If in 1703, more than 42 percent of New York City households held slaves, often as domestic servants and laborers and the last slaves were freed in 1827, why is it that when I interpret slavery in northern states, I often get push back?
I can now add the state of New York to the portfolio of states for the Slave Dwelling Project. This brings the total of states to fifteen of which I have now spent nights in slave dwellings four of which are northern states. This trip to New York was four years in the making. Early on in the Slave Dwelling Project, I reached out to staff at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island because I heard on National Public Radio about them interpreting the history of the enslaved there. At the time that I reached out to them, my venture into northern states had been rare. Now New York has been added to Connecticut, Massachusetts and Pennsylvania as northern states where the method of the Slave Dwelling Project sleeping in extant slave dwellings has now been applied.
Last year, I met Jason Crowley, Preservation Director at the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, at the National Preservation Conference which was held in Savannah, GA. We engaged in a conversation about me coming for a sleepover at the Joseph Lloyd Manor House, a site under their stewardship. I learned that Jason was once employed at Magnolia Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina where I am now employed on a part time basis. That conversation with Jason planted the seed for a partnership to occur in organizing my trip to New York.
On a separate issue, I heard about an attempt to save the home of Pyrrhus Concer from demolition. I had even written a letter on behalf of saving this home. As founder of the Slave Dwelling Project, this was my first direct venture into advocacy. As fate would have it, all three of the aforementioned sites would come together in this trip to Long Island, New York.
Joseph Lloyd Manor
Jason Crowley attended the College of Charleston and once worked at Magnolia Plantation where I now work part time. When I saw him at the National Preservation Conference which was held in Savannah, GA in October 2014, we talked about the possibility of me coming to Long Island, New York for a sleepover in the Joseph Lloyd Manor House. I told him about my effort to come over to Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island and of my limited involvement in the Pyrrhus Concer House. The seed of an idea of a collaboration between the three sites was then planted. Jason would do his part to make it so.
My first of three nights on Long Island, New York would be spent at the Joseph Lloyd Manor House. Prior to the stay, the Society for the Preservation of Long Island Antiquities, planned a lunch at a restaurant in Huntington Village. All of the seats were filled and to my surprise, the audience was quite evenly racially diverse. I would see some of the participants at the manor house later.
Its website states: “Overlooking scenic Lloyd Harbor in a setting that has remained remarkably unspoiled since the eighteenth century is the Joseph Lloyd Manor, a dignified house which preserves the simple elegance that characterizes Long Island workmanship before the Revolution. During the Revolution, Lloyd Manor is thought to have served as a barracks for Loyalists stationed at Fort Franklin on the plain above the house who repulsed an attack by French and American troops in 1781. The Manor was also the home of Jupiter Hammon, the eighteenth century slave who became the first published black poet in America. Also, Charles and Ann Morrow Lindberg lived in the house in the years leading up to the Second World War.”
I would sleep in the room where it was believed that Jupiter Hammon slept. The amazing thing was that the room possessed all of the trappings that could easily classify Jupiter Hammon as an “uppity Negro”. It was located on the second floor and had a bed, two functional windows and a fireplace. It was easy to see how this less stressful living condition could satisfy and feed one’s propensity to be a writer.
The reception included a live musician and tours of the home for the participating audience which was impressively diverse. Some had attended the lunch and some were visiting the manor for the first time. In a series of one on one and group conversations, I engaged the audience of 50 about the Slave Dwelling Project. Many of them expressed a desire to spend the night had the invitation been extended with enough notice.
No one would be joining me for the sleepover on this night. The house was equipped with wifi so I had ample time to communicate on social media and to start writing the blog for this trip. The house had a third floor tenant whom I never encountered.
In 1703, forty percent of New Yorkers owned slaves. This stay was an example of how the slavery in some northern states was much more intimate in that more people owned less slaves. Those slaves owned by northerners often stayed in the same homes (attics or basements) of the owners.
Sylvester Manor, Shelter Island
It took four years for the Sylvester Manor stay to come to fruition. I first heard of Sylvester manor four years ago through a media story on National Public Radio. I reached out to them and expressed my desire for an overnight stay. We knew then that it was going to happen but we just did not know when. Maura Doyle, coordinator of History and Historic Preservation, Sylvester Manor was my contact and she would persistently see this thing through.
Prior to the Sylvester Manor stay, there were two island sites of which I had to catch a boat to obtain access, they were Daufuskie Island, SC and Ossabaw Island, GA. Until Sylvester Manor, never had I had to put my car on a ferry to obtain access. This was not quite the experience I got when I crossed the English Channel on a ferry but it was an amazing feeling none-the-less. The process was smooth and efficient.
According to its website: “The Sylvester Manor house is in fact a collection of several building and remodeling efforts spanning several hundred years, responding to the changing tastes and needs of its many descendant residents. The original c. 1652 house, to be built of “six or seven convenient rooms” served the corporate needs of the four sugar partners and provided a home for Nathaniel and Grizzell Sylvester, their eleven children and most likely several slaves and indentured servants. Aside from a brief reference to a second floor porch chamber mentioned in Grizzell’s 1685 will, there are no known descriptions of the 17th century plantation-era residence.” Currently, the manor’s focus is organic farming.
I got to inspect the space in the attic of the manor where the enslaved would have stayed. Typically, the stairs that give access to and from this space are challenging and these certainly were. They were winding, narrow and almost straight up. One can only imagine negotiating these stairs that extended from the lower level of the house to the attic space and carrying items, a chamber pot or hot food, to accommodate the owners of the plantation. One misstep could be catastrophic not to mention the punishment received for having such a mishap. The attic area was quite spacious in accordance with the size of the manor but one would have to take into account the number of people living in the space and the sounds created by both enslaved and free that would limit both parties from fully expressing themselves freely. One of the indentured servants had carved a drawing of a sailing vessel in the wall of his living space. The space was also adorned with replicas of clothing of the enslaved and trunks for storing items. The mattresses where the four of us would sleep were already laid out on the floor. The heat in the space on this relatively mild day was bearable but I had the advantage of knowing that by the time of the sleepover later in the night, the temperature of the space would be more bearable and, unlike the real inhabitants of the space, I had the option to bail if necessary.
The sleepover would be preceded by cocktails and an elegant dinner for invited guests which would take place right in front of the manor. The guests were dressed from casual to informal. Tours of the manor were also included in this gathering. At dinner, I had the privilege of addressing the audience about the Slave Dwelling Project.
Four people were scheduled to sleep in the attic with me but one did not show. Before we retreated to the attic space, we who would be sleeping in the attic and a few others all gathered in one room of the mansion and had that obligatory conversation about the slavery that was applied at Sylvester Manor.
By the time we got to the attic for the sleepover, the temperature had dropped a little. But it was easy to imagine that there could be nights in that space that were much more unbearable than what we were experiencing at that time. We did manage to open a few windows and a fan that was blowing upward from the base of the steps that gave us access to the attic provided additional relief.
When I got up about 6:00 am, one of the participants was missing and I thought that she bailed on us. We later found out that around 3:00 am, Katrina Browne, retreated to one of the bedrooms in the manor so she still gets credit for the overnight stay. Her explanation was that she heard mice. Stephen Mrozowski, who slept beside me explained that it was evident that I had done this before because once I laid down I was out while going to sleep for him was more of a challenge.
That morning we took a walk to the grave yard where the formerly enslaved are now buried. I was warned about the deer ticks that were abundant on the island so that made me quite paranoid. Compared to some I’ve seen, the graveyard was in relatively great shape. Steve pointed out a feather of a bird that was sticking out of the ground as if it were shot from an arrow. We all wondered aloud about presence of the Ancestors. Rocks that marked the placement of the graves were abundant.
The event would culminate with a scholarly panel discussion that included; Dr. Stephen Mrozowski (Director of the Andrew Fiske Memorial Center for Archaeological Research at UMass, Boston, and Manor board member); Katrina Browne (writer/producer of the 2008 award winning documentary film Traces of the Trade: A Story from the Deep North); Dr. Barrymore “T’ony” Bogues (Director, Brown University Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice). It was a full house with a few folks who I had known before the event.
The Thomas Halsey House Homestead
With the Sylvester Manor event now concluded, I was handed off to Georgette Grier-Key, executive director of the Eastville Community Historical Society and Brenda Simmons, executive director of the Southampton African American Museum. They both accompanied me to my next site, the Thomas Halsey House Homestead. Our first encounter was a few days earlier when we all participated in a conference call interview about the upcoming Pyrrhus Concer event.
The Halsey House is an historical house converted into a museum, in Southampton, New York. It was first built around 1648 by Thomas Halsey, a pioneer from Hertfordshire, England. Thomas’s grandfather was the honorable William Halsey. William had the famed English country house The Golden Parsonage bestowed upon him by Henry VIII in the 16th century. It is here that Thomas Halsey’s father was born, as well as Thomas Halsey himself.
In 1630 Thomas Halsey sailed to the new world and was an original settler of the Massachusetts Bay Colony (now greater Boston). In the 1640s he was one of the first Englishmen to travel and settle the eastern end of Long Island. In 1648, Thomas Halsey built what stands today as the Halsey House, sometimes referred to as, “the Hollyhocks”. He lived there with his wife, Phoebe Halsey, who bore him seven children, (a descendant of one child is William F. Halsey also known as ‘Bull’ Halsey, he was a great Admiral of the Fleet (five-star) of World War II). She, Phoebe, was scalped by Native Americans in 1649. The Halsey House is believed to be the oldest English-style house in the state of New York. Today, it has been restored and is open to the public as a museum filled with many of the same items that were owned by Thomas Halsey’s family and other relics.
I met Tom Edmonds, executive director, Southampton Historical Museum the night before at the event on Shelter Island.
The overnight stay at this site would find me sleeping alone again. The site is a museum that interprets the general history of the area. So this stay was somewhat similar to that of the overnight stay in the Old Exchange Building of Charleston, SC because I would be sleeping among many exhibits. It was a lot like the movie Night at the Museum.
The building had electricity so I had the opportunity to plug in my computer and get some writing done. I spent a great portion of the time trying to find the sweet spot in the building where by phone could receive a signal. The spot that I would sleep was covered with an animal hide which appeared to be a black bear. That, I was not feeling so I kindly laid it off to the side and slept coverless.
When I was still employed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, I was made aware of an effort to save the home of Pyrrhus Concer from demolition. Born a slave in 1814, Mr. Concer was freed and went on several whaling expeditions, most notably when he was part of a crew that saved stranded Japanese sailors and returned them home, becoming one of the first Americans, and black men, to see then-restricted Japan.
I wrote a letter on behalf of saving the house but to no avail, the house was deconstructed anyway. In an interesting turn of events, the potential developers did not build on the property and sold the land back to the city at double the price. The current plan is to reconstruct the house in its original location.
On the last day of my visit to Long Island, a ceremony which was held in a park across the street from where the Pyrrhus Concer house stood, gave me the opportunity to address the crowd about the importance of preserving the African American built environment. The event culminated with the unveiling of a marker in front of the property and renaming the street in his honor.
Indirectly, advocacy has always been a part of what the Slave Dwelling Project is all about. This opportunity to participate in the Pyrrhus Concer event thrust the project in the midst of advocacy.
One of the most encouraging part of this visit to Long Island was my conversation with Georgette and Brenda. Why is it that the historic buildings that tell the stories of African American are so few and scarce? We concluded that the Secretary of Interior standards that require them to be on the National Register are too stringent. Additionally, if the applications that allowed the buildings that are now on the national register were scrutinized and rewritten to include the aspects of the African American contributions to those building, more of those structures can help tell our stories especially when those buildings are antebellum. One must always consider who cut down the trees that framed those buildings; who made the bricks; who physically built those buildings; whose labor provided the wealth for those buildings to be built; the list of things to be considered continues. We all gave ourselves an assignment to examine one application for a building of our choice that is now on the National Register of Historic Places and find those missing elements and insert the African American contributions where they belong in that application. I challenge you to do the same. If you accept this challenge, imagine how we all can honor the Ancestors by helping to tell their stories through the building that we choose to preserve.