While Sojourner Truth Library (STL) is named after a local prominent slave, you won’t find a shred of New Paltz’s slavery records in its archives. The village records reside in Crispell Memorial French Church, over a mile away from the SUNY New Paltz campus.
At a discussion last Tuesday, panelists reached out to the community to help acquire local records of slavery for the library. However, with these records scattered among museums and private collections, ownership of the documents generated numerous obstacles and controversy.
“How about we stop owning artifacts like we owned people,” said Stacey Lipari, a SUNY New Paltz alumnae and local resident. “It seems like we are committing the same crime constantly. It should be free.”
Many people know Truth’s name and iconic photograph, but nothing more.
Truth sought refuge in the Village of New Paltz after escaping slavery and later beat her former master in court over possession of her son. Bills of sale, copies of laws and slave advertisements provide useful insight into slave-society of New Paltz and surrounding areas.
While the village technically owns the records, they do not have the proper means to store and care for them. The documents were then given to Historical Huguenot Street (HHS) whose storage facilities are climate-controlled and staffed by experienced archivists.
A number of the documents are uploaded online to allow students and scholars to access them easily. However, in order to see the archives in person, you must schedule an appointment with the HHS librarian and archivist Carrie Allmendinger and cannot check them out. In addition, there is a suggested $25 donation.
“The tangible, physical, materials carry more significance than what can be seen through a screen,” said Mark Colvson, Dean of the Sojourner Truth Library. “We want to make the name of the library have more meaning than just symbolic.”
Deputy Town Supervisor Dan Torres said the town considered donating the documents to the Smithsonian Museum, but it was shot down. The Smithsonian required ownership of the documents to display them, something the town was not willing to do.
“It [slavery] is a dark part of our history,” said Torres. “Instead of tucking it away, we could turn it into an educational piece.”
Torres also felt some board members didn’t even know the documents existed until the donation idea was announced.
Part of the STL’s $14.3 million renovation, completed in 2016, included the expansion and improvement of the special collections section, which protects sensitive documents. The library has the means to preserve potential archives, but lacks the funds to do so.
According to Colvson, the library has operated on a flat budget for years. The cost for materials required to sustain the library have increased by four to five percent annually. The library is left with minimal funds to purchase documents, which can cost thousands of dollars, let alone hire the staff necessary to care for them.
Director of Curatorial and Preservation Affairs for HHS, Josephine Bloodgood, supported the proposal to donate the documents to the university.
Before a decision can be reached, the HHS would first need approval from the town clerk.
“I think it’s a really exciting prospect that the library would want to collaborate on bringing these stories to light,” Bloodgood said.