Slavery, Emancipation, Dreams of Equality, and Now
By Vinnie Manginelli
African American history in the Hudson Valley is a microcosm of black history in the United States. The first Africans set foot in the area in the early 1600’s, freely trading with local Native Americans. A dozen years later, the first African slaves were brought and by the mid-17th century there were almost 1,000 new Americans enslaved in the 150 miles that separated New York City and Albany. A century later, there were that many slaves in Ulster County alone.
“The two biggest slave markets in the country before the American Revolution were in New York City and Albany,” stated Dr. A.J. Williams-Meyers, a former professor of Black Studies at SUNY New Paltz, in a recent article, noting how slavery was as much a fact in the north as the south. Slavery, it turns out, was as instrumental in building the Hudson Valley as the various immigrants who are more routinely praised.
Later escaped slaves found hope in their fight for freedom in local Underground Railroad stops in Dutchess and Ulster counties. Local abolitionists hosted those championing the path to freedom in Canada, including the likes of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglas, in rousing speeches.
New York State passed an emancipation amendment to its state constitution in 1826, decades before other states, or the ratification of the nation. This was the largest liberation of enslaved people to take place prior to the Civil War and as the war approached, the Hudson Valley became a place for freed slaves to gather. Colored Conventions were organized in cities throughout the north, including Poughkeepsie, Albany, and Troy. In these gatherings, strategies were hammered out on ways to achieve educational, labor, and legal justice at a moment when black rights were constricting nationally, and locally.
One of the most famous local ambassadors for equality and freedom during this time was Sojourner Truth. Born Isabella Baumfree in what is now the Ulster County hamlet of Rifton, she was sold off at the age of nine to a family named Neely. Communication was difficult however, as she spoke Dutch and struggled with the English language spoken by the family that paid $100 for her to be theirs. After being sold several more times, she escaped and eventually moved to New York City with her children. She became an effective and compelling speaker, spending more than half a century helping to move former slaves towards lives of freedom and dignity.
According to Vernon Benjamin, author of the two-part History of the Hudson River Valley, black families started migrating from the south to areas like Catskill, in Greene County, in the late 1890s. He quotes historian Ted Hilscher in stating that these individuals “were likely escaping for fear of their lives,” as the towns in Georgia from which they came were among “the most racist communities in the South.” These newly arrived black families supported themselves for years working local brickyards with Italian immigrants.
During the 20th century, the civil rights movement in the Hudson Valley was vibrant and determined, just as it was throughout the country. But the promise of equality arrived slowly.
“Black professionals who came north to join IBM in this period (1950s) reported a uniform pattern of ‘rigid residential segregation’ in which the company itself participated by not providing relocation services as it did for whites,” noted Benjamin. As local cities became more diverse, urban renewal brought more black families to these communities. Unsung heroes from all walks of life did their part in the struggle for equality and civil rights.
Little known is the story of Cecilia Magill, an activist from Poughkeepsie “who helped create opportunities for African Americans in her city”and brought federal attention to the unfair hiring practices by a large Dutchess County company in 1942. An investigation was established, testimony was taken, and finally the whole matter cancelled when the company promised to hire regardless of race and gender. Magill would go on to a three decade year career at the Hudson River Psychiatric Center, where she was celebrated for her dedication to patients and considered a pillar in her Dutchess County community until she died in 2003.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, based in Hyde Park for decades, also became a major advocate for civil rights. She stressed the importance of education, equating it to standards of living. Recognizing the systemic problems that would result from poor education over generations, she fought for increased funding of public schools in predominantly black districts. Later, after her husband’s death, she joined the board of directors for the NAACP and Congress on Racial Equality (CORE).
Eventually, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 would outlaw discrimination based on race, color, religion, and gender, while the Voting Rights Act of 1965 banned discriminatory voting practices such as literacy tests and poll taxes. These monumental pieces of legislation would be seen as a turning point for African Americans in this country. But just as the abolishment of slavery in theory opened doors for “freed slaves” but in reality led to poverty, exploitation of black labor, and worse, the civil rights and voting rights acts have unleashed their own backlashes.
“The struggle continues with civil rights,” says Maude Bruce, president of the region’s strongest NAACP branch in Ellenville. “We have to come together as one.”
Bruce described how her organization continues to focus on an agenda that addresses education, civil justice, civic engagement, public health, and economics. And how every few steps forward seems to be followed by several steps back.
When I asked how I—a dad, writer, Little League coach, and white man in rapidly-gentrifying Ulster County—can do my part, she told me to look at who we have in office.
“Stand up and speak out,” Bruce said. “Let your voice be heard; talk to the people.”
I ended our chat by asking about integration in today’s society. She cited the diverse neighborhoods of Ellenville as a positive step in the right direction. She also said we need grass roots community efforts to speak out on the issues. But she gave me hope that it’s all possible, even in light of our current administration.