(This is in response to Danielle Herbert Guggenheim’s point of view on the National Society of Colonial Dames of New York’s stewardship of the Van Cortlandt House.)
On behalf of the NSCDNY (National Society of Colonial Dames of New York), I appreciate Mrs. Guggenheim’s candor and welcome the dialogue that we hope will follow. While I do not agree with every point that she makes in her letter, I firmly agree with her sentiment that America is not defined by one type of person or perspective. The Dames’ mission is one of preservation, education, and patriotic Service for ALL Americans, and I hope that comes across in the work that the Dames do.
First, I would like to address Mrs. Guggenheim’s statement that we are a “whites-only” organization. That is an incorrect statement. We do in fact have members of color, and race and ethnicity play no part in our membership decisions. As Mrs. Guggenheim notes, the NSCDA (National Society of Colonial Dames of America) is indeed a lineage-based society, and is limited to descendants of ancestors who lived in an American colony before 1776 and rendered service that contributed to the survival of a colony and/or the founding of the country, whether they be midwives, bakers, court officials or soldiers.
But I know that I don’t need to point out to Mrs. Guggenheim that there were many people of color, both enslaved and free, that fit those criteria.
While the assumption is incorrect, I can understand how Mrs. Guggenheim has come to the belief that the Dames is “exclusively for white people.” It is fair to say that many of our members trace their lineage back to men of European descent, in part due to the disproportionately large amount of written documentation available on the lives of these particular men. However, thanks to modern technology and a renewed interest in finding your roots, this has begun to change in recent years. For example, the NSCDA is currently sponsoring the 250 by 250 Founding Females project, with the goal of adding 250 qualifying female ancestors by 2026. The Dames are well on our way to meeting this goal, having already approved 91 newly researched ancestors.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight two ancestors who have been added to the growing list of qualifying ancestors as part of this 250 by 250 initiative, Pocahantas and Dinah.
Mrs. Guggenheim herself names another potential ancestor candidate from the state of Massachusetts, Crispus Attucks. An American whaler and sailor of African and Native American descent, he is known as the first person killed in the Boston Massacre.
The issue of historical representation is, of course, a larger conversation that needs to be happening inside our society as well as with the public at large. I want to thank Mrs. Guggenheim for underscoring the critical nature of this conversation.
To give a little more detail on our organization, the NSCDA has 44 corporate state societies (including New York) that operate over 87 historic sites. In fact, it is the largest alliance of museums and historic sites in the nation except for the National Park Service. In addition to the work done at historic sites, the Dames also host and aid in naturalization ceremonies, fund and award scholarships at the high school, college, and graduate levels, including the American Indian Medical Scholarship, lend aid to veterans organizations, and work with schools and community organizations nationwide to support American history education.
The Dames are especially proud of our role in caring for the Van Cortlandt House Museum over the past 128 years, and see it as an excellent representation of our work. We have operated the house as a museum since 1896., advocating for stewardship of the mansion at a time in which the house sat abandoned and in disrepair.
In her letter, Mrs. Guggenheim speculates that the Van Cortlandts held enslaved people on their property. But the truth is that one doesn’t need to speculate. Thanks to the extensive research performed by the NSCDNY Van Cortlandt staff, we now have numerous first-person accounts that bring to life the horrors of slavery that occurred on Van Cortlandt Plantation and in the surrounding areas.
I agree with Mrs. Guggenheim that it is a common and completely unacceptable misconception that there was no slavery in the northern United States. The museum today tells the true story of the birth of a nation, one that relied on enslaved labor to grow.
I invite Mrs. Guggenheim, and the rest of the community, to come see the museum or perhaps take a guided tour with our site historian, Nick Dembowski, so they can experience firsthand the work taking place to make sure this story is told.
Furthermore, I am unaware of any NYC Parks or Historic House Trust application process for the stewardship of Van Cortlandt House Museum. However, I can say that the NSCDNY takes their responsibility as stewards of this site very seriously and hopes to continue it for many years to come.
The author is the president of the National Society of Colonial Dames of New York.