While the history of the Dutch and French settlers in the area has been well-documented and preserved both in archives and in structures, researchers are only beginning to uncover the history and lives of African American slaves and indentured servants in the Hudson Valley, who not only contributed to the construction of many of the historical stone houses and municipalities, but who also have an ancestral line that runs as deep as those of the Huguenots. To bring us all up to date, Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) educator and researcher Susan Stessin-Cohn is poised to present a special talk on Feb. 26 at Deyo Hall on “The Missing Chapter.” It will not only reveal hard truths about the treatment of African Americans in the Hudson Valley region during the Colonial and antebellum periods, but also shine a light on the very real and personal stories of local African American families over the course of 200 years, with one descendant of an African American family slated to come to the talk and put a “face” to the research.
Also a virtual exhibit that can be found on www.hrvh.org, “The Missing Chapter” stemmed from a grant that was received by the Southeastern New York Library Resources Council, who approached Stessin-Cohn and asked her if she’d be interested in coming up with an idea for an educational virtual exhibit of her choosing. “I’ve always been interested in Black History, particularly local Black History, through my own research work and through my work with and inspiration from A. J. Williams-Myers [a SUNY-New Paltz professor of Black History who is renowned for his work in that field],” said Stessin-Cohn. “But this grant gave me the opportunity to delve as deeply as I wanted to into the subject, and the moment I began, I realized that there was so much right here in the Historical Huguenot archives. Slaveholders kept everything!”
Working with many interns, and with the cooperation of HHS and Haviland/Heidgerd Historical Collection director Carol Johnson, as well as with Williams-Myers and other Hudson Valley historians, Stessin-Cohn uncovered what she calls a “gold mine” of information on the lives of African Americans in the region, much of which she admits “is incredibly painful,” but “so critical to our understanding of history and who we are today.” She also used records from the Ulster County Hall of Records and the Senate House in Kingston, which had a stockpile of 18th- and 19th-century local newspapers that were critical to her research.
Among the many things that she and her team of interns were able to discover from the Ulster County Hall of Records, which encompasses court records, was the fact that “there were eight whipping posts throughout Kingston,” where slaves who were charged with some criminal infringement, like stealing candy or wheat or getting into a physical altercation, were taken around the City and whipped at each post. They would then be taken to the Courthouse, where there was a whipping post that “would get the most public attention,” she said.
The records also showed an egregious discrepancy where “a white man who may have been charged with a similar crime would receive a small penalty, while the African American would receive jail time and maybe 50 lashes outside the Courthouse.” Stessin-Cohn noted that the research showed that many times other slaves were forced to “draw lots” and made to whip each other.
She has a large file filled with “Runaway Slave” posters, and talks about one “incredibly disturbing document, which [former HHS director] Eric Roth wrote a paper on, entitled “The Society of Negroes Unsettled.” According to Stessin-Cohn, this “Society” was made up of a group of men on Huguenot Street in 1810 who compiled a list of all runaway slaves and their masters and hired three men as bounty-hunters to track them down, return them or “dispose of them.”
Unlike slavery trends in the South at the time, where there were often plantations and the slaves had their own “quarters” in which to live, here in the Valley there were laws restricting the gathering of three or more African Americans, and slaves were often separated from their families, forced to live in the kitchen cellars and/or basements in their slaveowners’ homes.
Because the slaveholders kept so many records, Stessin-Cohn and her interns were able to track down many descendants of these African American slaves, “many of whom still live in the area.” One woman approached Stessin-Cohn to see if she could find out about her great-great-grandfather, whom she knew was a Civil War veteran. She said that she knew that her “grandmother was buried up here.” Among the archives that Ellen James, Stessin-Cohn, HHS and others had compiled, they were not only able to find out that her great-great-grandfather’s name was Richard Oliver, but also that he served in the 20th Colored Infantry in the Civil War and died on his way home from battle due to malaria.
“But his wife ended up building a house right here on Broadhead Avenue,” said Cohn. When she gave me a picture, I knew exactly where it was taken, and went to show her the house that her ancestors lived in. It was amazing.”
These are only a few stories documented in “The Missing Chapter.” One of the most compelling stories that Stessin-Cohn will highlight in her talk is something that she calls “The Burnt Cork.” This true story begins with a woman by the name of Carrie Plant, who was adopted by her uncle, John Deyo, in 1870 after her parents died. “She was approximately 17,” said Stessin-Cohn, “and her uncle and his wife were childless.” The Deyo family had what they called a “Black farmhand” by the name of Wesley Sampson. “The uncle became concerned that there was something between the two of them,” explained Stessin-Cohn, “but before he could address it, the two of them disappeared. Deyo was frantic and had everyone out looking for them, but they could not be located.”
As the story goes, the couple tried to get married, but no one would marry them, as they were an interracial couple. Plant received advice that she should use a burnt cork and color herself black, which she apparently did, and the two were married at a church in Stone Ridge by an African American minister, who noted in his books that he had been duped after he realized that the bride was actually white and had masked herself as a black woman.
This is a not-to-be-missed talk and will take place on Feb. 26 at Deyo Hall at Historic Huguenot Street at 4 p.m. To get more information, call HHS at 255-1660; and to learn more about the virtual “Missing Chapter,” log onto www.hrvh.org. ++