talk about the roots of anti-Semitism on December 1. Registration is required.
Sadly, the crowd on Saturday was small, white and mostly white-haired, with one Black person in the audience. Revving motorcycles outside the fence provided distraction. Otherwise it was a dull event. A new shelf of donated books was mentioned numerous times, and wine and snacks were provided. It was rabbi Bill who asked the most pertinent question about “preaching to the choir” in the hope that there might be suggestions for including members of the community outside the choir. But New Paltz is a choir, which is part of the problem.
Why should a library’s “inclusivity and “diversity” committee be concerned with any of this? For starters it’s the Elting Library and it was that very Huguenot family that loaned money to the Black community living on Pencil Hill Road to build their AME Zion Church after the Civil War. Unable to repay the loan, which was never forgiven, the community eventually disbanded and left New Paltz for Poughkeepsie, Newburgh and Kingston.
Their departure, probably by the turn of the 20th century at the latest, only begins to answer the question: Why are there so few if any descendants of the slaves left in New Paltz? And why are there so few Black people living here today? Is there any evidence of Jim-Crow laws, Black Codes, Racial Covenants in land deeds, segregated schools, indentured servitude, rape, or lynching? Is the rumor of a terrorist fire-bombing of the AME Zion church reported in a recent Daily Freeman article true? How do we approach these lacunae and myths in local history today? How do we shift and amplify the narrative? What is our responsibility as citizens and neighbors? How do we move forward?
“The choice of slavery was deliberate,” Harvard professor Annette Gordon-Reed writes in her book, “On Juneteenth.” The Dutch, English and French Huguenot immigrants to the New World, were not founders. They were settlers, and they all owned slaves. This distortion of New Paltz history, still evident in extant signs, matters. What kind of a town and nation do we want to live in?
Soon after I arrived in New Paltz in the spring of 2018, I heard about an upheaval on the SUNY campus. Why were the Black students so upset about the names on their dormitory complexes? What was going on? A lot. After a whole year of testimony, the dormitories were renamed, the beginnings of reconciliation and reparation. Then the pandemic hit, and the process of re-constituting the narrative history of New Paltz slowed. Nonetheless, various re-interpretation projects proceeded at Historic Huguenot Street, and in the village by the Historic Preservation Commission, and with the tenacious work of town historian Susan Stessin-Cohn, who had, among other finds unearthed a poorhouse under the Ulster County fairgrounds. She commissioned a statue to memorialize it.
Hopefully, the library too will investigate the origins of the building in which it is housed and the slave labor which contributed to its construction. One can only hope that eventually a thankful prayer will be written similar to the Historic Huguenot Street’s land acknowledgment to the Munsee Lenape people that begins every program:
It is with gratitude and humility that we acknowledge that we in the Hudson Valley are learning, speaking, and gathering on the ancestral homelands of the Munsee Lenape people, who are indigenous to this land. We pay honor and respect to their ancestors past and present, and we at Historic Huguenot Street are committed to building a more inclusive and equitable space for all.
It is with gratitude and humility that we acknowledge that we in the town of New Paltz and environs are learning, speaking and gathering on the land and in the houses built with the help of kidnapped enslaved labor. We pay honor and respect to the slaves who labored here and their descendants, and we are committed to building a more inclusive and equitable space for all.