Linking/Preserving the Cultures of the African Diaspora

local history


Civil War Soldier Monologue

My name is William Henry Myers and I am a proud CITIZEN of Nyack, New York and these United States! Now, I put emphasis on citizen because unfortunately during many years of my life, I wasn’t considered a citizen or even a human being. See, when I was born on the 17th of August in 1848, I was considered another man’s property, like a mule or a hog. Me, and my entire family was slaves in Virginia. Then one day in 1860, when I was just about 12 years old, my master up and sold me way south to a cotton plantation in Mississippi. And just like that, I lost my family—GONE… never to be seen again. Now, living as a slave was anything but easy—but in Virginia, at least I had my family. I tell you when that wagon pulled off that plantation the pain was too bitter to swallow. So, I ended up on this cotton plantation doing hard labor under the meanest sun known to man. But no matter what they did to me, I never lost sight of my freedom. And there was a whole heap of men and women on that plantation who was looking to take they freedom, especially after word came that the Union Army was near and taking on colored men that wanted to fight against those rebel Confederates. So first chance I got, I took to the wind —yes sir! I stole my freedom! Found my way to the Union lines at Millikens Bend, Louisiana and “on the 7th of June 1863, I became Private William Myers of Co. K 9th infantry” under General Daniel Ullmann of Nyack, New York. “My first battle was at Millikens Bend, and then was in the battles of Warrenton, Red Bone and at Big Black River in Mississippi. Found myself wounded in all of these engagements, hospitalized, taken prisoner and had a finger shot off.” Yet, I had the privilege of saving my regiment from a “hot shell by throwing it out of the Fort at Red Bone before it exploded.” Yes, I lived, when a lot men, both white and colored died. They won’t be forgotten and as I stand here today, I give you my word to speak of their heroic deeds for this country.

By the end of the war, I had made first sergeant. I came to Nyack because of my burning desire to be in the kind of place that could raise up a white man like General Ullmann, a man who believed in the rights of colored people to not be deprived of life, liberty and property. And I found my family too, yes sir! Brought my little brother Anthony up here and he became the first colored to graduate from Nyack High School. Now he’s teaching our folks to read and write!

So, if you don’t remember anything else that I told you here today, just remember that you made the acquaintance of one Mr. William Henry Myers, a Civil War soldier, a FREE MAN and a CITIZEN of these United States!

Historical Background for Slavery and Free People of Color

The discovery of the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan in 1991 stimulated an interest in slavery, as it had existed in New York City during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Until that time, the city’s deep association with slavery was not widely known; most people, including historians, to be primarily a Southern institution, thought slavery and not much attention was given to slavery in areas of the North.

Similarly, the story of slavery and of free people of color has not been given much attention in the history of Rockland County. Local historians had either downplayed or neglected its importance from the earliest settlement until slavery was gradually abolished by 1827. Even without research, one can easily believe that in many ways, what happened in Rockland and in surrounding areas would not differ greatly from what happened in New York City simply because if its proximity; this was especially true in those areas that bordered what we now know as the Hudson.

Four years after Henry Hudson, the Navigator, sailed into the mouth of the river that now bears his name, sailor Jan Rodrigues became the first person of African descent to inhabit the area that became New Netherlands. Eleven years later, in 1624, the Dutch West India Company founded New Amsterdam where the river emptied into the Atlantic. Within the next two years, eleven slaves were brought to the colony. The group included Africans Simon Congo, Jan Francisco, Paulo D’Angola, and Anthony Portuguese. In time, others including three African women from Angola in 1628 would follow the four. These men are four of the twenty-eight on the list of Black Landowners in Manhattan’s “Land of the Blacks” that later received farm grants.

“CLEAR THE LAND” was likely the command heard first and most often by the ‘Company Slaves” – those black workers who were owned by the Dutch West India Company, or simply ‘the Company’ in New Netherlands. As the Dutch planted their settlement along the Hudson, enslaved blacks were hard at work. The orders issued by Company officers in May, 1625 typified the labor assigned to black slaves during the first years: clear the land, lay out farms, and on each, ‘erect a barn for cattle’: clear the shore at a suitable place in which ships, sloops, or barges could be laid down or repaired or caulked’ clear the land and construct a sawmill and a stone counting house. By July, 1625, enough land had been cleared so that a Company boat ‘carrying sheep, hogs, wagons, ploughs and all other implements of husbandry could deposit its cargo on the island of Manhattan. Given the Company’s intense activity during these first years of settlement, slaves – numbering a dozen or more men and probably some women – were busy indeed. By deploying slave labor to build farms, wharves, mills, roads, and fortifications, the Dutch West India Company quickly put in place the infrastructure required for a permanent settlement on the island, which the Dutch named New Netherlands.”

So writes Christopher Moore in “A World of Possibilities: Slavery and Freedom in Dutch New Amsterdam,” the first chapter in Slavery in New York, published by the New York Historical Society in 2005. Chris spent his early years in Rockland County. His mother, Norma Kay DeFreese (from Hillburn) and father Willard (Bill) Moore) from Tuskegee, Alabama met and were married during World War II. Chris writes about this in Fighting For America: Black Soldiers: The Unsung Heroes of World War II published in 2005. Chris has also done extensive research on his roots. In an issue of the South Street Seaport magazine, he writes of his ancestors including Native American people, Africans, and Europeans.

“One African I can identify by name was Manuel D’Angola. It is not known just how he came to New Amsterdam – probably some time in the late 1620s or 1630s. He may have come here as part of a work crew or he may have come in chains, but he lived a good portion of his life as a free man. I believe I can also identify my first European ancestor; a military captain named Jan deVries. He came here in 1644 to fight the Indians. Ironically, he befriended the Native Americans; he also took a liking to slaves and free blacks and befriended them as well. In 1646, when he married a black woman, her name was recorded in the Dutch Reformed Church simply as Swartinne – meaning dark, lovely woman. Their son was Jan deVries II. Captain deVries died in a shipwreck while returning to Holland a few weeks after Jan’s baptism.

Chris knew from his mother’s stories that while many of his ancestors were indigenous to the Ramapo Mountains, some had roots in Manhattan. The African Burial Ground was his “point of initiation.” When his mother asked him if any of their ancestors were buried there, his answer was, “I can’t prove it, but I have reason to believe that some probably were.”

On the other hand, it is extremely likely there are current residents of Rockland who are descendents of Jan deVries II who was one of the sixteen farmers whose name appears on the Tappan Patent. He purchased two shares, one for himself and one for his infant son, Jan deVries III. The Orange County census of 1702 (what is now Rockland was a part of Orange County until 1789 ) lists John De Vries, born 1647, a freed Negro, married to Ariantje Dircks in 1679. They had five children, Maria born 1682, Helena, 1684, Johannes, 1686, Dirck, 1689, and Jacobus, (date unsure). Claus Manuel (Emanuels) also purchased a share. These families came to Rockland as free people. Others of African descent were brought as slaves.

In the census of 1800, slaves and free blacks accounted for 10% of the population of Rockland County and an even higher 20% in the Town of Orangetown. Slaves were bought and sold, manumitted, and passed along in inheritance settlements just as they were in the South. The Tappan Patent families and other people of color migrated to that general area of the Hackensack River Valley. Culturally they were Dutch. Their names were of Dutch origin and they spoke the Dutch language. They built Dutch Colonial homes and worshipped, were married, and had their children baptized in Dutch Reformed Churches. To the De Vries and Manuels were added the names of Van Donk, and DeGroot. Over time, these names became De Freese, Mann, Van Dunk, and De Groat. A few moved to other parts of Rockland and passed into the white world. Others found peace by moving to a more secluded location.

In the early eighteen hundreds, people of color with those names began selling their farms in the Hackensack River Valley and moving to the Ramapo Mountains in the western part of Rockland County bordering New Jersey. David Cohen in his book, The Ramapo Mountain People suggests two possible reasons for the move.

One reason may have been the inferior legal and social status of free blacks. In 1798 the New Jersey legislature had passed a law restricting the rights of free blacks to travel across county or state boundaries. This was particularly troubling to those who lived near the borders and who had relatives on both sides.

A second reason may have been the pattern of inheritance as practiced by this group, which was to divide the land among the offspring rather than to pass it along to the eldest son. Smaller farms could not support the family.

Cohen goes on to say:

When the Mountain People first came to the Ramapo Mountains, the settled in the hollows and on the ridges southwest of the Ramapo Pass. Many of then purchased land and established mountain farms. The first to buy land was James De Groot (De Groat), who on January 18, 1805, bought more than fifteen acres of mountain land.

Philip Mann was listed in the 1810 federal census as living in the Town of Ramapo, near the Ramapo Mountains in New York State. In 1820 he was still living there and his employment was listed as agriculture. A list of employees in John Suffern’s ledger indicates that Philip Man (Mann) worked in Suffern’s ironworks in the Ramapo Pass in 1826.

By 1830 there was already a sizable population of colored Mountain People in the Ramapos. The 1830 federal census, the earliest available to New Jersey and the first census to list race, provides a good overview of the population distribution. Most of the Mountain People lived in what was then Franklin Township in the New Jersey section of the mountains southwest of the Ramapo Pass. Among them were the following free “negro” heads of families (the size of their families in parentheses): Richard Degroot (4), Joseph Degroot (7), William Degroot (5), Ellen Degroot (3), James Degroot (9), Elias Mann (9), Peter Manm (7), Juliana Mann (7), and Peter Debruse (probably DeFries (4).

What is now the Village of Hillburn proper, located in the historic Ramapo Pass, was sparsely settled until August of 1875 when George Coffin, George Church, and W.W. Snow, managers of the Ramapo Wheel and Foundry Company set out to establish a village for the foundry workers. They purchased land from the Suffern Family and laid out a street plan that would later become the central village. The company built some homes and a store and they encouraged the workers to purchase their own land and build their own houses. The need for additional workers caused many families of color to move from the New Jersey village of Mahwah proper and from the mountainous areas across the New York/New Jersey state line and settle in Hillburn. The thirty-year span between 1875 and 1905 saw an increase of both the white and non-white population from 148 to755 whites and from 19 to 123 people of color. Since then there has been a steady increase in the non-white population, which has moved the village to be almost equally divided between white and non-white.


Mighty River: Quadracentenial Conference Closing Remarks

W. E. B. DuBois once asked a question having to do with whether America could have become America without the participation of the African peoples. He and most informed people answer that question in the negative. The elements of culture, intelligence and labor that flowed from the peoples of the African Diaspora, not only significantly influenced the development of this nation, but these elements made this nation unique and enabled its domination of the world. For the better and for worse, the participation of Blacks in the development of this country was a determining factor.

When we decided to participate in the Quadracentenial celebration of Henry Hudson’s sail into the river that was named for him, we were concerned that the anticipated celebration privileged the language of “discovery;” that it referenced the “European presence;” that the people who were to be honored were the “elites” and “privileged” persons who have been recognized in the official history of this remarkable river and its valley. Knowledgeable people know that these river banks and the valley of which they are a part were inhabited by people who were native to this continent long before Europeans thought that the land may exist and entrepreneurial explorers like Columbus, Ponce de Leone, and Hudson “discovered” them. We determined to introduce that perspective and the history of an African as well as a European presence into this important celebration and it’s documentation of the human presence in the Hudson Valley. We are very grateful to the scholars who have shared their insights informed by history with us.

We argue that people of color, Blacks in particular, were crucial to the development of the Hudson River Valley. From the very early presence of Europeans in this Valley, Blacks supplied the labor of exploration, cultivation, defense, development and even its exploitation. In agriculture, commerce, education, fishing, manufacture, mining, recreation, religion and shipping our people have been involved. This should not be surprising. Human intellect and labor are essential to all human enterprises. The enterprise of nation building is no exception. Professor Meyer-Williams makes a point of the limited capacity and even more seriously the limited will of the Europeans to engage in the labor required to develop this region. Black people and Yellow people were imported and enslaved to supply the labor that the Europeans were unwilling to provide.

The distinguished French historian of science Renee Jordane has documented the critical relationship between participation in human labor and the emergence of new developments in science and technology. She writes of the remarkable association between those who do the work and those who invent new things. They tend to be the same people because in the course of doing the work one encounters problems that have to be solved in order to get the work done. In the development of the Hudson River Valley, as in the development of this nation, Black, low income and other low status people were forced to do the work. Our labor built this valley. The economy of this nation was born of that labor, but this labor also contributed to the inventiveness and technological advances that became typical of the USA. It is interesting that as the demands for labor shifted from physical labor to mental labor, those for whom the development of literacy, numeracy and reasoning skills had been neglected rapidly came to be under represented among those who were the inventers and creators of new technologies.

The demographics and demands have changed, but this relationship between labor and creative development remains. Preparation for participation in physical labor was less complex than is preparation for participation in the mental labor force. Meaningful participation in the modern technological societies of the new worlds and the old will require human labor and its resulting creativeness but that human labor will have to reflect cultivated human intellect. We celebrate the African and Native American contributions to the earlier labor pool, even as we commit ourselves to the more effective preparation of our people for participation in the mental labor force of the present and future.


Camp Shanks

During World War II, Rockland County became home to the largest U.S. Army embarkation camp in the United States. Camp Shanks was located “in and around Orangeburg in the Town of Orangetown, New York.” The installation was named for Major General David Cary Shanks (1861–1940) who commanded The New York Port of Embarkation during WWI. Embarkations like Camp Shanks were responsible for moving troops and supplies from the United States to commands overseas. Camp Shanks was the terminus point in America before soldiers were shipped abroad to serve their country and consequently, the camp earned the nickname “Last Stop USA.” More than 1.3 million military men and women spent time at Camp Shanks. In the last year of the war, the camp held Italian and German prisoners of war. The facility was also used to house soldiers along with their families after the war. By this time, Camp Shanks was renamed Shanks Village. Due to the ratification of the GI Bill, many of the soldiers living there had the opportunity to attend school.

Rockland County was a perfect location for the camp due to its open farmlands and nearness to piers on the Hudson River with enough depth to handle enormous military ships. Through these Hudson River ports, soldiers sailed to meet their unknown fates in Europe or Africa. Rockland was also highly accessible by two railroad lines that allowed troops from throughout the nation to reach the facility. Camp Shanks encompassed over two thousand acres of land and contained more than 2,500 buildings. When the military decided to build the camp in 1942, they informed 130 families that they must leave and paid them for their homes, but gave them only two weeks to relocate. It took 17,000 workers just three months to build the huge installation, which included barracks, headquarters buildings, mess halls, stores, theaters, chapels, laundry facilities, a bakery and a hospital. Troops spent less than two weeks at the Camp Shanks while preparing for the struggle ahead and enjoyed recreational activities both at the camp and in the neighboring towns. There was plenty of dancing and music that was performed by celebrities such as Pearl Bailey and Frank Sinatra, but Camp Shanks like the military was segregated. African Americans fighting for the same cause, as white Americans were placed in segregated barracks on the other side of the camp, a distance away from white military personnel. Even the popular USO clubs were segregated. And there were eyewitness accounts maintaining that blacks were often treated worse than prisoners of war.

The base closed in 1946 and Shanks Village permanently closed in 1954. Today, little remains of the military installation or the residential development. However, the Camp Shanks Museum, housed in one of the remaining Quonset Huts, commemorates the military facility by displaying the history, artifacts and photographs from the period.

The African American Civil War Veterans of the Silliman G.A.R. Post of Nyack

They filled every pew and after realizing that no seating space was to be had, each found a small, yet coveted place to stand in the aisles rather than to return home on this late August day. No matter how uncomfortable the accommodations, it was important for each to be present because St. Philip’s A.M.E. Zion Church had opened it doors to celebrate the life of Thomas Stewart on August 26, 1899. Stewart was a Civil War Veteran who served his country as a private in Company A of the 26th U.S. Colored Infantry. Trained on Riker’s Island, the African American soldiers of the 26th were organized under the command of Colonel William C. Silliman on February 27, 1864. They became a fighting force of black men who struggled for freedom and ultimately became known for their “bravery and steadiness.” Colonel Silliman perished during the war, but Stewart survived, later becoming a trustee of the St. Charles A.M.E Zion Church in Sparkhill, NY and a charter member of the Nyack’s William C. Silliman Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.) #172. Thomas Stewart was gone, but the legacy of the organization he helped to build, the Silliman Post, lived on.

After the war, the first Grand Army of the Republic organization was established in 1866 in Decatur, Illinois, quickly becoming the preeminent organization for veterans. At the core of the G.A.R. was the belief in fraternity, charity and loyalty. Established in 1880, Nyack’s Silliman post for black former Civil War soldiers, provided local men with opportunities to focus on their distinct history as oppressed people and to speak freely about their lives.

Decoration Day (Memorial Day) became one of the major activities in which the G.A.R. participated. In the bucolic village of Nyack, stores closed by noon as the streets “wore a holiday appearance.” Local onlookers and those from the surrounding towns lined the streets hours before the event in great anticipation of the grand display. Amongst the shrill of brass bands, esteemed community leaders delivered speeches and the post veterans ceremoniously laid flowers upon each of the fallen heroes’ resting places. The Silliman veterans made certain that those laid to rest in the colored cemetery of Mt. Moor received recognition.

The men of the Silliman post struggled in a society that reserved the dirtiest, most menial and lowest paying jobs for them without regard to their sacrifices and contributions. Societal norms dictated that though free, blacks certainly were not equal. The Silliman post was a Reconstruction era institution that allowed a small community of black civil war veterans to join forces in addressing issues impacting their community. Members of the Silliman Post became leaders in local churches, their political organizations and social clubs.

As the years progressed, the Silliman G.A.R. members began to pass away, and the remaining veterans joined their white comrades in Nyack’s Waldron post. The celebrations continued and the Black veterans who endured maintained their commitment to honoring African American servicemen and telling their stories about the struggle for freedom. Undeniably, their lasting legacy is ever-present today, as we celebrate and remember the efforts and sacrifices of the African American men and women who have served our country.

St. Charles A.M.E. Zion Church

The St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
today stands on Valentine Road in Sparkill, New York. In
1897, the church was rebuilt in its present location; however,
in the mid-1800s, free blacks and former slaves built the
original church near the Rockland County line in Harrington
Township, NJ, atop the Palisades.

William Thompson, a laborer, lived in the small African
American community, referred to as Rockland Neighborhood
officially and as Skunk Hollow by the locals. Blacks living
there simply called their home the Mountain. Thompson
purchased the freedom of his wife Elizabeth who had been
enslaved in the New Jersey area. Just a short distance away
in New York, slavery was abolished in 1827, but the state of
New Jersey maintained the peculiar institution until 1865.
Skunk Hollow was officially the home of 75 people and
encompassed land that include today’s Palisades, Piermont,
Sparkill and Closter.

In 1841, Thompson bought land from a man named Jack
Earnest, one of the early black settlers of the community. By
1856, William and Elizabeth deeded a small portion of the
land, a 50 x 50 feet plot to the trustees of the “Methodist
Episcopal Church of Colored People of the Township of
Harrington.” William Thompson became its minister and
supported religious life within the community of Skunk

After William Thompson’s death in 1886, the community
began to decline after a 100-year existence. Opportunities
outside of the mountain community encouraged residents to
relocate throughout Bergen and Rockland counties. Members
from Skunk Hollow would build the new church in Sparkill
and name it the St. Charles A.M.E. Zion Church.

The African Presence in Rockland County, NY Timeline

by Dr. Sherill Wilson