Un-erasing the past, one slave at a time

Probing the slavery experience in Oyster Bay


In what amounts to a bid to “un-erase” what was once considered a secret and unsavory aspect of Oyster Bay’s past, Claire Bellerjeau will present an interactive program — “Standing Where They Stood,” exploring the issue of slavery in and around the hamlet — at the Oyster Bay Historical Society on Saturday at 1 p.m.

Bellerjeau, a historian and the director of education at Raynham Hall Museum, the former Oyster Bay home of the Townsend family, is known for her diligent and groundbreaking investigations into neglected aspects of local history. She will put faces and names on some 30 people who were slaves in Oyster Bay, 19 of whom were associated with the historic Townsend family. Robert Townsend was at the center of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring during the Revolutionary War, and historians credit the information he gathered as a spy with helping the Colonies win the war.

“This is an offshoot of a program at Raynham Hall I developed, teaching visitors about slavery on Long Island and in Oyster Bay,” said Bellerjeau. “At Raynham, people can move around from room to room as part of the experience. The version I’ll be doing on Saturday is PowerPoint, images, documents, illustrations of relevant rooms in the museum.”

The historical society and Raynham Hall have been working together to promote “Standing Where They Stood.”

“Claire has done a tremendous job researching slavery, particularly as it relates to the Townsend family,” said Denise Evans-Sheppard, executive director of the historical society. “We always knew there were multicultural elements to our community that we could explore deeper.”

Which, she said, is why the historical society has begun to promote multicultural programs for the schools. “But we also knew what we were still lacking was representing everybody correctly and positively,” Evans-Sheppard added. “This show, the first of its kind . . . helps us to do that.”

The interactive 90-minute program tells the true stories of those who lived as slaves, including the first slave freed on Long Island, the first published black author in America, an enslaved woman who escaped with the British and a regiment of African-Americans who fought alongside Col. John Graves Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers. Participants can examine historical documents, “runaway slave” ads and notices of slaves for sale, and learn about how the laws in New York to end slavery impacted the lives of these forgotten Long Islanders.

Lost, forgotten or “cleansed” aspects of local history are not unique to Oyster Bay. There was a time when collecting and interpreting local history was generally considered a matter of civic pride, with the focus on illustrious figures and events that serve as landmarks of excellence.

Injustices and historical blemishes were frequently swept under the carpet, buried or written out of the local historical record.

What really happened to Native American populations during the early days of European settlement? To what extent were the ranks of the British forces garrisoning Long Island during the war drawn from “loyalist” Long Islanders? Did prominent local families engage in war profiteering, or appear to favor both sides during the Revolutionary War?

How much was slavery an element of the regional economy? And what about slave trading? Were local people involved in the “triangular trade,” criss-crossing the Atlantic with slaves in the bellies of their ships? Building ships for slave training? How did the slave trade contribute to the mercantile development of people involved in the triangular trade?

In recent years, historians in communities including Oyster Bay have begun to fill in the blanks in the local record, either by telling the rest of the story, in the interest of full disclosure, or, in the case of those who suffered because of their race, because the story of their disenfranchisement is our story too.

It is in the context of such effort that the presentation at the historical society takes on significance.

“These people walked the streets, they helped build the community,” Evans-Sheppard said. “They faced injustices which have been erased out of our historical accounts. To be honest, we need to have a comprehensive conversation about their story, or the mindset of the colonial era will still be with us. We won’t be able to find a resolution to it.”

Bellerjeau’s traveling presentation, which has been featured in a number of libraries around Long Island, makes a significant contribution to that conversation, and is innovative in its attempt to personalize the learning experience.

“One of the things we do is, everyone is given a card with the name and identity of someone who was a slave in this area,” Bellerjeau said. “Also, we wheel out a large display of slaves’ footprints. Participants are asked to learn their stories, literally stand in the footprint of a slave, say something in the voice of that person, write something about that person’s experience.”

And who says it doesn’t contribute to human understanding to put yourself, for just one contemplative moment, in someone else’s shoes?