History doesn’t change, but the times truly can


As you read on the front page of a recent Riverdale Press, the local chapter of the National Society of Colonial Dames is in a tough spot.

Currently operating the Van Cortlandt House Museum — which it’s done for more than 100 years — with a license from the parks department almost a decade expired, the Colonial Dames have accepted an invitation from chair Debra Travis to appear before Community Board 8’s parks committee this month.

The committee’s primary concern, Travis wrote, is the Dames membership requirements — part of its national policy — are incompatible with the greater Riverdale population in that hopefuls must identify a prominent ancestor living in the colonies before 1776 to enroll.

According to the city, 47 percent of greater Riverdale is Latino, 12 percent is Black, 6 percent is Asian and 34 percent is white.

To put it gently, 65 percent of CB8’s constituency would struggle to find its way into the Colonial Dames.

And that doesn’t even address greater Riverdale’s Jewish population.

In her letter, Travis worries the Dames admission policies are not just exclusionary along racial lines, they might have — and might still — contribute to events at the Van Cortlandt Museum House, a publicly owned property, being equally tailored to a minority subset of the overall greater-Riverdale population.

So, with one of its defining national policies at odds with the demographics of the Bronx chapter’s population — and CB8 demanding an action plan to rectify that discrepancy to renew its license to run the museum — what are the Dames to do?

The simple answer is there is no simple answer.

But the seed of a few possible answers might have already appeared in these pages.

In February, Marguerite Morrison — president of the National Society of Colonial Dames of New York — wrote a letter to the editor responding to a critic of the organization’s membership policies. Morrison said the Dames are using new technology to identify a broader range of prominent ancestors to whom prospective members might link themselves.

Among these are Pocahontas of the Powhatan people, and Dinah, an enslaved African woman who was freed in early 1776, took a paid job as a housekeeper at Philadelphia’s Stenton House, and later saved it from arson at the hands of two rogue British soldiers by alerting the officer pursuing the deserters of their whereabouts and intentions.

Morrison said the Dames intend to add 250 eligible female ancestors by 2026, with 91 already added as of her February letter.

In a story by reporter Eric Harvey published around the same time, Lee Potter — past president of the New York Dames — said the organization would, membership requirements aside, try to get anyone interested engaged in its activities.

And that’s a key point. For places like the Van Cortlandt House — and organizations like the Colonial Dames — to remain significant, new generations of Americans must find them and invest themselves in the shared history they represent.

CB8 is correct to want more of greater Riverdale to feel welcome among the Dames and in the museum.

But the population must meet those efforts halfway if the rich history underpinning so much of the community is to remain part of our collective conscious.

America is great not so much for its history, but for what that history might still be. The ability to change the U.S. Constitution to better suit who and when we are is something we should all cherish, because it allows us to make our government reflective, or more reflective, of who we are as people.

Whether our relatives arrived here on the deck of the Mayflower, chained in the belly of a slave ship, or are about to take their citizenship test, we all share a history housed in places like the Van Cortlandt House and kept by organizations like the Colonial Dames.

The more of us know that — and, especially, the more of us feel it, the better.

Van Cortlandt House Museum Colonial Dames membership Community Board 8 Riverdale museum inclusivity Riverdale demographics historical societies membership criteria debate Riverdale community engagement Van Cortlandt House license New York Colonial Dames