Discover What's Local
The Hudson Valley plays a momentous role in black history, yet the actual stories that brought us to where we are today are generally unknown to most people and oftentimes differ substantially from what we are taught at a young age.
Understanding the history of our country means being aware that many of us were taught in our early education that in the era of slavery, the South was predominantly bad when in reality, the truth is much greyer than that. In fact, New York State held the biggest slave markets in the country during the early 1700s in both NYC and Albany, and for a time, slavery was as firmly entrenched in the North as it was in the South.
Taking us back to 1613, the first non-indigenous person to settle in New York was known as Juan Rodriquez. He arrived in Manhattan Island four years after Henry Hudson and his crew sailed up what is now the Hudson River.
There is not much archival information on Rodriquez other than being the first Black person to have ever lived in New York City, according to Ramona Hernández, the Director of the Dominican Studies Institute of the City University of New York (CUNY) housed at The City College of New York.
Colonization in the Valley started to advance and soon enough Albany, then called Fort Orange, was home to 800 enslaved Africans, including children, by 1664 with 75 of them considered to be free. By 1674, the original European settlers of New Paltz, the Huguenots, purchased the first of many slaves.
The Huguenots escaped the religious persecution they were facing in Northern France and started colonization in the Hudson Valley. However, they bit off more than they could chew in terms of the amount of land they had purchased from the Esopus Indians, and the settlers that were once oppressed became the oppressors by turning to aggressive slave labor in order to maintain their land.
By the first federal census in 1790, there were 77 slaveholders in New Paltz owning more than 300 slaves with a total of 21,000 in New York State.
Almost half a century later, emancipation began on July 4, 1827, where communities of freed Blacks started to emerge in the Hudson Valley counties such as Rockland, then Skunk Hollow, Westchester, then The Hills, Dutchess, then Hyde Park, Beekman, and Mill Brook and lastly Ulster, then Eagles Nest and West Hurley.
While the emancipation process began, there was still no guarantee of freedom. In the years to follow, the Hudson Valley was a part of the Underground Railroad. The reality is that there are little to no records as to where slaves stayed or how they escaped on the road other than the acknowledgment of Quakers and other activists granting refuge to anyone looking for it.
A familiar name who helped in the efforts of the Underground Railroad, Sojourner Truth, was born into slavery in 1797 in Ulster County in what is considered Rifton today. Her birth name was Isabella Baumfree. Baumfree escaped to the Van Wagenens family, a Quaker family in New Paltz, that eventually paid for her freedom after the Dumont family reneged on a promise to free her.
Embracing the kindness that the Van Wagenens had shared with her, Isabella Baumfree changed her name to Sojourner Truth and she began her days in activism. In 1857, she moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, and actively helped Blacks escape to freedom on the Underground Railroad. For the remainder of her life, she protested segregation and gave speeches of strength and perseverance.
“It was amazing to me that Sojourner Truth’s story was never taught in school,” said Dr. A.J. Williams-Myers at the TMI Project’s Black Stories Matter in Kingston on June 21, 2019.
“Just one more example of how the history of the Africans in America has been taught as how history shaped Africans instead of how it really is. Africans and their descendants have profoundly shaped American history.”
Williams-Myers is a retired Black Studies Professor from SUNY New Paltz, a former director of the New York African American Institute, and a member of the New York State Freedom Trail Commission. With his Ph.D. in African History from UCLA, Williams-Myers has many read-worthy publications including Destructive Impulses: An Examination of an American Secret in Race Relations.
Amidst the 20th century, civil rights movements were exceedingly taking place in the country. The fight for equality was only getting stronger, and surely not going anywhere, including in the Hudson Valley.
NAACP Legal Director Thurgood Marshall led the movement to abolish racial segregation in Hillburn elementary schools in Rockland county in 1943. The successful petition contributed to the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education where the justices unanimously voted racial segregation of children in public schools to be unconstitutional. Later, Marshall became the first African American nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court.
At this point, it was after World War II and IBM had expanded exponentially including in both Poughkeepsie and Kingston. Not only was the work of IBM ahead of the world in the sense of a growing economy, but also in making efforts towards racial equality by hiring the first black CEOS, teachers, administrators, and leaders.
When one looks around our vibrant, and culturally diverse Hudson Valley region today, the successes of Black Americans in our current time would be unimaginable to most just 50 years ago. Simply consider the fact that the country just elected the first Black, South Asian American woman as Vice President.
The city of Hudson nominated their first African American mayor, Kamal Johnson in 2020 who is also one of the youngest mayors of the city. Johnson grew up in Westchester County and moved to Hudson in the second grade. Johnson believes, “when we take care of our most vulnerable, everyone benefits.”
The mayor of Peekskill, Andre Rainey, made history in being the youngest mayor of the city in 2018. As a Peekskill native, Rainey believes in the power of partnerships in building a vital community with opportunity for all.
There is a generational shift for progressive change and people are taking a stand against the old ways to ensure the community, as a whole, feels safe and heard.
The campus buildings at SUNY New Paltz were named after the slave owners, the Huguenots, and after students and the community expressed the need for a change, SUNY New Paltz President, Donald P. Christian listened.
In the Fall of 2019, the College Council decided on changing the building names to represent the local geographic features. Students, faculty, administrators, the Diversity and Inclusion Council, and the College Council all came together to make this happen.
For those of you who would like to learn more about Black history in the Hudson Valley, or get involved in social programs to support the community, the following are some helpful organizations to look at:
A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center – Learn more about black roots at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center. The center’s mission is “to promote literacy through teaching and learning about the African roots experience, including history and culture, through a dynamic exchange of information, ideas, and creativity.”
Rise Up Kingston is a grassroots effort that uses their power to face racism and classism in the local area.
Center for Creative Education in Kingston uses programs in the arts to teach basic life skills and the importance of education and wellness to low-income, minority, and at-risk kids and teens in the area.
Citizen Action is another well-known statewide organization with a Hudson Valley region. The group faces political issues that impact the different counties and address other social injustices like climate change, education and mass incarceration.
Nobody Leaves Mid-Hudson is another community-based organization with offices in Kingston, Middletown, Newburgh, and Poughkeepsie. The group fights for social justice and voter turnout.
The Hudson Valley has come a long way, and there is much more work to be done in welcoming racial equality to the entire world, not just this region. By remembering the struggles and the pain, we can acknowledge the progress, uplift, and celebrate all the Black voices that have come before us to get us where we are today. Let us all join together to continue to pave the way towards a better world for all.
By Victoria Cymbal
Victoria is a freelance writer in the Hudson Valley where she spends her time either finding new ways to bring the community together or hiking the local Catskill mountains.