For several years now, I’ve been spending summers in Ulster County NY, about 2 hours northwest of Manhattan. To attract tourists, the Hudson Valley often refers to itself as the US equivalent of Tuscany, quite a stretch of the imagination, but justifiable in terms of natural beauty and abundant local produce and wines. As a fan of history, I’ve enjoyed exploring the area’s heritage.
When I was there this summer I visited the Mathewis Persen House in Kingston, NY, a site recently excavated and opened to the public. The house stands a block from Main Street at the “Four Corners,” the only place in North America where four pre-Revolutionary houses face each other across an intersection. This part of town is called The Stockade because the first European settlers built a fort here to contain and protect their dwellings. It was burned down twice, first by the Esopus tribe and then by the British. The house itself is made up of five different constructions, from the original stone walls built by a Dutch apothecary in the 17th century to more modern additions used as an inn and then for municipal offices. Student interns guide visitors through the different spaces, pointing out building materials left exposed to tell the story through architecture, century by century.
As a child, I loved learning about Early American history and imagining heroic pilgrims seeking freedom of conscience in the New World. When slavery was mentioned at George Washington’s Mount Vernon home on the Potomac near where I grew up, or when we drove by the statue of a lone Confederate soldier called “The Thin Grey Line” in front of the courthouse in my first home town on the Mason Dixon Line, I was able to file it all away in the back of my mind as vestiges of a past that no longer defined our country. When I visited the Huguenot Street historic site in New Paltz NY, as an adult, I was touched by the rough hewn homes and church built by French refugees fleeing religious persecution. A mention of slaves sleeping on the stone floor of a cellar in one of the 17th century stone houses was chilling, but wasn’t it a reminder of how far we had progressed now that our First Family was African American?
Here in Paris in July 2013, I attended an evening with author Ta-Nahisi Coates at the American Library. Mr. Coates had planned to talk about his memoir, The Beautiful Struggle and his move to Paris, but as he told the mostly white audience, following the recent acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer, he had changed his mind. Instead he would describe his research and conclusions about how White Supremacy was woven into the very fabric of our country’s institutions from the beginning and had never been erased. All through his talk, I kept remembering how ecstatic French political commentators had praised America in November 2008 for wiping out 400 years of karma overnight by electing Barack Obama. When other voices here foresaw a devastating backlash down the road, I was disgusted by their cynicism. Obama’s reelection in 2012 seemed to vindicate my pride in my country’s evolution. Now it was as hard to listen to Mr. Coates as it was to read the headlines and watch smartphone footage of young black men being shot down over and over in our streets…but I refused to despair, focusing on what I wanted to believe.
Then Trump was elected…
During the Mathewis Persen house tour this past summer, we climbed up to an attic-like second story and our guide showed us a small room near the master bedroom where slaves were thought to have slept. Neo-Nazis and Klansmen had just marched through Charlottesville. The word slavery could no longer be brushed aside. Clearly it is embedded in our collective consciousness, as deeply here in “The North” as in “The South”.
At the end of the tour, I slumped down on a bench in front of a film about Ulster County history. It was very moving. I learned Sojourner Truth was born into slavery in a Dutch-speaking household just a few miles away. She was freed as an adult, but according to the heartless custom of the time, her children remained slaves. When her son was sold illegally to a plantation owner in Alabama, Sojourner Truth brought suit with the help of her employers and was the first African American woman to win a case against a white man. (For more on her life story and slavery in Ulster County, see links below, worth your time!)
Another sequence showed how a few decades later, volunteers in the 120th Infantry regiment from Ulster County NY fought for the Union at Gettysburg. Hundreds were lost, half the recruits, plunging the entire county into mourning.
A few steps away from the Four Corners, a monument to Sojourner Truth stands in front of the old Court House where she won her case.
Across the street at the Old Dutch Church, an angel honors the 120th and their fading banner is displayed reverently on a wall inside the sanctuary.
It’s not over. We are still harvesting evil and courage, denial and truth…
To be continued xxxxx Aliss