Amanpour Miles
How one embroidered cotton sack tells the unique story of slavery and survival
14:58 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including the New York Times best-seller, “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Lies and Legends About Our Past” (Basic Books). Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

In a part of the country often thought to be “free” from the ravages of Southern slavery, the team behind a remarkable project is beginning to gradually piece together a story that shows how the South Fork of Long Island was deeply intertwined with the Atlantic slave trade.

Julian Zelizer

Through impressive historical detective work, captured in a new video entitled “Forgetting to Remember,” the Plain Sight Project is recovering the identities of more than 700 enslaved Black and Native American people who labored in the area between the 1600s and mid-1800s, living under the control of prominent families whose names today are commemorated with street signs.

The project is striving to locate burial grounds, homes and places of work that have been forgotten over time in Sag Harbor, North Haven, Shelter Island and East Hampton, some of the oldest communities in New York state.

Reconstructing that past is not easy. But projects such as Plain Sight are more desperately needed than ever before. It is clear that the right wing will continue to ramp up the culture wars, using their attacks on teaching the history of race relations to energize the Republican Party’s base.

Teachers, writers, documentarians and civic organizations are refusing to be intimidated and are engaging in the hard work of trying to uncover the ways in which the Black-White fault line has shaped our politics, economy and culture.

The project builds on a growing body of scholarship that has looked northward in putting together the history of slavery. Professor Wendy Warren, a colleague of mine at Princeton, was one of the pathbreaking figures in this scholarship, demonstrating in her book “New England Bound: Slavery and Colonization in Early America” the strong economic ties between New England farmers and the West Indies, as well as the presence of slavery in the region.

Museums have also been part of this conversation. In 2019, the New York Historical Society launched an exhibit about slavery in New York City. They also have a virtual gallery from an earlier exhibit available to the public for online viewing.

In contrast to the South, northern slaves often worked within homes or small places of work, alongside their owner rather than on farms. They lived, for example, in tiny rooms within the distinctive saltbox houses that line the main street of Sag Harbor. They helped build the town that became well-known in the 19th century as a whaling port.

The project has uncovered a great deal about the journey of David Hempstead Sr., born in 1808, who eventually obtained freedom, growing a family that would help to establish the historic Eastville neighborhood in Sag Harbor, still known for its multi-racial population.

When residents or visitors stand at the crossroads of Liberty and Hempstead, they should have a new understanding of the legacy around them. The research has shed light on the history of St. David Church, built by African Americans and Native Americans in 1839 and which provided an important site of cultural interaction.

A detail from Michael A. Butler's 2023 portrait of David Hempstead, Sr.

In 2020, high school student Jon Kuperschmid, who was working with the project, learned through his investigation of an 18th-century estate inventory that an assortment of cheese was valued more highly than an enslaved woman. (Phillis was deemed to be worth 8 pounds as opposed to the 15 pounds for “sundry cheeses”).

Before becoming known for its whaling industry, Sag Harbor’s economy depended on exporting essential materials to sugar-producing islands in the Caribbean – food, cloth, wood, salt beef and fish and more – which plantation owners needed to sustain their slave-based economy.

Conceived in 2017, the project is the brainchild of Donnamarie Barnes, the curator for Shelter Island’s Sylvester Manor, and David Rattray, the editor of the East Hampton Star. Rattray learned that he himself descends from slaveowners; “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” he said. He and Barnes recruited high school students to help with the project. They worked with the staff of the Sag Harbor Cinema to secure financial support for the undertaking

The team has been using maps, correspondence, accounting books and tombstones to learn about “the history we forgot to remember, and remembered to forget,” according to Barnes. The project, now backed by a $200,000 grant supported by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, is trying to create a template for local history that can be easily replicated in other parts of the state and country.

For many younger residents of places like Sag Harbor, the history is eye-opening, shattering myths they learned in school about an area supposedly disconnected from the evil institution of slavery. “Now that I know, it’s impossible to unsee it,” noted Julian Alvarez, a local filmmaker who co-created the video about the project.

The power of the project comes from its being rooted in the local. As NYU Professor Jennifer L. Morgan explained in an email: “The Plain Sight initiative… offers people a corrective to the history of where they live. If you are walking down the street in a fancy summer community and confront a brass-brick marker in the sidewalk saying that a Black child worked here, or a Black family lived here, or a Black woman was enslaved here, you are forced to think about the impact of those people on this place. It’s powerful to confront the local manifestation of huge historical forces.”

Barnes wrote to me that “the histories and horrors of enslavement are inescapable, but the stories of the enslaved as individuals, as part of our communities, as our Founders, is one of strength, resilience and survival. These are stories to celebrate.”

The project is the antithesis of the closed-minded approach that Gov. Ron DeSantis is championing in the Sunshine State.

“The fact that 40% of households in New York City in the colonial era enslaved a Black person is still a shock,” Morgan wrote me. So is the fact that New York was “the second to last state to abolish slavery in the North, did not do so until 1817, setting the final abolition of slavery in the state to 1827. These basic facts are part of our national history, and the effort to pretend that slavery and Black life had only a tangential impact on our nation is an obscenity,” Morgan wrote.

They refute the notion that it is possible to bury this history and still understand America. Most historians, including those who have been critical of parts of The New York Times’ 1619 Project, appreciate the way in which the profession has vastly strengthened our understanding of American history by incorporating race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class into our analytical framework.

The new history hasn’t hidden the ugliness, struggles and contradictions that have been as integral to our past as the nation’s grandest ideals and greatest accomplishments. As a result, teachers and students now start their discussions with a much more accurate and complex base of knowledge.

The support for high-quality historical education has survived other moments when education was politicized, such as the Jim Crow era when learning about race was banned from Southern classrooms, or the early years of the Cold War when there was intense pressure against writing and teaching that could be smeared as “socialist” (which usually meant non-conservative perspectives).

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    The Plain Sight Project is one exciting example of how local communities and educational institutions are figuring out ways to keep moving this important work forward.