Home

History…does not refer merely to the past…history is literally present in all that we do

~James Baldwin, “Unnameable Objects, Unspeakable Crimes,” 1965~

Why Truth and Reconciliation?

Our mission is to facilitate the integration of our undertold past into our ongoing present. We are not here to reinvent the wheel—Truth and Reconciliation models have been used in post-apartheid South Africa and post–civil war Rwanda as the first step in stitching back together the fabric of societies torn apart by ethnic or racial conflict. As in those foundational movements, we have adopted a tripartite model for our project—Truth, Reconciliation, and Repair. 

Modeling ourselves on those previous Truth and Reconciliation commissions, we engaged in the “Truth,” or fact-finding, part of this process. In the Truth and Reconciliation process in post-Apartheid South Africa, commissioners first conducted a series of fact-finding investigations, with an emphasis on the first-hand testimony of those who witnessed and experienced human rights violations. It was necessary to establish the “Truth” before there could be Reconciliation. In Ulster County, historical records are our only means of hearing the voices of those impacted by the history of enslavement.

First, we investigated the facts of slavery as practiced in Ulster County. As is often the case with Black history elsewhere in America, the Black presence in Ulster County is a topic that has been historically under-investigated save for the work of a few pioneering researchers such as A.J. Williams-Myers, a man who devoted a good deal of time to chronicling the local histories of people of African descent. Between 1683 and 1827, Ulster was one of the most pro-slavery counties in the state of New York. Despite this, historians seeking to piece together the truth about enslavement in Ulster County face significant obstacles. With few exceptions, local archives and repositories have not adequately assessed and processed their holdings in Black life and history. An assessment of the materials in Ulster County revealed no guides to archival materials dedicated to African American History. So, we trawled the depths of local archives, searching for any information relevant to our cause. In addition to rigorous archival research, we have consulted genealogical records, historical periodicals, secondary research, and numerous other sources. Finding the Truth is key to preparing and presenting a plan for forward movement.

Second, we have embarked upon the Reconciliation phase of the project. Guided by our research findings, we will draw up a plan for a symbolic meeting of those impacted by slavery’s presence in the county—both those who have descended from enslaved persons and those whose ancestors benefited from its spoils. In this phase our genealogical work will serve us greatly, as we will be able to identify descendants of both the enslaved and the enslavers, setting the stage for a meeting of two historical demographics that have deeply impacted one another. 

As the final part of our project, we must set out a plan for forward movement. There is no doubt that the legacy of slavery still looms largely in our society; the persistent racial wealth gap in our country is perhaps the most salient reminder of the injustices of the past. Centuries of enslavement barred the vast majority of Black Americans from any sort of economic accumulation while simultaneously building and accumulating wealth for white enslavers using Black bodies as capital. Economic prospects for Black Americans following the abolition of slavery were not much better. Since the 1799 Gradual Manumission Act slowly eradicated slavery in New York State, political, social, and economic racism continued to hinder the ability of Black Americans to enjoy anything approaching the level of prosperity enjoyed by white Americans. In 2022, Ulster County Comptroller March Gallagher released a report detailing racial inequality in the county, finding that Black families experience food insecurity and cost burden at nearly twice the rate of their white neighbors. The need for repair is dire, and we hope to help by laying out a case for remedying historical disenfranchisement that might be made actionable by local politicians and community groups.

There is a lingering misconception in the Northern states that fought the Confederacy in the Civil War that they are free of the stain that has historically tainted the Southern states. This could not be farther from the truth—slavery was prevalent in the towns and cities and farms of early New York, and there was strong resistance to any mitigation of the practice. Ulster County—home to old Dutch families and sprawling estates—is particularly notable in this regard. At its peak in 1790, the enslaved population of Ulster County numbered 2,818—a staggering number, especially when compared to that of similarly-sized and neighboring Dutchess County, which held 1,864 enslaved people in the same year. In our day-to-day lives, we still honor those who enslaved men, women, and children as their family names adorn our street signs and institutions. Only recently has there been any effort to rectify this moral imbalance, as has been seen in the renaming of buildings at SUNY New Paltz. Those who were enslaved were dispossessed of any profits from their labors, and Ulster County today continues to be shaped by the legacy of that dispossession.

Project Goals: How We Envision Our Work 

Genealogical Research—Our goal is to document the lives of enslaved people as well as their descendants in Ulster County, New York.

Support—We take seriously our belief that the past is present. In turn we recognize that not every descendant of an enslaved person or slave-owning family will want to participate in a reconciliation process. We are committed to supporting the emotional well-being of those individuals who do choose to participate in this process. 

Truth and Reconciliation Conference—At the end of our work, we will ask willing descendants of slaveholding families and enslaved people to participate in a public event focused on listening to and exorcising the ghosts that continue to haunt our communities. The past will never disappear, but how we relate to it can change in profound ways 

We acknowledge that Ulster County is home to the descendants of enslaved people from all over the United States, the Caribbean, and South America. That said, this project limits its reach to only the descendants of people who were enslaved in Ulster. Our data is limited by a range of factors including the fact that many enslaved people changed their last names to reject their experience of enslavement, and many enslaved people moved away from the scene of their subjugation. By contrast, many of those who were enslavers became firmly rooted in the area.

Acknowledgments

Ulster County Executive’s Office; Ulster County Clerk’s Office; Steve Hoare, Black Dome Press; Laura Hertle, Senate House State Historic Site; Jody Ford, Stone Ridge Library; Beth Patkus, Historic Huguenot Street; Carol Johnson, Haviland-Heidgerd Historical Collection; Harrison Martinez, SUNY New Paltz Intern; Dr. Kwame Holmes, Bard College; Arnold Pickman; New York Historical Society; Ulster County Historical Society, New York Public Library, New York State Archives.

And a special thank you to Jimmy Buff, Radio Kingston
for making this project possible.