Community Board 8 members questioned last week whether the stewards at Van Cortlandt House Museum were the right fit for the community. The New York Chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames has been critiqued for a “lack of programming” and their membership criteria, which some have argued is exclusionary to people of color.
That criteria according to the societies website is that members must be direct descendants of an ancestor who lived in an American colony and who rendered service to the colonies before July 5, 1776.
“This precludes most people, particularly in the Bronx from actively participating in the National Society of Colonial Dames,” said Deb Travis, chair of the Parks & Recreation Committee during the meeting. “And consequently prevents Bronxites from directing the activities programming and staffing of Van Cortlandt House Museum.”
It was discovered by Travis that the Dames had been operating the former plantation house with an expired license for about 10 years. She brought up concerns regarding the state of the museum and membership criteria during a Parks & Recreation Committee meeting last November.
At the recent meeting, the society had the opportunity to present its history and talk to the community about its membership requirements. The society’s president Marguerite Morrison said the requirements are mandated by the national organization, which has 44 corporate societies throughout the U.S.
In a presentation by Clint Allen, the properties manager for the New York chapter, he explained how the women-led organization was founded in Pennsylvania in 1891, with the mission of preserving history, architecture and artifacts that led to the creation of the U.S.
The Van Cortlandt House, which was built by enslaved people, was sold to New York City in 1887. The society was able to secure the property and has been its steward ever since. In the present day the non-profit 501(c)3 offers lesson plans and field trips to elementary students from public and charter schools across the five boroughs.
“I think it is a challenging question because the truth is I don’t think we believe that membership requirements are essential to carrying out the mission,” Allen said in response to a question from The Riverdale Press on why membership requirements were necessary to fulfill the society’s mission. “They’re just sort of essential to the identity of the organization itself which was birthed by this group of women over 132 years ago. And they came together out of love of genealogy and a love of preserving American history. And because it was one of the few things that they could do as women.”
Allen said that there are no events at the museum that are limited to membership. However, the annual meetings held at its headquarters in Manhattan are only for members. He claimed these meetings were “unappealing” to the public.
Danielle Guggenheim, vice president of Unity Democratic Club and a CB8 member, told The Press she felt like the society was romanticizing and celebrating a bygone era. She said she understood the members are proud of their ancestors but that moving forward everyone needs to have a seat at the table.
“The Bronx is made up of diverse people,” she said. “An organization that’s responsible for taking care of such an important historical landmark should reflect the people of the Bronx.”
The Dames claimed that they do not ask members any demographic information other than birth date, but nonetheless the criteria presents a challenge for a city of immigrants and a borough where more than 80 percent identify as a person of color, according to a 2023 census.
“I would assume that the reason that they don’t keep demographic information is because they’re all white,” Travis said. “If they were serious about equity and inclusion, starting to track demographic info is the only way they’re going to know whether they’re succeeding or not.”
The group does not currently have plans to change the criteria or catalog demographics. They do plan on adding new ancestors to their already about 9,700 approved ancestors database. Via the “250 by 250,” they plan to introduce 250 new female ancestors by the 250th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. They have approved two women of color, Pocahontas Matoaka and Dinah, an enslaved woman who prevented a historic house from being burnt by the British in 1777.
“I think it’s odd honestly,” Travis said of the search. “Everyone is entitled, every group is entitled to have whatever their group rules and stuff are. I think they may be taking this too far in that they want to identify specific people and they want to determine who people of value are. I think it’s enough that any person who was enslaved. Their lives are important, all of them are important. I don’t know how you measure prominence.”
The Dames are looking into adding more enslaved women. For their descendants there still possess a near impossibility to trace their lineage and track down primary records, such as a birth certificate or marriage certificate. One of the ways around membership is through the “friend program,” which allows a friend or spouse of a Dame to accompany them and participate in history lectures or fundraising events. However, friends cannot hold chair positions.
“We don’t try to be an elitist organization or keep any people out,” said Lee Potter, former president and chair of the museum. “It’s just sort of the parameters we have. We’re trying to expand the criteria for new members all the time. We’re a non-profit organization that does really great work and we hope people will judge us by the work we do. Really anyone is allowed. We will try to figure out how to get anyone engaged in our organization if interested.”
During the meeting last week, the Van Cortlandt Park Alliance proposed the society create an advisory group that could bring together the Dames, community and subject matter experts in determining what’s best for the museum. The board asked the Dames to come back in May to update them on what changes and steps are being worked on.