Village of New Paltz
June 19, 2020
Mayor Tim Rogers opened the proceedings:
Good evening. I’m Tim Rogers, Village of New Paltz Mayor. I am here tonight at Hasbrouck Park. Two years ago we were here on a very cold February [afternoon], we were dedicating the park area to Julia Jackson, a former New Paltz resident. We are very excited to be back today to recognize our history, our challenged and checkered history, and we have some very thoughtful speakers with us tonight. We have Town Historian Susan Stessin-Cohn, we have high school teacher Albert Cook, and Jenn Berry, a reverend here in the Village of New Paltz. I go to lots of events, hear lots of different speakers, and I’m actually very excited and interested to hear these thoughtful speakers, so I’m going to hand it over to Susan.
Susan Stessin-Cohn, Town Historian:
You think that just because it’s already happened, the past is finished and unchangeable?
Oh no, the past is cloaked in multi-colored taffeta and every time we look at it we see a different hue – Milan Kundera
We are here tonight to honor a much beloved woman who played an important role in the life and history of 19th Century New Paltz. Born around 1800 in the Town of Wawarsing, Julia was one of possibly six enslaved individuals in the home of Benjamin Kortwright, according to the census. At that time there were 308 enslaved people living in our town, about 11% of the population. Dereck Wynkoop, who lived at the end of Plains Road had 16 enslaved people, the largest number of slaves in New Paltz, in his residence.
By the time Julia was two, she, along with her mother and sister, were sold to Thomas Merrit, who lived on what is now Libertyville Rd, at the site of the County Pool and Fairgrounds. In just a few years, her mother was sold off leaving Julia motherless.
When Julia was about 14, Philip Lefever decided to purchase Julia and give her as a “wedding present” to his son Andries Lefever and his future daughter in law, Magdalena Elting. They spoke Dutch so Julia, similar to the experience of Isabella Bomfree, Sojourner Truth, had to learn another language. It is assumed that, at that time, Julia met Thomas, who according to Church records, married her in May of 1827, just two months shy of the date when most enslaved people in the state would be freed. Initially, Julia and Thomas were both using the surname Lefever. By 1840, Thomas and Julia changed their last name to Jackson. According to Julia’s own words, “some slaves when they were set free would take the given names of their father and adding a termination to it would adopt it for their own surnames.” Therefore, we assume that Thomas’ father’s name was Jack and they added son to form Jackson.
After Julia’s husband died in 1889, she moved to Mulberry Street and lived there for most of her remaining years. She was known as one of the Town historians, often sought after for her knowledge of early 19th century New Paltz. She was a singer, storyteller and spiritual leader.
Julia died on Mulberry Street at the age of 98, the oldest resident of our town. There is no tombstone in NP Rural Cemetery to mark her grave in a plot in the area of the cemetery reserved for African Americans, so we embarked on this project to honor this wonderful, talented and important citizen of New Paltz so that she can be properly commemorated.
Thinking back to the quotation I cited at the beginning of this talk, in light of the current awakening to ways that our country has consistently diminished and disrespected our black, brown and native citizens, we now view the multi-colored taffeta of New Paltz history with a different hue. All the newspaper articles and other records referred to Julia as Aunt Judy Jackson, and because she was so beloved, we did not see “Aunt” as a diminutive appellation, and our plaque was designed with that name. We realize now that language was used to diminish and dominate, so another plaque with Julia’s real name will be placed in Hasbrouck Park to honor her legacy to New Paltz.
Albert Cook, New Paltz High School teacher:
I just want to thank Dr. Stessin-Cohn for her tremendous work and outstanding contributions to the memory that we are awakening to have in this instance, and are continuing to have through all her work as Town Historian.
I just want to speak a little bit about memorials and what they say about the people who they commemorate and about the towns and communities that produce them. You know that memorials say there was someone significant here, there was someone to be remembered; there was someone who significantly contributed to this community. And New Paltz, although it is a small community, has such a rich remembrance: so many names, so many stories. And I am ecstatic today to remember, and even to know, that someone like Julia Jackson lived here and impacted the life of many who were here.
We heard Susan say that she was a spiritual leader, a story teller, and I imagine with an appellation given to her by those around her as “Aunt,” that she had a charm, something compelling about her that drew the affection of those who owned her, who could sell her, who could give her as a gift. And we had a beautiful discussion recently about that appellation and the tension that it creates. You know, there are times I think in our history where we can develop feelings for — positive feelings, even affectionate ones — for people that we don’t treat well. And I’m so happy today that when the plaque goes up we’ll see her name, Julia Jackson, that she chose. And we will honor her and give her the dignity that I believe she deserves. So thank you so much for joining us as we not only commemorate Juneteenth today, but the life of Julia Jackson.
Reverend Jennifer Berry:
Juneteenth is a metaphor. Two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, months after the surrender of the Confederate Army, months before those enslaved in the Union north were freed by the 13th amendment, the roughly 250,000 Black people held in bondage in Texas were informed that their enslavement was at an end. And still it would not be until 1874 that the legal battles in Texas to re-enslave them would end. Another 9 years. To say nothing of the harm caused by the loopholes of the 13th amendment and the violence of the premature end of Reconstruction.
Juneteenth is a metaphor, because we are commemorating a date, when clearly we have no date to point to after which liberty and freedom for all became a reality. It is a metaphor for the ways in which what we say and what we do are not always the same. And a reminder that the impact of those differences prevents our collective freedom and locks us into enduring struggle to be reconciled to ourselves. This year, we commemorate Juneteenth with a renewed hope, a prayer, that perhaps we are nearing a date when we can say that the struggle is behind us. Hope, as any disenfranchised person can tell you, springs eternal.
If we are to learn from the commemoration of Juneteenth, to take to heart that our actions should match our words, then let us begin here and now. Many of you have become aware of the Black community that tried to take root here after the end of slavery, clustered on Pencil Hill Road. In response to that revelation and the ensuing debates, I am happy to announce that New Paltz United Methodist Church is making space available to prominently display a historic marker honoring this community. This is a minor act of reparation, as the AME church was born out of Methodist racism. It is no accident that our church has pride of place on Main Street while the AME church was relegated to a place near the tracks and even then deprived of the opportunity to thrive. The least we can do is share the corner of Grove and Main in a symbolic way.
I am a Christian. To be open to acts of repentance, personally and as a people, is central to my faith. We as a people have much to repent for, and I am praying every day that we might do the work of repentance. Prayers must be joined with substantive change or they are merely noise, sound and fury signifying nothing. Forgiveness follows after and flows from repentance. We have much work to do.
So, as we celebrate Juneteenth 2020, let it be the date that we here in New Paltz can point to and say ‘that was the day our collective liberation began.’
May it be so. Thank you.