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Collective Challenges and Coming Together to Tell the Stories of Enslavement at Historic Sites

February 25, 2020 6:07 PM | Megan Eves (Administrator)

Earlier in February, I traveled to the Philipsburg Manor Historic Site in Sleepy Hollow to join a discussion with representatives from 20 institutions led by Historic Hudson Valley about how they are telling the stories of enslavement in the Colonial North.

Participants came from historic sites and museums in the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and New York City sharing  success stories, resources, current projects, and challenges across the sector. .

(left) Michael Lord, Associate Director and Content Developer for Historic Hudson Valley, leads a tour of Philipsburg Manor

Historic Hudson Valley

Historic Hudson Valley (HHV) has been committed to telling the story of enslavement in the colonial north for more than two decades. They do this at their Philipsburg Manor site through a dynamic range of programs and digital initiatives that are responsive to the needs of educators, students, and the public. HHV uses primary documents from the Philipse and Van Cortlandt families and scholarly research to “illuminate the lives of the enslaved Afrians who lived and worked in the Northern states; to grapple with the inhumanity of their plight, and to make their skilled contributions to the American economy and national culture abundantly evident to our visitors.” 

Philipsburg Manor is a 1750 milling and trading complex that was home to 23 enslaved individuals of African descent. Extensive research has been done using primary sources to learn  the names of those enslaved on this site. If I had arrived some twenty years earlier, the experience would have been very different. In fact, I might have learned very little about any enslaved individuals who lived and worked there. Historic Hudson Valley made the decision to tell the larger story, bring their content up to date, and move these stories forward using primary and secondary sources and translating them to the public. 

“People Not Property” Project

The original interpretation at Philipsburg Manor focused on the Philipse family. HHV wanted to alter its interpretation to focus on researching and telling the stories of those enslaved at the manor and the story of enslavement in the Colonial North. The “People Not Property” website project explores the history of slavery in the Hudson Valley region. The project was one of 253 across the United States and was awarded $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) to create digital exhibitions and advance research. The website is an interactive documentary that explains the history of enslavement in the Northeast, focusing on the Hudson Valley by using stories, videos, and re-enactments. “People Not Property” focuses on the lives of the 32 enslaved Africans who built and maintained Philipsburg Manor. 

(left) Objects in the Philipsburg Manor that are used to help tell the stories of those lived and worked there.

Michael Lord, Associate Director and Content Creator for Historic Hudson Valley who convened this Historic Sites and Slavery Roundtable, recognized the importance of acknowledging the existence of slavery in the Colonial North and telling these stories from the perspective of the enslaved. With the success of the new interpretation at Philipsburg Manor and the “People Not Property” project helping to inform the public about the impact of slavery in the north, HHV hopes to gather like minded people representing museums and historic sites in the Hudson Valley and beyond to share collective challenges and share their institutional perspectives.

Around the Table

Participants included curators, interpreters, directors of public programming and education from the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, Historic Huguenot Street, Morris-Jumel Mansion in NYC, and Sylvester Manor Educational Farm on Long Island. 

23 participants from around the Hudson Valley, Long Island, and New York City gathered at the Philipsburg Manor Historic Site in Sleepy Hollow  for an informal discussion about historic sites and the presentation of enslavement in the Colonial North.

At the start of our tour of Philipsburg Manor, each participant shared what their museum or historic site was doing to tell their stories of enslavement. Laura Carpenter Myers, Director at Van Cortlandt House Museum (located in Van Cortlandt Park in the Kingsbridge neighborhood of The Bronx and the oldest surviving building in the borough) shared that the museum is looking for grant funding to tell the stories of those enslaved and is inviting the community to participate by hosting community coalition meetings. 

The Dyckman Farmhouse, built in 1784 in upper Manhattan in the Inglewood neighborhood, is researching the history and lives of those who were enslaved. Now, museum staff are trying to figure out the next steps and how to best use this information to tell these stories. 

Preservation Long Island shared that like the Van Cortlandt House Museum, they too are using community round tables to gather information from the public on the three historic house museums that they manage on how best to tell the stories of enslavement, specifically at Joseph Lloyd Manor and the life of Jupiter Hammon, one of the first published African American authors who lived, wrote, and was enslaved at Lloyd Manor for most of his life. Educational programs for teachers now include workshops on the history of “Colonial Long Island’ and the “Slave Experience in New York.” Preservation Long Island recently launched The Jupiter Hammon Project, a major initiative that will develop a new interpretive direction for the Lloyd Manor that “encourages responsible, rigorous, and relevant encounters with the story of Jupiter Hammon” as well as Long Island’s history of enslavement and its impact on society today.

Donnamarie Barnes, Curator and Archivist at Sylvester Manor Educational Farm shared the “Hidden in Plain Sight” Program which is sharing the histories of enslaved African American people who lived, worked, and died on Long Islands’ East End. The program, which took place as part of the 5th Annual Black History Month Celebration on February 24, explored the history of slavery on the East End and “the omission of that history from the founding narrative of the United States.” Sylvester Manor, like HHV, is using primary documents to find the names of the enslaved and to understand their lives. 

Challenges as a Region

While these historic sites and museums are making incredible strides in research and creating now content and interpretation, there are challenges. After the tour of Philipsburg Manor, we gathered back inside the visitor center and spoke about the shared challenges. Levada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History with the NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation, asked how historic sites and museums share primary documents that tell the stories of enslavement in the Colonial North with the public. Nahon commented that “we should start addressing enslavement happening in the North and move away from the notion that the Dutch weren’t enslavers.” Sharing resources with the public from each historic site is important to help recognize enslavement in the North. “It’s important to get the word out to our audiences to challenge the southern narrative.

One other challenge that many participants shared was training staff and volunteers on how to talk about slavery and the terminology to use. Nahon asked “how do we train the staff for these dialogues and what is the emotional impact of these new interpretive techniques?” At this point in the discussion,  there was a lot of great advice and resources shared from other institutions. Heather Lodge, Manager of Youth and Family Programs at Greenwich Historical and Bush-Holley House, who also was involved with the Witness Stone Project in Guilford, shared information about the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience network who is helping historic sites with safe spaces and resources about sharing difficult histories. 

Moving Forward

At the end of the discussion, all institutions agreed that there are still important stories waiting to be told and the need to continue to recover peoples’ stories with new perspectives. Historic Hudson Valley hopes to continue to have these meetings and to continue the discussion. Connecting historic sites and museums who have similar goals is important to share resources, stories of success, and to share strategies to navigate challenges. 

Further Reading / Resources

Historic Hudson Valley “People Not Property”

Preservation Long Island “The Jupiter Hammon Project”

Hidden in Plain Sight

Teaching Tolerance: Using the WPA Slave Narratives

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