HARD TO MAKE SENSE of these times. Protest marchers fill the streets of Chatham. That’s happened before. But it’s different now because of masks and social distancing on one hand and the desire for solidarity around “Black Lives Matter!” on the other. Both cry for our attention.
This week the county enters a new phase of the economy’s “reopening.” Phase 4 holds tremendous promise for rebuilding what we lost during the “Pause,” more commonly called the lockdown. Each step in the reopening comes with dangers too.
We can take pride that the pandemic has relented in the state for the moment. Comfort is another matter. Thirty-seven people have died in this county from Covid-19. We don’t yet have the option of exhaling in relief.
The possibility that the virus could surge with the slightest misstep ought to deter us from shaming the states that ignored lockdown steps we embraced. If the people who live in states south and west of here didn’t trust science, then the nation failed to educate them. If they didn’t get the message that preventive measures work, we know who failed to protect them, starting with the president.
Covid-19 has forced us to question the way we organize our lives. We’re vulnerable in ways we hadn’t imagined. So why would people who know the risks and preventive behaviors put themselves in jeopardy to protest the death of George Floyd and so many Black and Brown people killed by police officers around the country?
National news reports and the recent marches in Chatham offer proof that the Black Lives Matter movement has become a multi-racial and multi-ethnic campaign to end racism in this country. One facet of this movement is an acceleration of the effort to remove statues and other monuments to those who enslaved people or fought to preserve that horror before and during the Confederacy. Many, if not all of these monuments were intended as part of the oppression and racism in this country aimed at Black and Brown people to this day.
But not here, right? Wrong. Enslavement, once legal in New York State, was formally ended in 1827 and lingered until 1848. But the legacy of enslavement in this area began more than a century earlier. We know this because the enslavers in at least a dozen communities around Columbia County advertised in local newspapers at the time seeking the capture and return of enslaved people.
This county sent local men to fight for the Union cause in the Civil War. There are no statues here honoring Confederate soldiers nor are there any statues or monuments here to enslavers that I know of… except two.
One is Martin Van Buren. The other is the Livingston mansion at Clermont, now part of the Clermont State Park and Historic Site. It’s currently closed because of the pandemic but the park’s website has an essay about the nine enslaved people of Robert G. Livingston and his efforts to sell an enslaved woman who had argued with his wife.
Another member of the family, Phillip Livingston, was in the business of enslaving African men or buying them in the Caribbean and transporting them to the British colonies of North America. Many died en route.
The Livingston home at Clermont is not a statue to be torn down. Livingston men fought in the Revolution and served in prominent public positions. But the family owed its wealth in one way or another to enslaved people whose lives mattered to their enslavers only as commodities, not as fellow human beings.
So this fact is not a footnote to Clermont’s history, it is arguably the reason the mansion came into existence. This recognition deserves more prominence than it has; it could be used to teach the brutality of racism rather than how that brutality enriched the enslavers.
Where does change start? Consider the way the online essay on the Livingston family’s enslavement ends, with the reader offered the chance to rate the essay by clicking one of three choices: “Funny,” “Interesting” and “Cool.” Adding a fourth choice might inch toward awareness. How about “Appalling.”
Trust the science. Trust the facts of history. Acknowledge the huge contribution enslaved and exploited Black people have made to the United States. People are protesting in the midst of a pandemic because they know ignorance and indifference are not acceptable solutions to the perils we face.