Home of the Free

This Hyde Park house was home to a local, former enslaved man and his wife

By Bill Jeffway
A version of this article appears in the Northern / Southern Dutchess News / Beacon Free Press edition March 23, 2022.

After living in Florida for three decades, Mary Witherwax and her husband, Roland, were looking for a house to buy in Dutchess County in 2020. They were returning home in the sense that they had grown up locally and had known each other from their teenage years.

Mary “just knew” she walked into the right house in the Town of Hyde Park on East Market Street. She had a feeling there was a wonderful history tied to the house, which motivated her to want to call it home.

It turns out, she was right.

“I knew it was the right place the second I walked in, my husband not so much at first, but it has grown on him. An old house can be harder to keep up. We had built a new house when we moved to Florida. But I feel that if you live in New York, especially here, you need to live in an old house. That’s what this area is all about.”

“When I first walked in, it was a feeling, as I started walking through. I thought the quirks, the odd stairs added character (there is a very narrow, very vertical set of stairs leading upstairs and to the basement). That was it, I wanted the house.”

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Mary Witherwax sits in the dining room of the home she bought with her husband, Roland, in 2020. A set of narrow, very vertical stairs behind her lead to the basement and second floor.

“When I first walked in, it was a feeling, as I started walking through. I thought the quirks, the odd stairs added character (there is a very narrow, very vertical set of stairs leading upstairs and to the basement). That was it, I wanted the house.”

Mary and Roland bought the house thinking it was built in 1900, the date mentioned in tax records and the date advertised by the real estate agent. Mary explains, “At the closing, the prior owner had prepared an envelope with the deed chain going back to 1826 showing all the names of owners, including a man named Dunbar Brown, but I knew nothing about him until recently.”

The deed chain shows that the narrow and deep quarter acre lot was subdivided in 1826 and was first purchased for $75 by Deborah and Dennis Beach. Dunbar Brown bought two adjacent quarter acre lots for a total of $170 in 1834. By 1857, the deed included his wife’s name, and they sold the two lots for $462. The higher price suggests, and other data supports, that Brown had built a house by then, the one that stands today.

What is exceptional about Brown is that we know, from other sources, that he was enslaved by Judge Edmund Pendleton, on an estate just north of the Vanderbilt site, arriving in Hyde Park from New Jersey around 1820. We don’t know exactly when Brown became free, but slavery was abolished and prohibited in New York State from July 4, 1827, so he was certainly free by then.

This information was a kind of accidental or incidental discovery as DCHS was conducting an updated investigation into the Hyde Park New Guinea Community, an effort for Black History Month that was sponsored by Dutchess County Government, Offices of the County Executive, Clerk and Historian.

"Hand hewn, and sash-sawed" were features the preservationist Emily Majer saw that helped her determine the age of the house. This is a beam in the basement.

Emily Majer of Tivoli is owner/operator of White Clay Kill Preservation. She has an MS in Historic Preservation from the University of Massachusetts, is Town Historian of Red Hook, and is a trustee of Historic Red Hook. She is confident the house was standing during the period of ownership of Dunbar Brown, saying, “It’s the whole package, the size and massing of the structure and the visible eyebrow window.  While there is some newer flooring in parts, the beams look to have been hand hewn and sash sawn, and the mortar in the basement looks like a nice soft lime mixture. These elements, plus the size and shape of the house, and the roofline definitely say pre-1850 to me. 1834 is within the range of possibility.”

We are very fortunate to have the notes of Edward Braman, a local Hyde Park historian. Called the “Edward Braman Diaries, 1873 to 1894."

Through them we learn that while enslaved Dunbar Brown was known as Pompey Brown, and that it was somewhere along his journey from enslaved to being a free man, that he changed his name.

Braman visited Dunbar Brown and his wife Amy Griffin Brown in New York City in 1878, and wrote the following, “Dunbar (Pompey) Brown was a slave when he came to Hyde Park in 1821 or 1822, as coachman for Judge Edmund H. Pendleton. Later, after he left the Judge, he settled in New York City and became a carpet shaker, whitewasher, and public waiter. He prospered and at one time was worth considerable property. He is a prominent member of St. Philip’s (colored) Episcopal Church on Mulberry Street, and his daughter is one of the lady managers of its fairs…”

In a summary note, meant to indicate the hospitality and popularity of Dunbar and Amy Brown at Wooster Street, Braman writes, “Brown’s brass door plate with ‘D. Brown’ on it is well worn.”

Local Hyde Park historian Edward Braman interviewed Dunbar and Amy Brown in their Wooster Street, New York City apartment in 1878. His diaries are part of the FDR Hudson River Valley & Dutchess County Manuscript Collection at FDR Presidential Library & Museum, who were enormously helpful in helping access information.

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Judge Edmond Pendleton’s father, Nathaniel Pendleton, was best known for being the second to Alexander Hamilton at the duel that proved fatal to Hamilton. He married into the Bard family and came to own an estate just north of the Bard family. The Bard family estate was located at the site of today’s Vanderbilt Estate.

Image at left: Nathaniel Pendleton married into the Bard family and built the estate Placentia just north of today's Vanderbilt Estate. His son, Judge Edmond Pendleton "owned" Pompey Brown who served as coachman and valet.

When Brown died in 1884 at the age of 84, the New York Globe of June 7, 1884 referred to him as “an old and respected citizen, a prominent member of St Philip’s P.E. (Colored) Church where his funeral was held. He left a widow, two daughters and three grandchildren in New York City.” The reference to the church is explained in the book, In Protest and Progress. New York’s First Black Episcopal Church Fights Racism. Studies in African American History and Culture. The author John H. Hewitt, Jr. writes that Brown was an advocate who helped the Black church in New York City gain full and equal status within the Episcopal Diocese in the 1852, saying, “Those still living [in 1852] of the original ten men on the 1845 vestry who had initiated the effort to win the vote in the diocesan convention must have been overjoyed [...as they] helped press the parish’s cause to a successful conclusion. Among them were Dunbar Brown, who operated a shoeshine parlor at 430 Broadway.”

Above: St. Philip's Church, Mulberry Street, New York City, where Dunbar Brown successfully advocated for the Black church to be a full participating church in the Episcopal Diocese of New York City.

Mary takes pride in being able to maintain Dunbar and Amy Griffin Brown’s legacy as persons, through maintaining the home.

“I hope more people will look at their homes and find out its history,” she said, “I know I can carry on their names, they had long lives, and I hope if other people have an older home, they will want to know its history. History is important, I really believe that. It has made us who we are today, and we learn from it, there has been good and bad, there is always that, but we should learn from it and not ignore it.”