Sunday, May 5, 2024

This Week at the Library

On Thursday, May 9, at 6:00 p.m., at the Hudson Area Library, Susan Stessin-Cohn, former professor of social studies education at SUNY New Paltz and director of education at Historic Huguenot Street, and current New Paltz historian, will speak on her more than twenty years of research into the history of slavery in the Hudson River Valley, with a particular focus on the plight of the “runaways”—enslaved persons who sought freedom by escaping from their enslavers.

Stessin-Cohn and coauthor Ashley Hurlburt-Biagini, the former manager of collections and archives at Historic Huguenot Street, combed through newspaper archives and databases, microfilm and library special collections—even dusty attics—seeking newspaper notices placed by Hudson Valley enslavers offering rewards for the return of their “property.” They found more than 750 such advertisements, as well as local notices for runaways apprehended, advertisements for enslaved persons for sale, and offers to purchase. In 2016, they published In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley, 1735–1831

Continuing their research, Stessin-Cohn and Hurlburt-Biagini discovered more than 250 additional runaway notices that prompted them to rewrite and greatly expand In Defiance in a newly released second edition. This primary source material offers fleeting glimpses of hundreds of lives caught up in the cruelty of slavery—right here in our own Hudson Valley.

New York State passed its first emancipation act, “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” in 1799, giving hope to thousands of enslaved persons held on farms and in villages in the Hudson River Valley from Westchester and Orange counties north to Albany, Schenectady, and Troy. But many held in slavery were not willing to wait for what turned out to be a very gradual emancipation, as evidenced by the hundreds of newspaper notices posted by Hudson Valley enslavers promising rewards for runaway enslaved persons throughout the early 19th century all the way up to 1831. The stories these newspaper notices tell, together with the stories of hundreds of other enslaved persons who ran for their freedom earlier in the 18th century, shed revealing light on the life of enslaved persons held in the Hudson Valley.

Most enslaved persons held in the Hudson River Valley lived, worked, and died, leaving behind no historical record—no birth certificates, no marriage records, no death certificates, unmarked graves. In Defiance rescues more than 900 of those individuals from obscurity because they decided to free themselves. When their enslavers placed notices in local and New York City newspapers offering rewards for their return, they not only gave identity to some of the enslaved people, but also unwittingly indicted themselves before the bar of historical judgment. Surnames synonymous with Hudson Valley history—names like Schuyler, Van Rensselaer, Beekman, Rockefeller, Van Cortlandt, Van Buren, Livingston—appear throughout the book as the authors of the notices advertising rewards for the return of their enslaved “property.”

Had these freedom seekers not run away, they too, like the tens of thousands of enslaved persons who did not run, would have been lost to history, but by running they prompted reward notices for their return—notices that often provide at least their first names, sometimes a surname as well, and detailed descriptions of their age, color, gender, origin, language proficiency, and skills.

In addition to the reproduction and transcription of 774 archival newspaper notices for runaways from Hudson Valley enslavers, In Defiance also includes notices advertising runaways captured and enslaved persons for sale, notices offering to purchase enslaved persons, and selected runaway notices from outside the Hudson River Valley region. Nine tables analyze the data in the 774 notices for runaways from Hudson Valley enslavers. The book also includes a glossary, indexes of names, locations, and subjects, thirty-six illustrations, and five maps from the 18th and 19th centuries.

Following the presentation on Thursday, Stessin-Cohn will be on hand to meet and answer questions and to autograph copies of In Defiance. Books will be available for sale courtesy of Spotty Dog Books & Ale.

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