EDITORIAL: Slavery is part of our story

WE’VE PUBLISHED MORE kinds of advertisements for legal products and services than I can remember. Ads are our main source of revenue. We need them to survive. Makes me wonder what our ad policy would have been at a time when advertisers posted rewards for the capture of people described as “runaway slaves.”

From the mid-18th and to the mid-19th centuries there were at least five newspapers in Columbia County that carried those kinds of ads, according to the authors of “In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley 1735-1831” (Black Dome Press 2016). The ads were big business for my industry. Like slavery was for generations on this continent.

This comes up now because of a project in the Village of Kinderhook to restore a cemetery created by a white resident of the village whose will set aside a small section of his property in 1813 for use as a cemetery. It was to be “for the people of colour in the said town of Kinderhook to use for that purpose and none other.” The restoration is a task well worth the effort, one that deserves public and private support.

If you grew up in the Hudson Valley you probably heard about the Underground Railroad and heroes like Sojourner Truth, who came from Ulster County. Kids who attended public school here half a century ago learned that local folks helped the people we called slaves escape bondage in the South and flee to Canada. No lesson I retain taught me about enslaved people who lived here.

In Columbia County? Yes. The first ever U.S. census in 1790 counted 1,623 enslaved people in the county. Slavery in this state was not abolished until 1827. Its legacy persisted well past the Civil War. It’s still with us, judging from how little we know.

Let’s get past the language issue first. Readers expect newspapers to use precise words and “slave” is inaccurate and misleading. To say someone was “born a slave” is like saying you were born a nurse, a mechanic or a lawyer. We are all born persons. The people we’ve called slaves were robbed of their individual identity. “In Defiance” and the Kinderhook cemetery project are steps that can help right that crime. The same is true for speaking accurately about the people who were victims of slavery.

On July 20, 1812 a county newspaper called The Northern Whig published a lengthy notice about two “Black Men (brothers) named JIM & WILL” who had run away from Kinderhook. The ad says Jim, 29, took with him his clothes, which the advertisement lists in detail: a woolen butternut-colored Coat, vest, trousers, etc. right down to his socks and hat and “he also took a fiddle, but is a poor player.” In other words, as far as the advertisers were concerned, he owned nothing, not even his musical aspirations.

The ad, one of hundreds that authors “In Defiance” authors Susan Stessin-Cohn and Ashley Hurlburt-Biagini present, describes Will as “about 27” adding that he could have obtained his freedom. His flight, says the ad, was “an ungrateful act.” George Chittenden and Cornelius Van Alstyne offered an $80 reward for these men if they were brought to the jail in Hudson.

There are ads in the book for enslaved people who fled from Ancram, Canaan, Chatham, Claverack, Germantown, Hillsdale, Hudson, Mt. Merino (now in Greenport), Livingston and New Lebanon. And though the book restores possibly the only public account of the identities of people who escaped at least for a time, surely this list of communities engaged in human enslavement is far from complete.

The book and cemetery project are about awareness not guilt. They remind us to look again at the historic homes, large and small, and the farms and the prosperity they represent. From the time the Dutch settlers arrived in the early 1600s to the middle of 1800s one of the major factors driving the economy was the labor of enslaved African people.

There were white people here who helped enslaved people escape and who struggled in many ways to abolish slavery altogether. We should honor their memory. But they could, if they’d chosen to, speak for themselves. We will never know how many people buried in or near the small cemetery in Rothermel Park in Kinderhook were once enslaved. But we have good reason to pause there and remind ourselves of their contribution to our lives. They didn’t choose that burden and the least we can do is acknowledge their sacrifice.

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