There are many examples throughout history of people who heroically championed the causes of justice, equality and progress for African Americans here in Dutchess County, from the Abolitionist Movement through the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.
Some of the county's first settlers — the Quakers — were, in fact, vociferously anti-slavery and helped many African Americans escape their captors and flee to freedom through the Underground Railroad.
In 1858, celebrated abolitionist, activist, writer and orator Frederick Douglass delivered an inspirational speech at the Collegiate School in Poughkeepsie (now College Hill Park) and implored the crowd of 4,000 people to demand justice and end slavery in the United States. Douglass had himself escaped bondage in Maryland and went on to become an iconic figure in the antislavery and women’s suffrage movements of the 19th century. Each summer, in commemoration this historic event, the City of Poughkeepsie and the nonprofit organization Celebrating the African Spirit present Frederick Douglass Day on the site of his speech.
These courageous figures helped alter America’s social trajectory and planted the seeds of change. Here is a list of some historically significant Dutchess County locations you can visit to learn more about these important people and their fearless endeavors.
The amount of history documented at Mount Gulian is simply astounding and dates back roughly 8,000 years to the ancestors of the Wappinger indigenous tribe who inhabited the land along the Mahikannituck (Hudson River). A guided tour of the historic site highlights the many fascinating people and events that have been linked through the centuries to Mount Gulian, where the Verplanck family built their homestead around 1730, and where Patriot General Friedrich Von Steuben established his headquarters during the Revolutionary War. One such person is James F. Brown, an African American man who was born into slavery in Maryland, escaped to freedom in New York and was hired by the Verplanck family in Manhattan to be a waiter. According to the story passed down in the Verplanck family, a dinner guest recognized James as a runaway slave and demanded that he be returned to his owner in Maryland. After some negotiations, Daniel Crommelin Verplanck reportedly paid $300 to James’ owner to buy his freedom. James later moved to Mount Gulian and, by 1829, was working as the estate’s master gardener, coachman, general laborer and most trusted property manager. For about the next 40 years, James kept a journal of everyday life, one of very few such accounts of life experienced by a Black person anywhere in America at that time (he somehow learned to read and write while still a slave in Maryland). This journal contains details about James’ daily chores, gardening, local news and weather, and even some favorite recipes. They also reveal his patriotic feelings toward the United States and his desire to vote in elections like other men — which he did for the first time in 1837, as is reported in his journal. James died in 1868 and is buried alongside wife, Julia, in the Beacon St. Luke’s Churchyard. His journals are being preserved at the New York Historical Society in Manhattan, but selected transcripts are available at Mount Gulian. James was working at Mount Gulian at the time that Robert Newlin Verplanck was born there. The young Verplanck attended the prestigious Poughkeepsie Collegiate School and was attending Harvard when the Civil War broke out. After graduating from Harvard at age 20, Robert reported to the Union Army and was trained to be a volunteer officer in the newly formed United States Colored Troops. Robert led his troops into battle against the Confederates in Virginia, and his letters home to his mother and sister dramatically recall the courage of the African American soldiers, as well as their struggle to find their rightful place in the military and in American society. More than 200,000 African American volunteers fought to save the Union, and more than 68,000 were killed. Roberts’ 59 existing letters are housed in the Adriance Library in Poughkeepsie. Tours of Mount Gulian’s historic home, its 18th-century barn and its heritage garden are available each week on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday from June 21 through Oct. 29. Advance reservations are preferred, but walk-ins are always welcome.
Nathan Birdsall was the first Quaker to settle in the area now known as Quaker Hill in Pawling. Many Quakers soon followed, and by the early 1800s, Dutchess County was home to the greatest number of Quakers outside of Philadelphia. This community on Quaker Hill was a known stop for fugitive slaves traveling through eastern Dutchess seeking freedom. Pawling’s branch of the Society of Friends erected the Oblong Friends Meeting House on Quaker Hill in 1764. Members of the Oblong meeting began to question the morality of slavery as early as 1767, some 60 years before New York State outlawed the practice. In 1776, the Oblong Friends passed a resolution to not accept money or services from anyone owning slaves, and they began denying membership to slave owners. The Oblong Friends Meeting House is on the National Register of Historic Places. The Pawling Historical Society invites visitors to tour the meeting house and see it exactly as it appeared in 1764, complete with its rows of wooden benches, wall partitions on pulley systems and mezzanine viewing level. Tours of the meeting house are by appointment only. Visitors can also tour the Quaker Hill Museum at nearby Akin Hall, which is open on weekends.
The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum's newest exhibition, titled "Black Americans, Civil Rights and the Roosevelts, 1932-1962," examines the political evolution of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt regarding racial justice and highlights the historical voices of African American community leaders, wartime service members and ordinary citizens who pushed the Roosevelt administration for progress. Visitors will see documents and artifacts — many on display for the first time — from the Roosevelt Library’s expansive holdings and from private collections. The exhibit, which will be on display through 2024, chronicles the Roosevelts’ lives, describing their affluent upbringings in Gilded Age society as well as their many efforts to bridge the gaps between the races and the social classes in America during the Great Depression, World War II and beyond. Even after Franklin’s death in 1945 during his fourth term in the White House, Eleanor continued to be a vocal advocate for civil rights, equality and justice. The Library and Museum is open seven days a week, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. April through October and from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through March.
Tucked quietly away in the bucolic Amenia countryside, this 250-acre estate has been a country inn and tavern since the 1700s and boasts a long list of distinguished visitors. Colonel Joel Spingarn and his wife, Amy, purchased the estate in the early 1900s. Colonel Spingarn co-founded the Harcourt, Brace & Company publishing firm, and his guests at Troutbeck included many of the literary giants of the time, as well as civil rights attorney Thurgood Marshall, the first African American Supreme Court Justice, among whose greatest courtroom triumphs is the landmark Brown vs. The Board of Education of Topeka case in 1954, in which the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.” The Spingarns hosted two early meetings of the NAACP at Troutbeck. Attendees at these meetings, now known as the Amenia Conferences of 1916 and 1933, included Mary Ovington, a co-founder of the NAACP; and groundbreaking African American writer, sociologist and activist W.E.B. DuBois. Colonel Spingarn was the chairman of the NAACP’s Board of Directors and one the organization’s first Jewish leaders. The Spingarn Medal, the NAACP’s highest honor, was established in 1914 and is awarded annually to “the man or woman of African descent and American citizenship who shall have made the highest achievement during the preceding year or years in any honorable field.” Recipients include Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., Duke Ellington, General Colin Powell and Maya Angelou. Nowadays, the recently renovated estate is a lavish hotel and country retreat featuring luxurious amenities, wellness services and an elegant restaurant that offers locally sourced menu items. Earlier this spring, Troutbeck hosted its second-annual student-led historical educational forum, the Troutbeck Symposium, which welcomed students from 13 public and private schools in the region to meet and discuss their year-long research projects uncovering under-told histories of BIPOC communities. Inspired by the Amenia Conferences of 1916 and 1933, the Troutbeck Symposium and events like it follow Troutbeck's unique history as a gathering place for great minds.
For more great information about local African American history, be sure to check out these valuable resources:
• The Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project and its book “Slavery, Antislavery and the Underground Railroad: A Dutchess County Guide.”
• The Dutchess County Historical Society and its Poughkeepsie Equality Trail.
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