Applications are open for stewardship of the historic Van Cortlandt House — a stone dwelling built by the owner of a slave plantation in the Bronx. It’s now curated by The National Society of Colonial Dames of New York, an organization whose membership is limited to descendants of white colonialists. The Dames want to extend their stewardship. And the people of The Bronx shouldn’t stand for it.
The National Society of Colonial Dames of New York is a lineage-based nonprofit, and their bylaws limit membership to direct descendants of an ancestor who lived in an American colony and rendered service to the colonies before July 5, 1776. By default, one can only assume that The Colonial Dames is exclusively for white people, which is antithetical to The Bronx and her diversity. Furthermore, one can safely assume that up to 42 percent of the memberships’ ancestors were slaveholders.
There’s a common misconception that no slavery was up north, especially in New York. Yet it is well documented that slavery existed in and thrived here. With about 42 percent of the white population owning slaves, the only state with a higher slave ownership rate was South Carolina. As a matter of fact, Dec. 13 marks a somber date in New York history. On that day in 1711, the New York City Council passed a law to create the city’s first slave market on Wall Street. The mayor, at that time, was none other than Jacobus Van Cortlandt.
Does that name ring a bell? Frederick, son of Jacobus Van Cortlandt, in 1749, by his own admission, describes his estate (present-day Van Cortlandt Park) as a plantation and notes that his large stone dwelling house is about finished. And who do we suppose provided the labor to build the Van Cortlandt House?
To grant this organization the curatorship of this former plantation house is tantamount to condoning and perhaps even celebrating slavery and its legacy. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” This is, in my opinion, an unjust organization.
I am the progeny of the immoral forced union between Africa and America. I am the real face of America. I have never allowed America’s original sin and its legacy to define me. Despite its abhorrent origins of slavery and genocide, I still love my country. I dare say I am as patriotic and courageous as any Yankee Doodle (the co-opted meaning of that term), just as Crispus Attucks must have been to face the most powerful army of the age so gallantly. Yet I doubt any of his darker-hue descendants have received an invitation to join The National Society of Colonial Dames.
The many faces of the Bronx are the faces of those who contributed to America’s foundation and showed devotion to a better and just future. Our community has worked diligently to turn the plantation into a public park and its stone house into a place for people of all creeds. Let’s put a stop to The Colonial Dames holding and regaining control of “The Master’s” house. This house, at last, belongs to all.
Take some action. Let your feelings be known. The decision is ultimately up to the New York City Parks Department with input from Community Board 8. Tell them you will not accept ceding control of a slaveholder’s house to The National Society of Colonial Dames of New York. Tell them it’s unconscionable for a whites-only organization to have power over a former plantation house built by slaves in The Bronx.
The author is vice president of the Unity Democratic Club.