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An Architectural Time Capsule: Black History of the Hudson Valley

Updated: Feb 25

by: Heather Adams

Old Revolutionary House & church photos by: David Longendyke

Sojourner Truth Portrait: credit below (6)

2.24.22

postcard of the tavern.. It has been said to be “part of” the Underground Railroad

As the Sunday morning sun reflected on the Hudson River, nineteenth century church goers made their way to one of the many places of worship in the Hudson Valley. The Low Dutch Church of Klyne Esopus opened its doors to anyone who wished to attend and eventually came to be known as the Klyne Esopus Dutch Reformed Church in Esopus, NY. However, as the white parishioners took their seats in the lower pews, the enslaved people who accompanied them were sent up the narrow stairs to sit in the gallery. Fascinatingly, one of the biggest voices of the abolition movement, Sojourner Truth, may have been brought to attend worship services at the Klyne Esopus Dutch Reformed Church by Martinus Scryver, one of the people who enslaved her. Known at the time as Isabella Baumfree, Sojourner Truth– had she gone with Scryver to the church– would have attended services in the original church building as the building that stands today was not built until 1827(1). It is unclear whether the first Klyne Esopus Dutch Reformed Church building had slave galleries, but often times slave galleries were small, cramped and stuffy. Unbeknownst to many present day Hudson Valley residents and tourists, these galleries still exist as some of the architectural evidence– along with segregated cemeteries such as the Pine Street African Burying Ground in Kingston, N.Y. and the Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, NY among others– of the region’s history with slavery.

Then & Now... The old "Van Vliet" Homestead.. (Jug Tavern). Built ca.1767... Corner of River road & Broadway Port Ewen, N.Y.

As the breadbasket of the colonies, New York required an abundance of labor that it did not readily have. To overcome the inconvenience of labor shortages, slavery became paramount in keeping up with agricultural demand. By 1790, the federal census record showed that New York held the most populous slave society north of Virginia(2). The hierarchal structure of slave holding societies extended beyond the fields and into religious institutions. The Dutch Reformed Churches of New York were no exception to this rule. Throughout most of the eighteenth century enslaved people were not allowed to hold full church memberships. What membership allowances enslaved people had, varied from church to church. However a partial membership often meant that slaves were allowed to attend regular worship ceremonies but they had to be seated in a separate gallery and may not be permitted to receive communion or to get baptized. Baptizing slaves frightened slave holders because a baptized slave might use their Christian status to argue their freedom(3). While keeping enslaved people as partial church members in tiny, stuffy galleries, New York State legally allowed people to hold slaves until 1827(4).

Architecture, when used as a tool in historic research, can be of great value to the historian. For instance, throughout the Hudson Valley there are historic buildings that have design features that tell the secrets of the area’s history with enslavement. The Klyne Esopus Historical Society Museum has evidence that suggests that while enslaved to Martinus Schryver, Sojourner Truth attended worship ceremonies at the former Klyne Esopus Dutch Reformed Church. While the Hudson Valley likes to hold great pride in the birthplace of one of the abolition movement’s most influential people, it is important to remember that Sojourner Truth was not always seated on a pedestal. For nearly

thirty years, Truth was likely sitting in a tiny, stuffy gallery at the top of a narrow staircase, until her freedom was bought in 1826(5).

Truth may be one of the Hudson Valley’s more well known formerly enslaved people, but she was by no means the only. Census records reveal that in 1790, there were 2,914 enslaved people in Ulster County representing 9.9% of the total population. Most of those landowners who included enslaved people among their property generally held one or two. Those who held ten or more enslaved people, although rare, were considered large slave-holders for the area. This indicates that enslaved people existed throughout society prior to the end of Slavery in New York State. They worked in mills and fields, homes and taverns. They were blacksmiths, millers and coopers. Wherever work needed to be done, an enslaved person could be found. Through evidence– such as architecture– around the Hudson Valley, there are physical reminders that this beautiful area is not immune to ugly realities.

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(1) “Timeline,” Klyne Esopus Historical Society Museum, accessed February 18, 2022, https://www.esopushistorymuseum.org/timeline.
(2) Michael E. Groth, Slavery and Freedom in the Mid-Hudson Valley (Albany: SUNY Press, 2017), 4-5.
(3) Roger Panetta, ed., Dutch New York: The Roots of Hudson Valley Culture (Yonkers, NY: Hudson River Museum/ Fordham University Press, 2009), 46-48.
(4) “When did Slavery End in New York,” Historical Society of the New York Courts, Craig A. Landy, accessed February 13, 2022, https://history.nycourts.gov/when-did-slavery-end-in-new-york/.
(5) “Timeline of Sojourner Truth,” Biography, accessed February 13, 2022, https://castle.eiu.edu/~wow/classes/fa08/Sojourner/Timeline.html.
(6) Sojourner Truth. "I sell the shadow to support the substance." United States Michigan, 1864. Sojourner Truth, Eastern District, Michigan. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/scsm000880/


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