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State of New York State History

New York and Robert E. Lee

“Symbols of slavery and racism have no place in New York.” Governor Cuomo

New York State has the potential to seize a leadership position in the national discussion over the Robert E. Lee statues and the place of slavery and the Confederacy in American history. It can do so not because pre-Civil War Lee was stationed in New York while he was part of the military [and not a plantation owner], but because of New York’s own role in slavery both here and in the South.

In our state, the Governor has requested the United States Army to rename streets at Fort Hamilton in Brooklyn from Stonewall Jackson Drive and General Lee Avenue. The Governor and his mayoral partner also have sought the removal of the Lee and Stonewall Jackson busts at CUNY’s Hall of Fame for Great Americans in the Bronx. Cuomo tweeted:

Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson will be removed from the CUNY hall of great Americans because New York stands against racism. There are many great Americans, many of them New Yorkers worthy of a spot in this great hall. These two confederates are not among them.

During this time, plaques honoring Lee were removed from an Episcopal Church in Brooklyn. The plaques date back to 1912 when the United Daughters of the Confederacy commemorated Lee’s having planted a tree there when he served at Fort Hamilton. The church closed in 2014 and the diocese removed the plaques that had become offensive to the community. Now Lee’s life before the Civil War and before he married into a slave-owning family are to be erased.

Speaking of marrying into a slave-owning family, what about Alexander Hamilton? While he personally was not a slaveowner, the Schuylers were. The musical deliberately erases this fact from its feel-good story (see August 16, 2016, blog The American Revolution and Presentism: The Triumph of Mel Gibson).

It’s bad enough that Hamilton’s adultery was included, but there is no sign that Hamilton or any of the three Schuyler daughters were troubled by Daddy owning slaves. Sooner or later Hamilton will be taken to task just as Lee, the son of an imprisoned debtor, has been for not contesting the father-in-law and/or wife for their slave-owning ways.

In this light consider Cuomo’s additional comment:

“Symbols of slavery and racism have no place in New York.”

deserves close scrutiny.

When tourists visit the New York State Parks Schuyler House in Albany, only a few blocks from Executive Mansion where the Governor stays when he is in Albany, should slavery be excluded from the tour? What about when visiting the National Park Service Schuyler House in Schuylerville near the Saratoga Battlefield? In fact, should there even be a community named “Schuylerville” given that he was a slaveowner? How about a city named after the Duke of York? In Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, one of the critical issues is how the NPS deals with (or avoids) critical issues like slavery (see the August 2, 2017 blog History Peril Post-Mortem, the concluding blog to a series on the NPS).  Should New York State erase slavery from its historical memory by not telling its story?

A few years ago, a New York City Councilman arrange for a history marker to be placed at one of the major slave trading sites in the American colonies. New Yorkers, apparently including the Governor, like to think that slavery was something which occurred down South and not in the morally superior North. We have Underground Railroad sites, the South has plantations. We have the moral high ground and can admonish the inferior South for not being enlightened. As it turns out in history whether we choose to remember it or acknowledge, New York was a major player in slavery in the United States including after it was abolished here as of July 4, 1827 (see the June 16, 2016, blog Forgetting July 4, 1827).

Historic sites in New York know about slavery in New York even besides the Schuyler House. There are other sites both state-owned and private also connected to slavery.

New York State Historic Site Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers has incorporated slavery into the programs about the later-Loyalist family who first brought slaves into Westchester.

Private Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow at the northern end of the manor above the Tappan Zee Bridge (which still stands) has focused on runaway slave ads and held an NEH seminar this summer for teachers based on its work.

The Mid-Hudson Antislavery History Project deals with slavery in the Mid-Hudson Valley.

Susan Stessin-Cohen’s recent book In Defiance: Runaways from Slavery in New York’s Hudson River Valley, 1735-1831 addresses slave runaways in the Hudson Valley from 1735 to 1831.

On August 24, Travis M. Bowman, Senior Curator with the New York State Bureau of Historic Sites, presented “Slavery in the Mohawk Valley”, examining how slavery evolved in New York under the Dutch, British, and American systems of government and how the institution was utilized at a local and personal level in the Mohawk Valley. According to the program notice, “Usually considered a ‘Southern’ issue, slavery played a surprisingly large role in colonial and revolutionary era New York.”

On September 16, at Historic Huguenot Street in New Paltz, “Reclaiming Our Time,” a public program of stories and monologues by writers responding to personal encounters with the history of slavery in New Paltz will be presented.

There is more to the story of slavery and New York then just simply the slaves in New York. Another issue was the slaves in the South. How did those slaves get there? Who financed those voyages? One might think the financing was from a financial city active in trade. New Amsterdam/New York were part of a trading network that included the transport of people as slaves.

Even when slave importation officially ceased in 1808, financing involving slaves did not. Tobacco and cotton from the United States and sugar from the Caribbean were part of a major trading network in the antebellum period. New York City financial institutions might not want to examine their records from this period too closely or else they might learn as venerable institutions of higher learning did that trading in the products harvested by slaves was profitable big business for them.

And speaking of the financial district, just who is it who built the wall of Wall Street and were buried in the African Burial Ground just north of Wall Street and the current City Hall?  For a long period of time the slave market and slave ownership in New York were second only to Charleston and South Carolina among the 13 colonies. Perhaps the Governor could share with New Yorkers and the American people what exactly he means when he righteously declares “Symbols of slavery and racism have no place in New York.” How many places will he rename, signs will he remove, stories will he suppress so the ugliness of slavery will never be visible in the state?

And let’s not forget Governor Pataki’s much maligned Amistad Commission founded in 2005. Its grandiose mission was national in scope (see January 18, 2016, blog The New York State Amistad Commission: Do Black Lives Matter? According to New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, Article 57B:

All people should know of and remember the human carnage and dehumanizing atrocities committed during the period of the African slave trade and slavery in America and of the vestiges of slavery in this country; and it is in fact vital to educate our citizens on these events, the legacy of slavery, the sad history of racism in this country, and on the principles of human rights and dignity in a civilized society.

How about just focusing on New York?

Speaking of renaming things, this item comes from the Tappantown Historical Society website:

This is Tappan, a hamlet 12 miles north of New York City and two and a half miles west of the

Hudson. It was settled by sixteen families – three of the men were free blacks – on a land patent of 1686-7 obtained from the Tappan Indians of the Lenape tribe and Governor Dongan of New York. These first settlers of Tappan were thrifty Dutch farmers. It is still conjecture, however, whether the name Tappan is of Dutch or Indian origin.

Tappan also has a George Washington Headquarters and is the site where John André was imprisoned and hanged. With “zee” being Dutch for “sea,” the bridge over this wide part of the Hudson drew on the historical name for it, a name that connected not just the east and west sides of the Hudson River, but the Dutch and Tappan/Lenape heritages. The namers of the old bridge respected their history. The new bridge span just opened August 25, 2017 is named the Governor Mario M. Cuomo Bridge thereby erasing another historical legacy. So it goes.

Instead of posturing statements declaring no toleration for symbols of slavery in New York, the Governor could take a leadership position of vision and courage in the needed national discussion. He could talk about that New York did have slavery and did support slavery in the South. He could talk about how the state remembers the reality of slavery in New York in its monuments, at its historic sites, and in the classroom. He could talk about the need to heal the nation rather than to be judgmental. Here’s some advice to follow:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.


Image from My Roots My Blog

30 thoughts on “New York and Robert E. Lee

  1. In his race to see who can be the most politically correct, Cuomo wins again, wearing his fashionable blinders, with which, he also hopes to capture the Democratic nomination for 2020. Then we all can rejoice in backing his same policies on a national level by tearing down the White House that was built, in part, by slaves. God help us…

  2. The constant attempts to change history or eliminate it altogether is EXTREMELY DANGEROUS and should be opposed by the entire History Community.

    Hardly a day goes by that I do not hear that the European settlers came to this country, traded liquor and guns for very valuable fur pelts, stole all the land from the Indians and whipped them out with European diseases.

    The Dutch, and later the English, traded with the Local Mohawks and Mohicans and other tribes at Albany starting in 1609 (Henry Hudson, 1612 (the Christianson – May Expedition that built the first trading house at Albany and left the first permanent settlers) up until the time of the Revolutionary War, almost 200 years, with no wars between them.

    Trade goods included soap, hats, shirts, jackets, pants, socks, ribbon, cloth, needles and thread, knives, axes, combs, gun powder, ….. Baked Goods were among the most popular trade goods. About half of the membership of the Dutch Church were either Indians or Black residents of the area. When the Mohawks came to Albany in 1654, they attended a Catholic Mass at St. Mary’s Church where they participated and knew the responses due to the work of the Jesuits.

    The Native Americans were assimilated not wiped out by European diseases. We also have deeds for all the lands purchased from the Native Americans who were very quick to complain if settlers moved onto land that they had not sold refuting the theory that they did not understand what it meant to sell land.

    All this has been lost because it does not fit with the “irrefutable” story that they were sold guns and liquor and were wiped out.

    Now there is an obvious effort to change the Civil War.

    1. Sorry. Your trite assessment of the colonial experience here in what is now NY lacks. Here are some points for you to look up:
      – over 50% of the documented European trade related to textiles. Read “To Do Justice to Him and Myself”
      – Liquor played a prominent role in the fur trade, it was a tool to cheat native trappers. Read “Give Us Good Measure”
      – As far as land sales? Please review the 1791 Trade and Intercourse Act, and review the landmark cases of the Oneida Nation land claim and land tax issues. I don’t have time to explain everything but just because you have a deed does not reflect righteous and justice in the transaction.
      – Estimates of European disease effect on Native populations are devastating. Please look into the story of Cartier and Hochelaga for an example in Iroquois.

      1. as an example of the type of outright theft that was occurring here in NY:

        We the Sachems and chief Warriors of the Oneida Nation take
        this Opportunity to address you in Writing. We hope you will
        attend to our Word. When you kindled the late Council Fire at
        Fort Schuyler and called us to sit around it with you, we were told
        that our Interest as well as yours was to be consulted, and that our
        mutual Happiness and Prosperity was to be the Object of the
        treaty. It is unnecessary to repeat all what was said on the disap
        pointed in every particular. Instead of leasing our Country to you
        for a respectable Occasion; you have it all in Writing.
        We returned home possessed with an Idea that we had leased
        our Country to the People of the State, reserving a Rent which was
        to increase until the whole Country was settled, and then to remain
        a standing Rent forever. This, Brother, was our Idea of the Matter.
        We supposed that we had at the same time reserved a sufficient
        Tract of Country for our own Cultivation; but since we had time to consult the Writings and have them properly explained, and have
        seen the Proceedings of your Surveyors, we find our Hopes and
        Expectations blasted and Rent, we find that we have ceded and
        granted it forever for the Consideration of the inconsiderable Sum
        of Six hundred Dollars per Year.

        Good Peter (Oneida Sachem) to Gov. Clinton January,1790

  3. Peter – thank you for this post. I agree and support your efforts to make the history of slavery in the north more known and understood. As long as we keep blaming the “other side” for sins of the past this wound is never going to heal.

    Hudson Talbott

    1. You are right but sometimes complete and total victory is preferred by some of the combatants and not healing. The Charleston church group who forgave a murderer is more likely to be an isolated example of a healing spirit than the norm.

  4. Brought to mind an old print of Mrs. Schuyler putting field to flame (assisted by a very young enslaved boy) as Brits march south.

  5. Peter – Excellent editorial. I am so totally opposed to removing these monuments and any others as well and to trying to re-write and white-wash (hmm interesting word usage there), I cannot begin to tell you. So many of NYS’s early historic houses were also once lived in by slaves — including the Thomas Cole house in Catskill (slaves slept in the basement or in the shed that houses the “old studio,” not mentioned too often by staff at this site. Are we going to tear down or close all of these important historic sites. Are we going to blast the sculptures on Mt. Rushmore? The list goes on as political correctness and the search for votes run amok.

    1. The issue really is one of more than monuments, they simply are the most visible example. It’s not just the paintings of Thomas Cole or the house but consider the streets that may have been named after him or under his influence…and then all the other people from colonial to antebellum times. My prediction is that in some localities the search will run amok.

  6. Nothing I have read in the article itself or the comments about it deals with the simple
    fact that – regardless of being a slaveholder or not – Lee was, quite simply, a traitor who took up arms against his country and was responsible for the deaths of uncounted
    American citizens who were defending their country. If statues of him and Stonewall
    Jackson are suitable, why not images of Benedict Arnold or John Wilkes Booth?

    1. You are correct but also comparing apples to oranges. No matter what decision Lee made he was going to be a traitor. The only issue was would be he be a traitor to his state or to his country. At a time when the United States was a plural noun, it is easy to impose or values in a time when the United States is a singular noun. Historians if not all citizens should make the effort to understand the world Lee lived in and to recognize that loyalty to the state was a very different situation that it is today.

      By contrast, Arnold’s choice was between loyalty to the United States or England therefore he was a traitor to his country. Let’s remember that the Americans who supported England were called Loyalists. His midcourse defection is what identified him as a traitor and he is remembered differently than the always Loyalist Americans who remained here and became citizens of the new country.

      Also by contrast, Booth’s loyalty was to the Confederacy, a new political entity, and not to the United States. While his acting career did take him into northern states, he never exhibited the dilemma of having to make a choice that Lee, who had served in the American military, did.

      One might add, that Arnold fought bravely for his country and was injured on its behalf. His successes on our behalf helped create this country while his defection didn’t really hurt us. Still I don’t recall any initiative to erect statues for Arnold or Booth. Thanks for writing.

  7. Of Governor Cuomo’s “many great Americans, many of them New Yorkers,” probably most of those in the colonial period owned slaves. Except for those few Quakers and enlightened anti-slavery inhabitants of colonial New York who did not have slaves, I suspect most people had a slave or two or were somehow connected to slavery. Though not as obvious as in other colonies, slavery in colonial New York is deeply integrated everywhere in New York history. To be absolutely politically correct and pure, therefore, must we totally remove every trace of New York history from public view, whether historic sites or documents or place names?

    1. Think of Bobby Bond’s home run records. At first glance it might seem easy to excise the records of the roids from the humans. As it turns out, it is not so easy. Home runs may seem like standalone actions that can be surgically removed but that is not the case. Home runs effect runs scored, earned run averages, and victories. Once we dig into every nook and cranny of colonial history we are likely to find the presence of slavery almost everywhere and without six degrees of separation. Purity will not be possible. I am not sure if we are ready for that conversation. Thanks for writing.

  8. Peter, thanks again for the continuation of your first commentary on the controversy, fueled by political opportunists who are “trained” to cover up what they don’t like or does not serve their own inspirations–whether personal or historical in substance.

    Let me introduce you to Roy White, heading up Truth In Textbooks project. The goal of TNT and the professional evaluations of social studies texts used in American schools, is (my own laywoman’s terms)

    1. to train evaluators with various expertise/knowledge in certain fields of history,
    economics, geography (et al within the Social Studies realm) in order
    to identify various troubling excerpts based on such categories as bias, half-truths, total falsehoods, etc.,

    2. to suggest to publishers possible rewording amendments based on valid, verified sources or perhaps total deletions in the textbooks of their company, and

    3. to publish that information for the general public: school boards/teachers/administrators/citizens to assist them in making the best decisions for which texts to purchase for their communities.

    I am currently part of this process for one set of teams, though more TNT teams will begin in January.

    I am not an expert on TNT, but Roy White is the Head Honcho, cc above.
    He will send you to his sites, and Roy will certainly benefit from yours, as I have!

    I do think that both of your organizations serve the same goals: to relate the TRUTH and to learn from “the good, the bad, and the ugly” of our nation’s stories of the past based on authentic sources, both primary and secondary.

    This does NOT include removing/destroying monuments by brainless PC anarchistic mobs– without due process in their local communities, where We the People collectively can make such decisions.

    This also does NOT give ignorant, politically driven Governors the right to delete OUR public memorials.


    1. I think we may be at the beginning of a long and needed discussion on the subject of public monuments and the teaching/remembering of American history. Since we don’t have a centralized bureaucracy that can tell local school districts what to teach (unless the Supreme Court decides that it can) the “discussion” is likely to be involved, intense, and local. Thanks for writing.

  9. Hi Doctor,

    A fresh breeze just fluttered through my tired eyes into my consciousness; your piece about Robert E. Lee etc. in Westchester Rising.

    I am the host of Good Morning Westchester at WVOX 1460 AM radio. I do a lot of politics and history. As such, I have been growing hoarse trying to explain the difference between, let’s say, Robert E. Lee, verses Nathan Bedford Forrest. I an avid reader of history and own hundreds of books on the subject, but I don’t, of course, have your distinguished background or level of knowledge.

    To the point: I would love to have someone like you, hopefully you, call in to the show on occasion to discuss these kinds of issues.

    All the best.

  10. did that guy really misspell it or it is a typo?

    Google Howard Skrill, art professor, damnatio memoriae. He has been studying why people do what they do to heroic sculptures. He gets a little too close to current events – I prefer a more objective approach – but I think your source got his ideas from Skrill (an art professor at St. Francis College in Brooklyn). You will find his sketches interesting as he analyzes not only the current efforts to deepsix Robt E. Lee, but the successful effort to deepsix Civic Virtue. If yu want to look at my file of Soc of Old Brooklynites material concerning the meeting whose Bklyn Talk was on Civic Virtue, let me know.

  11. Thanks for the interesting article.
    My town of Esopus (Ulster Co.) recently erected a statue of a slave – a young girl named Isabella, who many years later changed her name to Sojourner Truth. Other statues of Truth can be found in Battle Creek MI, Northampton MA and in the halls of Congress in Washington DC. In Harlem, in NYC, are statues to other slaves – Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Some how these fine works of art are never mentioned when the subject of slavery is mentioned.
    I guess I wouldn’t object to statues of Lee, Forrest, and Jackson, if they were accompanied by ones of Denmark Vesey and Nat Turner.

  12. May I correct the record regarding Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was in fact an active member of the New York Society for Promoting the Manumission of Slaves and expressed his opposition to slavery repeatedly in many contexts. Probably the most accessible citation is Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, 210-16, 239, 581 (New York: Penguin, 2004). See also Arthur Zilversmit, THE FIRST EMANCIPTATION: THE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY IN THE NORTH, 123 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press 1967); William Goodell, SLAVERY AND ANTI-SLAVERY: A HISTORY OF THE GREAT STRUGGLE IN BOTH HEMISPHERES: WITH A VIEW OF THE SLAVERY QUESTION IN THE UNITED STATES, 95 (New York: W. Goodell, 1852)

    Steve Gottlieb
    Professor Emeritus
    Albany Law School

    1. You are right as far as Hamilton is concerned. I was not referring to his being a slaveowner but the family he married into. Perhaps with all that is going on today, it might be worthwhile to add a scene to the musical addressing the issue that is ignored in the present version. Maybe in a dining scene at the Schuyler Mansion, white people would be cast in the roles of the slaves. That would certainly garner attention!

      Thanks for writing.

  13. In addition to other possible violations of Hall Of Fame For Great Americans / Bronx Community College { BCC } / BCC Foundation / CUNY / SUNY / municipal / state / federal rules and regs — currently being investigated — it is crystal clear that the arbitrary and capricious removal of the Lee and Jackson busts and plaques from the HOFFGA at a bare minimum violates the provisions of the New York City Landmarks Preservation law which prohibit alteration of designated landmarks without the prior approval of the Landmarks Preservation Commission { LPC }.

    Accordingly, I have filed a Complaint with the LPC and a Complaint Letter with its Chair, per the LPC website, and invite any and all like-minded to join me in the administrative and, if necessary, judicial initiatives which I fully intend to pursue to correct this egregious violation of due process of law under Rule of Law.

      1. I’m not sure about possible ironic intent / content, PF, but in any case I hope that you’ll !JOIN WITHE RIGHTEOUS! on this one ________________________________

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