Black History and Culture in Putnam County

Written by Cassie Ward, Executive Director, Putnam History Museum

The Putnam History Museum (PHM) recently launched a new online resource page titled “Black History & Culture in the Hudson Valley, Hudson Highlands, and Putnam County.” The site serves as a landing page for exploring Black history in the Hudson Valley from colonial times to the present. It currently features 40+ digitally accessible professional and academic resources, including profiles on Black historical figures like Bishop Robert Lawson and Sumner Lark (read more about their stories in the “Notable Resources” section below). The site will be ever evolving, with expansion plans to include educational curriculum, videos, self-guided tours, and interactive features.

The resource page represents the first step in a comprehensive Black History & Culture initiative adopted by the PHM Board of Trustees in July 2020. When developing the initiative, the PHM recognized that it has had limited public history projects, publications, and research focused on BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) history in Putnam County. The PHM has outlined a three-phase initiative for providing its visitors and researchers with publications, programming, exhibitions, and research related to BIPOC histories and discussions surrounding race in Putnam County and the Hudson Highlands.

In the book Slavery and Public History: The Tough Stuff of American Memory, historian Dr. James Oliver Horton articulated challenges surrounding the discussion of race. He described historic interpretation as a vehicle for healing and coming to terms with the past:

“As Americans attempt racial conversations in private and public settings it becomes quite clear just how much history matters. It provides our national and our personal identity. It structures our relationships, and it defines the terms of our debates. Our tendency is to turn away from history that is unflattering and uncomfortable, but we cannot afford to ignore the past, even the most upsetting parts of it. We can and must learn from it, even if doing so is painful (Horton 36).”

Echoing Dr. Horton’s sentiment, the PHM recognizes that museums can serve as an important bridge between academic and public history and the many stories—past and present—that impact area residents in their daily, modern lives. The PHM recognizes the significant role museums play in shaping and reshaping historic narratives and is therefore committed to sharing historical interpretations from all perspectives. The Black History & Culture resource page is the museum’s first step in providing area residents with the necessary resources to better understand and analyze our challenging past. Future PHM projects will take this a step further by fostering guided social dialogues around local BIPOC history.

 

What’s Included
The Black History & Culture webpage shares the stories of historical figures that are integral to the Black history of the Hudson Valley, including several enslaved individuals. The PHM has included sources beyond Putnam County, featuring stories throughout the Hudson Valley and New York State, to provide visitors to the site with historical and geographical context as they begin to learn more about Black history in the area.

Moreover, many of the counties surrounding Putnam—including Westchester and Dutchess—have been researching and developing incredible Black history interpretive resources for over twenty years (e.g., Historic Hudson Valley’s interpretive projects at Philipsburg Manor and the Mid-Hudson’s Anti-Slavery Project in Dutchess County, which were both featured in earlier Relearning Highlands History articles). Here in Putnam County, we are in the very early stages of this research process and we look to the work of others as great examples for the types of historical sources we can begin to reinterpret and explore for future projects.

The site currently features 45 diverse resources from a variety of organizations, scholars, and publications throughout the state. Resources were selected to feature a range of interpretive themes, historical topics, and learning styles. Content is drawn from historical articles and videos, to lesson plans, interactive websites, maps, and scholarly essays. The page will be continually updated.

 

Notable Resources from Putnam County
Several important historical figures from Putnam County are highlighted, many of whom worked to create opportunities for their communities to have access to, and enjoy, land in the Hudson Highlands, despite barriers of discrimination:

Virginia Green: Along with her husband Travis, founded the summer resort Magnolia Farm in Patterson. Magnolia Farm appeared in the 1938 Green Book.

Bishop Robert Lawson: Founded the Emmanuel Inn, a summer resort for Black people in Putnam Valley in 1927.

Sumner Lark: Became a trend-breaking black leader in New York and worked to establish an African-American community in Putnam Valley.

Mary Fearn Moran: Along with her husband Augustus, founded Snowdale Farm, a summer resort catering to African American travelers near Brewster in the early 1920s. The Morans advertised in the New York Age and Green Book.

Other resources that highlight Black history and slavery in Putnam County include:

On Slaves and Settlers: A History of the Philipse Family, 1662-1785,” from Columbia University (read more on the Philipse Family in previous Relearning Highlands History articles: Land Heist in the Highlands and People Not Property)

Op-Ed: Perspective on Black History in Putnam County, written by Putnam County Historian’s Office intern Andrew DiFabbio and highlights two Black historic sites in Putnam County: Tone’s Pond in Southeast and Snowdale Farm in Patterson

Lawson Cemetery, Putnam Valley, New York, from Putnam Graveyards

Belden Slave Cemetery, Carmel, New York, from Putnam Graveyards

Photo captions and credits:
(1) Bishop Robert Lawson, via Patch

(2) Sketch of Belden Slave Cemetery: This sketch was done in 2004, as remembered by Rev. Floyd Fisher. The artist states “of course the walls were tumbled down, and the slaves buried here were bond slaves from England. That’s why Deborah said she wanted to be buried with her people. Bond slaves bonded out to settlers coming here to work off their debts [sic]. The master would pay off their prison debts.” via Putnam Graveyards