Sometimes called “America’s Second Independence Day,” Juneteenth is the annual commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States. It is celebrated on the anniversary of Union Army General Gordon Granger’s arrival in Galveston, Texas, on June 19, 1865, to enforce President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 and free the remaining enslaved African American people there and throughout the Confederate states.
Juneteenth, which was declared a federal holiday in 2021, honors a major turning point in the centuries-long effort to insure justice and equality for all in America. There are many examples of people who have heroically championed this cause through the years — including several right here in Dutchess County, from the Abolitionist Movement through the Civil Rights Movement.
Here are some historically significant Dutchess County locations you can visit to learn more about these courageous figures who altered America’s social trajectory and planted the seeds of progress.
Also, be sure to check out several upcoming events that celebrate African American culture and heritage.
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.
In the spirit of the Juneteenth holiday, here are some upcoming events that celebrate African American culture and heritage.
Saturday, June 17, 12 p.m. at Mansion Square Park, Poughkeepsie
Theodore "Tree" Arrington helped educate and empower so many youngsters in Poughkeepsie through the R.E.A.L. Skills Network, a program which he started in 2007. The program is still going strong and following in the footsteps of Arrington, who sadly died in 2020. In conjunction with its ninth-annual Juneteenth Festival, Real Skills will hold its third-annual memorial event to commemorate Arrington's life and celebrate his efforts and contributions to the community. Head to Mansion Square Park and enjoy live musical acts, dance and spoken-word performances, free food and music. Click here to see all the terrific work the R.E.A.L. Skills Network continues to do. (R.E.A.L. stands for Relationships. Empowerment. Affirmation. Leadership.).
Saturday, June 17, 2 p.m. at Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown
Musicians Lynne Hall and Jim Keyes — known as Carla and Keyes — present a family-friendly concert highlighting the African and European musical traditions and instruments that influenced each other during the Colonial and Revolutionary periods of American history. Jim uses baroque guitar, mandolin, mountain dulcimer and recorders to perform European music from the Colonial Era, while Carla represents the African side of Colonial America through stories and songs performed on Shekere and Djembe. During this program on the Arryl Lawn at the Livingston Mansion, the audience is encouraged to participate in call-and-response and body percussion techniques. Bring a lawn chair or blanket, as seating will not be provided. This program is free, but registration is required. The Livingston Mansion is presently closed to tours for renovations, but the exterior grounds, including five miles of marked nature trails and three miles of marked bridle trails, are open daily from 8:30 a.m. until dusk.
Sunday, June 18, and Saturday, July 8, 2 p.m. at Staatsburgh State Historic Site, Staatsburg
This is one of the many fantastic tours presented by the knowledgeable and engaging staff at the Mills Estate. In 1810, there were nine Black people enslaved on the Staatsburgh estate. In 1910, there were no recorded Black employees at Staatsburgh. This guided tour examines what happened and explores the transition from a Black presence at Staatsburgh during the early 19th century to the absence of Black people at the estate during the Gilded Age. Attendees will also learn about the establishment of a free Black community in the surrounding hamlet. View historic photographs and documents related to this history, including a letter from Staatsburgh’s archives detailing the sale of Peter Williams into slavery. This is a free program, but reservations are required. The estate includes an opulent 79-room Beaux-Arts mansion overlooking the Hudson River surrounded by 192 scenic acres of property with a variety of trails in Mills-Norrie State Park.
Monday, June 19, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. at Pete & Toshi Seeger Riverfront Park, Beacon
Enjoy live music, food trucks, dancers, poets, vendors and more at this inaugural Juneteenth celebration on the Beacon waterfront. This event is presented by Beacon4BlackLives -- a grassroots organization dedicated to fighting violence and systemic racism against Black people — and by Bosco and the Storm — the Beacon-based, five-piece party band.
June 25-July 30 at Vassar College, Poughkeepsie
This 37th season of Vassar’s Powerhouse Theater features an impressive assortment of plays, workshops and works-in-progress — including several works that examine the topics of race relations and equality. Written by Bill Barclay and directed by Carl Cofield, “The Chevalier” tells the story of Joseph Bologne, the son of an African slave and a Caucasian French Aristocrat. A music teacher to Marie Antoinette and a renowned fencer, Bologne is forced to choose a side at the outbreak of the French Revolution. “The Chevalier,” featuring the Harlem Chamber Players, is scheduled for two performances on July 22 at Vassar College’s Martel Theater in the Vogelstein Center for Drama and Film. “Culture Shock,” which was written by Gloria Majule and directed by Shariffa Ali, describes the cultural, academic and economic challenges faced by two African students — Zahra from Tanzania and Hawi from Kenya — as they begin their studies at an Ivy League school. “Culture Shock” will be performed in the Powerhouse Theater on July 1 at 8 p.m. This annual summer festival at Vassar has been the proving ground for several major Broadway hits over the years, including “Hamilton” and “Hadestown.” Who knows? Perhaps we will witness the humble beginnings of the next blockbuster on stage this year!
Sunday, July 16, 1 p.m. at the Walkway Over the Hudson, Poughkeepsie
Join Peter Bunten at the Walkway's East Gate Plaza for a fascinating historical lecture that examines slavery, racism and other barriers faced by African Americans in the Mid-Hudson Valley in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bunten, a Poughkeepsie native, is the Executive Director of the Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project and the Vice President of the Underground Railroad Consortium of New York State, and also serves as a Trustee of the Dutchess County Historical Society. Through MHAHP, he also is affiliated with Celebrating the African Spirit in Poughkeepsie and serves on the steering committee of the Northern Slavery Collective.
Saturday, July 29 at College Hill Park, Poughkeepsie
On Aug. 2, 1858, celebrated abolitionist, activist, writer and orator Frederick Douglass delivered an inspirational speech to a crowd of 4,000 people at the Collegiate School in Poughkeepsie (now College Hill Park). In this highly anticipated appearance, Douglass — who had escaped bondage in Maryland and went on to become an iconic figure in the antislavery and women’s suffrage movements of the 19th century — implored the audience to demand justice and end slavery in the United States. In commemoration of this important event, the City of Poughkeepsie and the nonprofit organization Celebrating the African Spirit have teamed up to present the third-annual Frederick Douglass Day on the site of his impassioned speech. Music, food and performances will honor the significance of Douglass' speech and applaud the local people who were in attendance and witnessed history that day 165 years ago.
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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