Column: Southold Historical Society’s slavery exhibit shines an overdue light

To say that the institution of slavery that once existed on the North Fork has been overlooked by town historians and local historical societies would certainly be accurate.

Wayland Jefferson, a long-ago Southold Town historian whose writing is seen today as highly suspect in terms of accuracy, would not go near the subject. His writing around the time of the town’s tricentennial in 1940 celebrated its so-called “founding families” and little else. He was no real historian. His writings on, say, the history of Cutchogue were made-up stories based on nothing.

Until local historians begin to seriously consider the native people who lived here for thousands of years — and were all but gone within two generations of the arrival of the English — they should throw out the highly suspect “founding families” narrative. 

But Mr. Jefferson and many of his successor “historians,” in Southold as well as Riverhead, did not just overlook the stories of the enslaved people here. They willfully ignored them. They did not fit the script. The stories were dark, and they didn’t want dark. That would spoil their heroic tale of European immigrants taming a vast wilderness, instead of arriving on land that was already settled and farmed and had long supported thousands of people. Fitting the role of slavery into this saga was to be avoided. 

With all this in mind, I want to praise the Southold Historical Society for its current slavery exhibit in the former Samuel Landon House. Mr. Landon, who was town supervisor for a dozen years, owned five slaves. That’s his story. The rest is secondary.

The exhibit is small, and feels too small considering that slavery existed here until 1827. But it is a start in a much-needed discussion. After all, Suffolk County Historical Society records show there were 5,000 slaves on Long Island at the start of the Revolution in 1776. And there’s a good reason the exhibit feels small: Very few artifacts were saved that would tell us who the slaves were, how they lived; how they were treated, bought and sold; and what became of them after their emancipation.

Amy Folk, who curated the exhibit as the historical society’s manager of collections — and is also the Southold Town historian — said that, as far as she knows, this exhibit is the first on slavery ever staged in the town. The Suffolk Historical Society in Riverhead mounted an exhibit on slavery on Long Island in 2011.

In other words, we don’t know the stories of the enslaved people because no one ever bothered to collect or tell them. Our ancestors landing on the beach in 1640 was considered a far more important story to focus on.

History is supposed to tell us what happened, and to do that it should cast a wide net. For instance, hundreds of southern-born black men and women — and children — lived in squalid conditions on dozens of duck farms in Riverhead Town until they were finally shuttered because of pollution concerns in the 1970s. Has any local museum or historical society dedicated a thorough and serious exhibit to those people? Where are they even mentioned? Do these workers’ stories count?

The Southold exhibit includes copies of a manumission document freeing slaves, as well as information on how the former slaves adjusted after slavery ended. What is not there is striking.

“There is a lack of information,” said Deanna Witte-Walker, the historical society’s executive director. “You can surmise these other stories were not important, that their stories were not valued. It’s very challenging, as we don’t have the kinds of records of these people that we should have.”

The exhibit does not make moral judgments. It does not condemn. But it starts a conversation that, hopefully, will spread to other groups, such as the Cutchogue-New Suffolk Historical Council, where research is underway. Some of the first English families in Cutchogue were slave owners; slaves almost certainly lived in the Old House on the Village Green. Saying this is not to malign anyone, or to smear our past — it is to tell a more complete story.

To see how history is being studied properly — of the English, the slaves with their Caribbean and African ancestries and the native peoples — you only have to visit Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island. There, history is taken seriously and is an open book. Nothing is hidden away; no fairy tales are being told.

“There is very little information on slavery in the North and it takes a lot of research to get a good grasp on the subject,” Ms. Folk said in an email. “I think the topic was uncomfortable enough that it was never dealt with. It is also a topic that, no matter how you address it, you get criticized.”

The New York Times found this out with the recent publication of its massive “The 1619 Project,” commemorating the 400th anniversary of the very first African slaves’ arrival in what is now Virginia. Some critics said the project “delegitimized” American history.

Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House of Representatives, wrote in a tweet: “The NY Times 1619 Project should make its slogan ‘All the Propaganda we want to brainwash you with.’ ” Mr. Gingrich was once a history teacher.

Few local historians have studied the North Fork’s past with as much care and attention as Richard Wines, whose family in Riverhead has deep roots and includes slave owners. His mother, Virginia Wines, wrote about Riverhead Town history and never in her work mentioned slavery. Mr. Wines is digging deep into the history of Hallockville and the Hallock family to flesh out their slave-owning past.

He said that slavery was “willfully ignored” by local historians, including his mother. “It’s quite obvious this was not a story they wanted to tell. In all that was written over the years about the history of Southold and Riverhead, there was zero reference to slavery. This hopefully is changing now.”

The author is the executive editor of Times Review Media Group. He can be reached at [email protected]

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