A Past That Is Not Past
Kingston, a city of about 23,000 in New York’s Hudson Valley region, is known for its significance in local and state histories. But a legacy of racial discrimination is tightly knit into the surroundings, and reevaluating city spaces can show how the European settlement and expansion of the area reverberate in the lives of the people here now. For many people in Kingston, the place where they live reflects a European heritage they are physically reminded of in their daily lives. Kingston was the state’s first capital in 1777, and despite being burned by the British less than a year later, much survives in the way of buildings from the past. Uptown, formerly known as the Stockade, was the center of European settlement and still contains nearly two dozen 18th-century limestone houses, including the only intersection in the country—at Crown and John Streets—where four Dutch colonial stone buildings still stand. One of three places in New York where former stockade walls are evidenced by raised ground, it is the only district of Kingston with a section dedicated to its preservation in the city’s building codes.
The city’s built environment (like that of the country at large) is shaped by the logic of white supremacy—what scholar Christina Sharpe calls “a brutality that is not in the past.”1 For the better part of a century, Kingston was a slaveholding society. A 1790 state census recorded that nearly 1 out of every 10 individuals living in Ulster County was an enslaved African American. In 1990, human remains of African origin were unearthed during construction in the backyard of a private residence on Pine Street in the former Armbowery, now part of Kingston’s greater Midtown district but originally an area outside the Stockade designated for, among other things, burying enslaved African Americans denied a local church burial. In the Rondout, a waterfront district along the Hudson River where a multiracial working-class community flourished post-Emancipation, a federally funded urban-renewal program razed upwards of 500 buildings in the 1960s to make room for a highway bypass, pushing out Black families and leaving little evidence they were ever there.
The fortification of white neighborhoods over generations in Uptown and the Rondout displaced or kept out everyone else, leaving non-white Kingstonians very little space to call their own to this day. Midtown, where many Black families eventually settled, is today nearly one-quarter self-identified people of color (10 percent higher than the city’s demographics as a whole). And although Kingston has a Democrat-controlled local government, most people in positions of power are white and make decisions that widen racial and class divides, including development that will disproportionately affect renters and overpolicing in majority Black and brown neighborhoods. Gentrification in Kingston has driven home values up more than seven and half percent over the past year (and growing, as a rush of home buyers from the city is flooding the market during the pandemic), and nearly 30 percent of county residents pay at least half their income in rent. These real estate trends hit Black neighborhoods hardest: According to a recent revitalization initiative report, Midtown includes two of the county’s poorest census tracts, where nearly 50 percent of the population lives in poverty.
Early this summer, soon after police officers murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, over 2,000 people gathered at a small triangular public park in the center of town to demand an end to brutality against Black Americans. On that bright day in early June, social justice organizations such Citizen Action New York and Rise Up Kingston, as well as a large number of high school students, gathered in the park. One by one, veteran activists and newly engaged Kingstonians stood in front of the crowd to affirm their dignity and demand an end to racial profiling in policing. Serving as the backdrop to the speakers that day, and rising high above all the subsequent rallies, marches, and protests at Academy Green Park since, towered three cast-bronze statues. The men these monuments memorialize—Peter Stuyvesant, George Clinton, and Henry Hudson—are prominent figures in New York state’s legacy of violent coloniality, and an ever-present reminder of the city’s entrenched structures of power and the long fight ahead for racial justice.
The original violence at the hands of the men commemorated in Academy Green shapes the current city landscapes and the everyday lives of the people who live in Kingston today. Peter Stuyvesant served as the last director-general of New Netherlands—what we now know as New York—in the middle of the 17th century, and was key in the expansion of the colony under Dutch rule, including the fortification of the stockade in Kingston. He owned the largest number of enslaved Africans in the colony (40 at the height of his wealth) and in 1660 oversaw the first public sale of human cargo in Manhattan. George Clinton was governor of New York and a primary drafter of the Bill of Rights. He also owned eight enslaved African Americans. The English sea explorer Henry Hudson, whose name now marks waterways, towns, streets, buildings and more throughout the river valley, navigated the waters of the region in the 17th century and was instrumental in the colonization of Lenapehoking, the lands of the Lenape people, by the Dutch.
The histories these monuments commemorate are not a nuanced understanding of the past, but present the three figures uncomplicatedly as founders of the region. That founding, however, facilitated the near total displacement of the Esopus, a subtribe of the Lenape people; the enslavement of African Americans and the exploitation of their labor to expand the city; and the persecution of religious communities, among other atrocities the monuments implicitly condone. While some may argue that adding a form of interpretation can create a fuller retelling of history to educate park visitors, it would not solve the larger problem the statues represent. Because fundamentally, the monuments serve to celebrate and uphold racial and class hierarchies in the city via the historical record.
The lack of transparency around Academy Green’s conservation and maintenance is an example of how power manifests in Kingston’s public spaces. The park is the former location of Kingston Academy, a preparatory school that was demolished in 1915. It is maintained by the Academy Green Association, a private organization without public review or input. The trustees of the academy deeded the park to the city in 1918, but they still control the addition and removal of statues. The statues were part of a group designed by sought-after sculptor John Massey Rhind and were cast in 1898 to decorate a bank in Manhattan. They were destined for scrap after a renovation in the 1940s, but a decade later, after reading about the statues in the New York Times, Emily Crane Chadbourne, a wealthy art collector and philanthropist who lived in Stone Ridge and served as the president of the Senate House Museum in Kingston, personally purchased three of them and rededicated them to the county. (A fourth statue, of British general James Wolfe, who had no convincing ties to Kingston, made its way to Canada.)
Black history is American history. And if white Kingstonians—and non-Black Americans in general—claim to care about Black lives, we need to acknowledge and make room for them in our collective memories as well as our public spaces. Rise Up Kingston, The Real Kingston Tenants Union, Citizen Action of New York, and Justice for Aleesa,2 among other organizations and grassroots groups, rally nearly weekly in Academy Green to protest the growing rate of evictions in the aftermath of the COVID-19 health crisis, police brutality against poor people and people of color, and a recent rise in interpersonal violence in the city. And while removing the three statues in Academy Green doesn’t end the material conditions of people who live under a system of white supremacy in Kingston, letting them remain only makes the everyday implications of those people’s second-class status seem more acceptable.
Monuments say just as much, if not more, about the beliefs of the people who erect and maintain them as they do about the figures they represent. Most Confederate memorials, for instance, were erected long after the Civil War to celebrate the imposition of Jim Crow. My work at a local history museum has taught me the differences between first-hand accounts and their monumentation—mainly how what a group of people chooses to commemorate reflects their politics. Once we begin to understand the power dynamics inherent in these decisions, we may also begin to confront how history is fictionalized in public monuments. With that understanding in mind, I have been working to remove the statues, pressuring policymakers at every level of city government to commit to the task. According to Democratic mayor Steve Noble, the city Common Council has authority to make changes to any public space, but he has not responded to emails for further explanation or plans to move forward. The council has yet to bring the topic up for a vote. The city historian says that preservation organizations are unwilling even to start the conversation. The city has no guidelines for accessioning or deaccessioning public art. And to remove the monuments, some say, would make a recent costly conservation project to clean the statues irrelevant (not to mention foolish in retrospect).
I started with a petition to remove the statues, not really knowing whom I was addressing or who the decision-makers in Kingston are. I made sure that my histories were accurate, and put a few cardboard signs at the base of the statues to describe these men’s lives. My thinking was that if white progressives knew the details of the atrocities these men committed, they would support removal. Few have done more than sign the petition. I have researched how to use chlorides that chemically eat the bronze, and which easy-to-find household cleaners contain them. I learned how many people and how much rope pulled at which degree angle you need to topple a bronze statue. The local media picked up the story and I soon lost control of it. Those in opposition went after people of color—including drivers shouting racial slurs at Black youth as they passed the park and yelling that the statues aren’t coming down—putting into stark relief the permanent second-class status of many in the city. Right-wing counter demonstrators used images of the statues in social media posts to promote a pro-police and gun-rights rally at Academy Green Park. And well-connected political donors and wealthy philanthropists are pressuring city officials and leaders in historical institutions to let the statues remain.
State and federal administrations aren’t making the removal process any easier. Governor Andrew Cuomo has publicly resisted removing the monument to Christopher Columbus in Manhattan, citing the figure’s importance to Italian Americans there (Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, both Democrats who ran on self-described liberal platforms, are themselves of Italian descent). On July 4, to much protest, President Trump used Mount Rushmore as a backdrop to address the nation, saying, “Those who seek to erase our heritage want Americans to forget our pride and our great dignity, so that we can no longer understand ourselves or America’s destiny.” Later that month, in response to the Executive Order on Protecting American Monuments, Memorials, and Statues and Combating Recent Criminal Violence, the Department of Homeland Security created the Protecting American Communities Task Force (PACT), which effectively allowed unmarked border patrol agents to arrest nonviolent protestors in Portland, Oregon.
Despite state-sanctioned crackdowns and bureaucratic red tape, activists across the nation are reevaluating what’s important to them and removing symbols to white supremacy where they live. Memorials to Confederate generals are toppling across the South. The memorial to Theodore Roosevelt that has stood in front of the American Museum of Natural History since 1940, and has long been protested for its depiction of racial hierarchy, is set to come down. In June, Philadelphians—led mostly by activists of color—decided that the notoriously bigoted former mayor Frank Rizzo was no longer worth commemorating, and removed monuments to him from across the city. “We must work not just to fill the empty place once occupied by the Rizzo statue,” later wrote scholar Paul Farber in the Philadelphia Inquirer, “but re-envision the power structures that landed it there in the first place.” (Farber, along with his team at Monument Lab, were recently awarded part of a $250 million Andrew W. Mellon Foundation grant to reimagine monuments in the United States.)
Intervening in Kingston’s cultural landscape can reshape it to fit a new narrative in the city’s collective memory. Geographer and historian Kenneth Foote defines “collective memory” in two ways: the phrase refers to “beliefs and ideas held in common by many individuals that together produce a sense of social solidarity and community,” but it also “implies that many individuals and organizations act collectively to maintain records of the past, even if these records are shaped by the demands of contemporary life.”3 Understood in this context, the ways Kingstonians officially record the past and erase or distort certain narratives can perpetuate the violent erasure of people traditionally left out of the retelling. It also means that who, what, and how the people in power decide to memorialize the past in public spaces can shift the broader discourse in collective city histories.
Formal and informal efforts to reexamine the cultural landscape and preserve the few remaining sites of the city’s buried past are commemorative justice—a type of collective repair of historical erasure. Part of the current movement seeks to correct a biased historical record, and in doing so reveals the inequities in our collective memory. The phrase “commemorative justice” was coined by activist and memory keeper Free Egunfemi Bangura, whose ongoing project of sharing silenced Black histories in Richmond, Virginia, through archival research, policymaking, and grassroots interventions such as wheatpasting historical markers, is part of the larger movement for racial justice in the United States.
On a hot Wednesday evening in July, I joined a group of volunteers at the Pine Street African Burial Ground to clear the land behind the previously private residence for space dedicated to the local neighborhood. After human remains were found there in the early 1990s, it took nearly three decades for the Kingston Land Trust to work with several local organizations, including Harambee, a group dedicated to Black history and culture, to purchase the ground from the bank that had foreclosed on it and rededicate it as a site of historic significance last year. In early 2019, a team of geologists from the State University of New York at New Paltz surveyed the site using ground penetrating radar (GPR) scanning and found evidence of 50 to 60 bodies buried in the location. The team later estimated that 400 to 500 enslaved African ancestors are buried throughout the Armbowery. The next step is to convert the land into a memorial site open to the public.
Clearing the land was hard in the July heat, and made even more difficult by summer thunderstorms and the masks we wore to protect ourselves during the pandemic. We worked for several hours to pick up garbage, pull saplings and poison ivy, and rake the earth to create level ground. All of this was done to resolve some of the vestiges of the city’s painful past. “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” James Baldwin wrote in 1955,4 as the fight for modern civil rights for Black Americans was growing into a nationwide effort. The on-the-ground work by everyday Kingstonians shows what can be accomplished in a small city and without government help. The volunteers that day differed in age, race, and class, but we all had come together with a common purpose: to reclaim this modest segment of land and its history for Black people living in Kingston.
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke UP, 2016), 99.
In 2017, Aleesa Jordan, then in high school, was assaulted by officers in the Kingston Police Department. The assault was caught on cell-phone footage but the officers were never charged. Jordan’s mother started Justice for Aleesa to raise awareness of the assault and to help other local youth, https://www.facebook.com/Justice-For-Aleesa-101860934894620.
Kenneth Foote, “To Remember and Forget: Archives, Memory, and Culture,” American Archivist 53 (Summer 1990): 380, https://americanarchivist.org/doi/pdf/10.17723/aarc.53.3.d87u013444j3g6r2.
James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” Notes of a Native Son (Boston: Beacon Press, 1955. 163.