I get the most pushback when I tell people that I have slept in extant slave dwellings in five northern states. Those five states being Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island. There is pride associated with the ties that northern states have to the Underground Railroad, abolitionists and the northern army that helped to rid this nation of the institution of slavery. The intent of the Slave Dwelling Project is to find extant slave dwellings wherever they exist in these United States, therefore I must remind the public of the northern state’s slave holding past of which there is ignorance, denial or both.
The fact is, slavery was well entrenched in some northern states. Even when the slavery in those northern states was abolished legislatively, the complicity to that institution in those states assisted in allowing the slavery in fifteen southern states and the District of Columbia to flourish. That complicity included owning some of the ships that continued to transport enslaved people; owning the insurance companies that insured the institution; owning the banks that financed the institution; and owning the mills that added value to the cotton that was picked by enslaved people. When slavery was abolished within the boundaries of some northern states, many owner chose to sell their enslaved people down south in order to recoup their loss.
My first trip to New York included two sleepovers in extant slave dwellings on Long Island and one on Shelter Island. http://slavedwellingproject.org/slavery-in-new-york/
Historic Huguenot Street gave the Slave Dwelling Project the opportunity to come to the state of New York for a second time. According to its website:
“In 1678, a group of Huguenot families established a community in the Hudson Valley of New York in the hope of creating a home where they could worship as they chose. In 1894, their descendants formed what is now Historic Huguenot Street to protect their legacy in the buildings, objects, and stories they left behind.
Today, the 10-acre National Historic Landmark District includes a Visitor Center, seven historic stone houses, a reconstructed 1717 Heguenot church, exhibit and program spaces, archaeological sites, and a burial ground that dates to the very first settlers. Huguenot Street also maintains and extensive archive that preserves early local history collections and family papers, along with a research library.”
I always tell my host to maximize my time when I come to participate in a sleepovers in extant slave dwellings. Kara Gaffken, Director of Public Program of Historic Huguenot Street, took my request to the max. I had never been interviewed that many times before the event occurred which yielded many stories in many local public publications. Terry James and I arrived in New Paltz to a full agenda of activities. We had spent the two previous days in Annapolis, Maryland participating in some preservation training that was sponsored by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Preservation Maryland and Historic Annapolis. Terry has over forty overnight stays in slave cabins but this would be his first in a northern state. Our first night would include dinner at a local restaurant and a live radio interview. We would spend our first night in the 1850 House Inn & Tavern, a local bread and breakfast in nearby Rosendale. https://soundcloud.com/user-406429759/hhs-on-wfnp-september-8-2016
The morning of our first full day was spent on the campus of the State University of New York (SUNY). This was one of those rare occasions when the trip to sleep in an extant slave dwelling was cosponsored by an institution of higher learning. The students were much more attentive than I thought they would be and the questions were asked accordingly. Some of the students along with their professor would be spending the night with us in one of two extant slave dwellings on Historic Huguenot Street.
The tour of the properties was supposed to cover all ten acres of Historic Huguenot Street but Terry James and I had many questions for our tour guide and we could only cover three of the buildings. We toured the Bevier House of which I would be staying. Historically, the basement was where the enslaved would have stayed. I was relieved that the floor of the basement was made of wood. It is dirt floors that scare me the most when I sleep in extant slave dwellings because of the potential for creepy crawlies to attack. The exposed support beams prevented all of my five feet seven inches from standing erect under them. Examples of cooking hardware was in and around the hearth. To my dismay, the hearth was not in cooking order. Imagine the programmatic possibilities if it were. Chairs and other artifacts were located throughout the space. It was obvious that we were in a museum and we had to treat the artifacts accordingly.
The night included a discussion around a camp fire. Students from SUNY and other members of the community joined descendants of the enslaved and those who enslaved them for the conversation. Adding to the potency of this matter was that two of the participants, a mother and her son, were descendants of Sojourner Truth. Sitting in the circle around the camp fire we did not hold back, we discussed everything from slavery to Black Lives Matter and how historical trauma has allowed these two matters to connect.
When it came to the time for us to claim our spaces, Terry James took the SUNY students to the Hasbrouck House and I took everyone else to the Bevier House. This was a first for us to split a group in such a manner but it would prove to work out just fine. Surprisingly, there was one member of my group, a descendant of a slave owner and a member of the clergy, who after the conversations ceased and people began to drift off to sleep, who could never seem to get comfortable. He continued to fidget up until around 1:00 am when he got up and left complaining of the heat. I’ve had people to attempt to sleepover before and leave but never that early in the process. I have even had people who said that they would show up but never did with no explanation. Interestingly enough, the rest of us were fine with the space.
Saturday and our only obligation would be to participate in a formal public gathering. Prominent members of the community participated. They included the Mayor of New Paltz, the President of State University of New York and some people who slept in the slave dwelling the night before. Additionally, one woman who had donated a slave collar that her enslaving ancestors owned was also a participant. Some time was allotted for me and Terry James to talk candidly to the audience about the Slave Dwelling Project. This gathering gave me hope that Historic Huguenot Street has the right community involvement to ensure that their interpretation of their historic spaces will include the stories of the enslaved.
Sunday and we were tasked with attending a public event at State University of New York. It was preceded by a tour of the Sojourner Trust Library which is located on the campus. A substantive conversation with the president of the university was had about the opportunity to develop a curriculum about slavery in northern states. A few of the students and the professor who spent the night in the space participated in the event. The descendants of Sojourner Truth also participated in the event.
Historic Huguenot Street’s mission is to engage, educate, and challenge a diverse audience by collecting, preserving, and interpreting the buildings, objects, documents, and stories of the Huguenots’ multicultural journey in America. After directly interacting with the confident and well capable staff and board members, I am confident that Historic Huguenot Street is far exceeding that mission. In fact, Terry James and I left New Paltz, New York feeling good about the trip. Very few sites have gotten me to commit to them for more than two days especially when visiting for the first time. Very few places have galvanized the community around this cause as Historic Huguenot Street has. Very few sites that embrace this subject matter have the support of institutions of higher learning. So Historic Huguenot Street, I will take you up on that invitation to join you again next year as we continue to interact and interpret the spaces that you steward that interpret the stories of the enslaved Ancestors. Let’s continue to change the narrative by disseminating the information that supports the fact that slavery also existed in northern states.