Shades of History

We don’t get to choose the history we inherit; nor do we get to choose the legacies our ancestors leave. For all the bright spots in history, there’s no shortage of gaps and dark periods. Many stories have been covered up or forgotten. One of those often overlooked histories is the rich tradition of African-Americans in the Hudson Valley. Unearthing that history demands looking at the painful, history of slavery in the region. 

The narrative of northern states has often been one of freedom and liberation. Classic a story as it may be, it’s incomplete. To my surprise, I found out that the very same area where we fought the revolutionary war was “the very same area [that] had thousands of enslaved persons until the 1820s.” When I heard this, I thought, why isn’t anyone telling this story?

Tashae giving the tour for the first time.

If you know the city of Newburgh, then you probably know its proud connection to George Washington and the town’s role in the Revolutionary War. It is an incredibly rich history, but is it the whole story?

Thanks to Tashae Smith, a Newburgh native and recent graduate of Manhattanville College, we can state for certain that it is not. Tashae worked with history professor Colin Morris on a project that takes people on a tour through the African-American history of Newburgh.

While I did not get to talk with Tashae directly, the pride Colin has in his student was unmistakable. Anybody wanting to hear this story can do so at Tashae and Colin’s workshop, Out of Washington’s Shadow: An African-American History Tour of Newburgh, on day one of THV’s summer institute Building Community with Place-Based Learning, July 25-27, in Hyde Park.

Colin has been teaching American history, focusing on the 18th and 19th century, for 18 years at Manhattanville College. In all his years of teaching he said he’s never seen such a remarkable, substantive project. “There are gaps,” he says about history, “you have to dig past some of the most obvious and prominent records.” This workshop will showcase how Tashae undertook this project, from initial research to the permanent installation of five historical markers in the City of Newburgh. Remarkably, this is the first formal acknowledgment of hundreds of years of African-American presence in the city. 

In addition to telling stories of Newburgh’s African-American past, Tashae and Colin will talk about how we can do this type of historical research in our own communities and they will specifically describe the “challenge of trying to excavate the history of oppressed people.” It is, of course, difficult because their history was not intended to be preserved. The search requires resourcefulness and reliance on descendants, but that doesn’t mean this kind of research is for a special type of person. Anyone who likes to ask questions can uncover history. It’s worth asking yourself, how much do you really know about your history? Is it the whole story?

Colin and Tashae will also present oral history interviews and video clips from the African-American history tour. They are eager to share the exciting history Tashae uncovered in Newburgh and would like to make it available to everyone, especially children. Colin notes that many students have the experience of visiting Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site, and asks, “Why not take this tour instead?” For him, it’s important that young people learn this history early on. Colin says it doesn’t have to be “the same old, same old,” history. There are other stories to be told, and you have the opportunity to hear this one first-hand and then pass it on!

Learn more about the Valley’s African-American history at the institute’s closing session,  A Sculptor’s Rain Garden: Honoring the Enslaved Africans of Philipse Manor Hall featuring sculptor Vinnie Bagwell and storyteller Ty Gray-EL.  Read more about the rain garden.

Matthew Thorenz, a librarian in Orange County, has researched African-Americans posted to the Newburgh area during the Revolutionary War. For example, History as Mystery: Jabez Jolley, Revolutionary War Drummer and  Substitutes, Servants & Soldiers: Black Presence at New Windsor.

Kelly Escarcega is a recent graduate of John Brown University in Arkansas. She is spending the summer with THV as part of the National Park Service Academy, Student Conservation Association, and AmeriCorps.