Westchester Seeks to Re-Cast Past Role of Enslaved Africans

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by Barrett Seaman – 

More than 120 people crammed into the Martucci Gallery at Irvington’s Pubic Library on a weekday evening in mid-June to hear Sarah Cox and Cathy Sears report on their quest to locate a long-lost cemetery in the village for African slaves owned by some of the village’s historically prominent families. The program was provocatively entitled “Slavery in Our Town, Irvington NY.”

A few nights later, Waddell Stillman and Lynda Jones, president and vice president respectively of the non-profit Historic Hudson Valley, gave a talk to a racial reconciliation group called REPAIR (Rivertowns Episcopal Parishes Action on Inclusion and Race) on their efforts to re-tell the story of one if its principal tourist sites, Sleepy Hollow’s Philipsburg Manor, in ways that more accurately reflect the role of 23 enslaved Africans in the running of this once 52,000-acre “provisioning” plantation. Their talk fed off of a new documentary podcast featured on the organization’s web site called “People Not Property: Stories of Slavery in the Colonial North,” which it says “flips this narrative, celebrating the lives and resistance of those who endured this terrible injustice” instead of the prominent Dutch and British landowners that have long been the focal point of local history.

Earlier in June, “People, Not Property” was the subject of a WNYC radio report on its popular show, “All Things Considered.” In April, PBS aired a documentary on Reconstruction that painted a disturbing picture of the reality of post-Civil War America, where the struggle to effectuate the 14th Amendment granting equal citizenship to blacks in 1868 met with fierce cultural and institutional resistance.

Common to these events is a larger sentiment, that it is time for Americans to stop “whitewashing” their history for the sake of preserving the glimmering image of American Exceptionalism. Asked why so many historical accounts and museum displays continued to downplay race, Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) president Stillman surmised, “I just don’t think the slavery story fit into” the larger narrative of American success.

The re-casting of roles at Phillipsburg Manor has been ongoing for 20 years, during which time Linda Jones was a member of HHV’s African-American Advisory Committee. In the early nineties, one participant in the REPAIR discussion noted, Philipsburg Manor’s depiction of the Dutch celebration of Pentecost, called “Pinkster,” featured carefree young Dutch children alongside blacks who were cast not as slaves but as happy employees.

No longer. Visitors to the estate today are introduced to the Africans as persons, with their own names, relationships and individual skills. Caesar was the head miller at the plantation—a job that required considerable technical skill as well as a working knowledge of several languages to deal with the various buyers and sellers of the flour he and his co-workers produced. Manor material now openly acknowledges that the Philipses, who became vastly wealthy off the work of their 23 enslaved Africans, never actually lived there.

The shift away from the “whitewashed” image of the plantation’s history that focused on the lifestyle of a wealthy white Dutch family to one that incorporated the lives of their enslaved African workers began in the late nineties with gradual changes in the site’s children’s programs. Stillman acknowledges that the staff felt the need to avoid any abrupt change that might alarm major donors and their board of directors, but he also notes that a $2 million grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities made that an easier sale.

The work of Sears and Cox in discovering and contextualizing the enslaved African cemetery in Irvington was done under the auspices of the Irvington Activists, a progressive community group, with additional support from the Irvington Historical Society, which published their first account of the cemetery in its journal, The Roost. They were able to document that in addition to the Philipses in Sleepy Hollow, such well-known Irvington families as the Dutchers, Buckouts, Odells and Peter Bont—all of whose names adorn village street signs, or in the case of Odell, the 1690 tavern and roadhouse just off Broadway that is a prominent piece of local revolutionary period history. Blacks, the two researchers noted, were 16% of Westchester County’s population in the late 1800s and remained so right up to the Civil War. Very few of them were free.

The presence of slaves in Westchester, indeed throughout the North, is not a new discovery. Period records—in particular wills—clearly listed the names of Africans among the assets of property owners, along with their land and furniture. “The most common reason for the sale of slaves,” noted Sarah Cox in her library talk, “was to settle estates.”

Nor was the probable existence of an African cemetery somewhere in Irvington entirely new. Bones were first dug up at the start of construction in 1895 of what is now known as the Trent Building, formerly the home of Cosmopolitan Magazine. What Cox and Sears shed light on were the identities of many of the Africans and the white families that owned them. The simple change in terminology—referring to them as “enslaved” instead of as slaves, which in turn highlights the role of their masters as “enslavers”—is another reflection of a changing sentiment.

Changing attitudes is precisely the goal of REPAIR, a multiracial group that began in 2015 to meet monthly under the auspices of five Episcopal parishes in the lower Hudson Valley. Regular attendees ranging in number from 20 to 50 discuss racial injustice and the unconscious bias and institutional discrimination that perpetuate it.

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