Bright Spark in Freedom’s Pursuit February 9 at 7 pm

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DCHS recognizes Black History Month with a February 9 presentation and discussion led by its Executive Director, Bill Jeffway, examining the transient Free Black Community that emerged in Hyde Park just prior to the Civil War.

Called New Guinea, the name was used as a general catchall reference to anyone from Africa, and was not in any way a specific reference to the West African country of that name.

Perhaps approaching 100 individuals at its peak in the 1820s, and similar to other transient Free Black communities that emerged in the county and across the northern United States, its residents were largely Black, but included Persons of Color with mixed heritage, including Native Peoples, and Whites. The site, literally nestled in the u-shape of the elbow that lends its name to the Crum Elbow Creek, has a central road that is aptly named Fredonia Lane, a name that remains in use today. The area was recently named to the National Register of Historic Places and is accessible as part of a Town of Hyde Park public recreation area.

Persons of Color in New York State saw the enactment of the 1799 Act that would eventually abolish slavery in New York by 1827. Of course slavery not only continued in the southern United States, but laws like the 1850 Fugitive Slave law, eroded safeties for Persons of Color in the "Free" north.

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Dutchess County is a particularly powerful stage to view the national struggle of Blacks and Persons of Color in their fight for freedom and equality. Located a few miles east of New Guinea, at the Crum Elbow Meeting House, outspoken, aggressive abolitionists like James Marshall DeGarmo, took to the national stage arguing for the complete and permanent abolition of slavery. Local Quakers instigated rules prohibiting slave ownership among their members in 1766. By the early 1800s they constituted the greatest concentration of Friends outside of Philadelphia. 

Located within a few miles west of, and adjacent to New Guinea, we find not only the large slave owners themselves, but dedicated pro-slavery advocates, equally in command of a national audience, who held of range of pro-slavery views from allowing states to decide, to a call for slavery to be established and endorsed as a permanent institution.

We believe that the power of local history is its power to speak in very personal and relatable terms. This allows us to understand the day to day consequences of what would otherwise be abstract concepts. Seemingly abstract arguments can have enormous consequences: 8% of the US population died or was killed as a result of the Civil War. And conversations about race, equality and justice are vivid today.

Through the lives of a few generations of New Guinea residents, among them, Primus Martin, Quock QuockenBush, Lizzie Martin, Richard Jenkins, Jennie Cox, Sarah Bush, Griffin Griffing., Betsy Riddle, Harry Black, Robert Quackenbush, Richard Johnson, Constant Post, Peter Griffin, Frederick Riddles, Tobias Canton, Jack, Cesar Clark, and Francis Peters, we learn a lot through their daily living.

Did land ownership in New Guinea offer the kind of economic opportunity local Persons of Color were seeking? Why did some rise in profile and influence, like Primus Martin, while others fell by the visible wayside? Why were some able to establish themselves as successful business persons, like the barber, Henry Jenkins? How was Quock QuockenBush’s relationship the man he worked for as a gardener, Nathaniel Pendleton (the great national author and second to Alexander Hamilton in his fatal duel with Aaron Burr) affected by Pendleton’s outspoken advocacy of slavery? Why was QuockenBush not able to purchase land from the former slave owner, Samuel Bard, despite such an option from Bard in his farming lease on Fredonia Lane?

These, and many other questions, will be examined, and give us insight into how conflicts can emerge, inflate, and recede.

Bill serves on the research committee of Celebrating the African Spirit, and maintains a personal advisory, research and publishing entity called HistorySpeaks.

You can walk Fredonia Lane. Please check with Town of Hyde Park rules and regulations, regarding opening hours and other requirements for safety and courtesy to others.