Project reveals local legacy of slavery

Shown here are proposed memorial sites that would highlight significant locations in Poughkeepsie’s legacy of slavery. One site was proposed by Vassar grad Sarah Evans ’18. Juliette Pope/The Miscellany News

Sam was an ungrateful Negro man, according to his owner, Gilbert Livingston. Livingston thought he had hashed out a fair deal with the 19-year-old—Sam agreed to be bought for $225, and two would work out a deal for the young man’s freedom later. “He knew I was principled against slavery,” Livingston wrote in a newspaper notice dated July 9, 1804. In the same ad, Livingston offered a $10 reward for Sam’s capture (New York Heritage Digital Collections, “1804, Run away notice for Sam of Poughkeepsie, N.Y.”).

But Livingston was not any ordinary disgruntled slave owner. The Livingston family was the land gentry of Dutchess, Columbia and Ulster Counties during the 1700s and early 1800s. Their ancestral line was a force to be reckoned with in New York’s local and state politics.

Today, the Livingstons and other slave-holding families are memorialized in the Poughkeepsie streets that bear their names. But many of the children who stroll, commuters who drive and businesses which operate on these streets remain unaware of this history.

Sarah Evans ’18, who investigated this history with other Vassar students for a 2017-18 Community Engaged Learning (CEL) project, believes that the erasure of this history is a decision made by those in power in the United States to forget the atrocities of slavery. At one point in New York State, the enslaved accounted for one-fifth to one-third of the population; 60 percent of enslaved persons lived in the Hudson Valley, according to the committee’s project statement.

“What is most certain is that the formation of Poughkeepsie itself was greatly facilitated by enslaved people, that their toil contributed to and constructed the Livingston fortune,” Evans shared in an email.

In her final project reflection, Evans proposed a memorial to the named and unnamed enslaved men, women and children of Poughkeepsie at the Upper Landing Park, located on Poughkeepsie’s Hudson River waterfront. This park, on land once owned by the Livingstons, is where slaves disembarked on their oftentimes fatal, forced passage from their motherland to servitude across the Atlantic.

Evans’ proposal resonated with community members and ultimately became The Black History Project Committee’s Memorial Project, a local initiative started by Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County community members. The Committee believes that all too frequently, children grow up in Poughkeepsie without learning this local slavery legacy. This is concerning—Black residents comprise 37.6 percent of the City of Poughkeepsie population, according to 2018 U.S. census data (United States Census Bureau, “Quick Facts, Poughkeepsie city, New York”). “We believe that the under-told history of the enslaved of New York must be made more visible and that memorials can serve to recognize, educate and encourage our communities to reckon with how the violent racist past relates to ongoing social and racial inequality in the present,” the Committee writes in its project description.

The Committee has since planned additional markers across the Poughkeepsie area, including one in Upper Landing, to recognize the contributions of slaves made at pivotal locations in the area’s slavery legacy. They have not yet approached city, county and possibly federal officials for approval to install the markers, but they hope to do so by next spring, according to Committee chair and former Dutchess Community College Admissions Counselor Carmen McGill. In the meantime, Committee members will continue to work on designs for the memorial.

Potential marker sites include:

  • Market Street (to be decided). “Market Street is named Market Street because that’s where the slavery auction block was,” McGill noted.
  • United States Postal Office at 55 Mansion Street, which is a replica of the previous Poughkeepsie Court House built by slaves, according to McGill.
  • Upper Landing Park at 83 N Water Street, a historic site where slave ships unloaded.

The Poughkeepsie and Dutchess County residents and students who make up the Committee also participate in the education, communication, outreach, site selection and design, as well as in the project narrative subcommittees.

They are tasked with connecting the City of Poughkeepsie School district and community with their research, informing the community of the project through
social media and other means, designing the main memorial structure proposed by Evans and writing the narratives on each historic marker.

The Committee has not yet secured funding, but they are in the process of becoming a 501(c)(3) organization, in order to be capable of writing grants and fundraising. The Committee is in its early stages; they had their first meeting in April. McGill anticipates the completion of the project this to be a three- to four-year endeavor.

Professor of Political Science on the Frederick Ferris Thompson Chair Katherine Hite, who supervised the CEL project and now co-facilitates the Memorial Project, says she has gone from studying and writing about grassroots memorials in her research to being a part of a memorial initiative. It has been a valuable learning experience for her. “In our Memorial group, I experience African-Americans who I feel constantly demonstrate enormous patience in relation to white ignorance and racism, including from those like myself, working on being an anti-racist,” Hite reflected in an email.

Evans, who is excited to learn of progress on the memorial project, sees this as an opportunity to counter the over-memorialization of white elitism.

“It is interesting how the legacy of white elites and white nationalism manifests in New York State,” she posited through email. “I think that there is a large commentary to be made here: Whose stories are we telling through memorialization? What histories do we represent and reproduce in our public spaces? And more importantly, what stories do we exclude or fail to sufficiently remember?”

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