I once saw a tee shirt which proclaimed, “PC and Proud!” (assumedly it wasn’t being worn by a non-Mac user). Such sentiments always seemed to make it clear that the phrase “politically correct”, although inherently used as a pejorative by the Right, could as well be used by those of us on the Left as shorthand to refer to understanding the concerns of others and the need for respectful and civil language and actions. But then I ran into this recent incident at SUNY New Paltz.
First, a little background. The village of New Paltz in Ulster County on the lower Hudson River, was settled in 1678 by French Huguenot refugees. For generations, the community was governed by 12 members of the original families, the “Duzine”. Due to frequent inter-marrying over the years, descendants of any one family tend to be related to most of the other families. (At this point I should mention that I’m related to all those families through my mother.) Glossed over in most histories of New York is the fact that from the late 17th. Century until the late 18th. Century slavery was not uncommon in the area from New York City to Albany, including Ulster County. Indeed, by the 1750s, slaves comprised almost 20% of the population of the county. And there’s no denying that a number of these slaves were owned by members of the New Paltz founding families. The end of slavery in the Empire State didn’t begin until the legislature passed a general act of emancipation in 1799, and act which, with subsequent modifications, nevertheless kept some individuals in slavery until 1827.
Now, fast forward to the 1960s. During Nelson Rockefeller’s expansion of the SUNY system, SUNY New Paltz constructed the Hasbrouck Complex, consisting of a dining hall and five student dorms, all named for Huguenot families; Bevier, Crispell, Deyo, DuBois, Hasbrouck and LeFevre.
And fast forward again to the present day where, in the wake of white supremacist rallies and the resulting nation-wide calls to expunge public use of the Confederate flag and to remove statues and other memorials honoring those who fought to preserve slavery, a demand arose among the student body at SUNY New Paltz that the names of slave-holding families should be eliminated from the Hasbrouck Complex buildings. The SUNY New Paltz administration responded by setting up a committee to determine what steps should be taken to address those concerns.
In response to a request for comments from interested parties, several descendents of the founding families submitted the following points:
- there is a wide and distinct difference between naming a building for a generic family which existed for centuries and is made up of thousands of individuals, and naming a building or a street or a park for a specific person or a group of unrelated individuals with a common purpose.
- it would be difficult to impossible to find many European families whose ancestors had arrived in America prior to the 19th. Century who did not have a slave holder somewhere in the family tree.
- each of the families named in the Hasbrouck complex also provided soldiers who fought and died in the Revolutionary War and the Civil War to end slavery. (In my mother’s family’s case, my great-grandfather and his four brothers served in the Union army, with my great-grandfather ending up in Andersonville Prison.)
- in fairness and consistency, if the current names are to be stripped from the Hasbrouck Complex because a slave holder lurked in the family tree, then all buildings and streets on the campus named for families or individuals must be researched to see whether any of the them also have a slaveholder in their ranks. Perhaps such research into the ancestors of SUNY New Paltz’s current administrators would also be in order.
- to punish all members of a family for the distant actions of a few is the moral equivalent of a bill of attainder (a legislative act which declares guilty and punishes a group of persons for a crime allegedly committed by a single member, an action which the Constitution specially prohibits at both the federal and state levels). While a building name change obviously does not rise to the level of seriousness of a true bill of attainder, the goal of the SUNY New Paltz inquiry should be to seek fairness and respect for ALL parties.
After several months of investigation, the president of SUNY New Paltz last week released the committee’s findings (which were not unanimously supported by committee members) and announced that, “buildings that honor families who owned slaves should be renamed”, but that the school would, “develop alternative ways to recognize the many contributions of the Huguenots and their descendents”. To me this is political correctness overkill, an injustice which brands thousand of family descendents as social outcasts because of the actions of a few individuals two centuries and more ago.
It remains to be seen how the SUNY New Paltz administration plans to “recognize” our families without honoring them.