Editorial: We can do even more to understand our past beyond Black History Month

Last August, The New York Times published its 1619 Project, a magazine-length examination of how slavery powered the early American economy and, over the generations, how it shaped our society and brought us to where we are today as a country.

The year 1619 is a kind of start date for slavery in North America, although evidence shows that the Spanish brought slaves to the Southeast even earlier. But in 1619, the White Lion brought kidnapped Africans to the coast of Virginia near Jamestown, where they were offloaded and sold into bondage.

With that ship’s cargo, the institution of slavery began. It would not end for another 246 years, when the South formally surrendered at the end of the Civil War in 1865. However, slavery by another name persisted well into the 20th century. That statement is not an interpretation of history in the last century; it is historical fact.

The 1619 Project drew considerable criticism from an assortment of top-notch American historians, some of whom felt the writing in the magazine was more about ideology than history. This editorial is not about that dispute. The back and forth of American history — what happened, what it means today — is a good thing, even more so today as we celebrate Black History Month across the country.

Black History Month serves to remind us of what we don’t know, and how the telling of our remarkable American story is incomplete. Many of us have read that the majority of Americans don’t know much about their country’s history. For example, recent surveys showed that a large block of our fellow citizens didn’t know that the Civil War was fought over slavery, or when World War I was fought, or who was president during World War II. 

Locally, many residents of Riverhead and Southold, while knowledgeable about major events in our towns, did not know that slavery existed here from the mid-1600s until its end in 1827. A number of buildings you still see here were built by slaves. Many know about the so-called Founding Families, thinking that our history starts with them stepping ashore, pushing the indigenous Native people out of their way and claiming their land as their own. 

Here is what we can say about that discussion: The history here continued with the arrival of these families, it did not start with them. Their histories as told are incomplete if we don’t also note that many of those families were slave owners — not to judge them through a 21st-century lens, but just to round out the story.

Today, we don’t know exactly how slaves got to the North Fork. There was presumably no slave market on Long Island; there was certainly one in Lower Manhattan. The slaves owned by some of the North Fork’s earliest English settlers were presumably purchased from other property owners.

As Black History Month reminds us, there is so much more for us to learn here, and we must engage with historians and other interested parties, but also with archaeologists, to discover more of our past. We need to up our game, and perhaps seek grants to fund serious research into the North Fork’s early settlers, the fate of the Natives and the local impact of slavery. Just knowing slaves’ names and what became of them would enrich our story and help us escape the wholly incomplete story we’ve been telling each other.

In the summer of 2018, 16-year-old Boy Scout Joe Pinto, while doing restoration work at the Old Cutchogue Burying Ground, discovered a long-buried headstone marking the graves of two African-American children. The gravestone marked the shared burial location of one Miriam Reeve, daughter of Elymus and Hagar Reeve, who died at age 8 in 1822, and Parthenia Silone, who died at age 1 in 1854. An accidental discovery showed us a vital part of our past.

There is so much more to be learned. The North Fork needs a Sylvester Manor-type foundation and study center, so our past can be mined and saved, and so we can remember everyone who played a role here — from 1640 right up to the scores of squalid farm labor and duck camps in Riverhead and Southold, which housed hundreds of southern-born black men and women into the mid-20th century. The very good people at Sylvester Manor on Shelter Island would be wise to begin to research the Sylvester family’s slave and plantation holdings in the Caribbean.

Committing ourselves to knowing the past is a year-round endeavor, even as we are inspired by the goodness of Black History Month and what it can teach us. It is said that the arc of history bends toward justice. Perhaps. But it surely bends toward truth.