Living History comes alive in Millbrook talk

Bill Jeffway tells an anecdote to a capacity crowd at the Millbrok Library.


Living History comes alive in Millbrook talk

MILLBROOK — Last Thursday April 18, Bill Jeffway, Executive Director of the Dutchess County Historical Society, delivered a lecture titled “Town of Washington: Antebellum Free Black Community” to a capacity crowd at the Millbrook Library.

A graduate of Wesleyan College, he is the author of “This Place Called Milan and Invisible People, Untold Stories: Voices of Rhinebeck’s Historic Black Community.” He writes regularly for the Northern Dutchess News.

Jeffway, who is a dynamic and improvisational lecturer, offered many asides and anecdotes. Jeffway teaches a course on Living History at Marist College.

The Living History movement emphasizes the voices and perspectives of people from the past through letters, postcards, deeds, court records, and cemetery stones.

In 1776 slavery was banned in Dutchess County, yet the ban was not strictly enforced. It took about twenty years for the Dutch and British to divest completely. Even some Quakers were slow to relinquish slaves, despite the strong opposition to slavery among most Quakers.

Abused white women sometimes took refuge in the Black community. In 1782 Mary Mott married at age sixteen; she left her husband in 1809, staying at first with various friends. She eventually was given long-term secret shelter by a Black couple, working as a seamstress.

Jeffway noted that many free Blacks, as well as slaves, lived in Poughkeepsie where there were eight Black Churches, due to its prominence in river commerce and travel. There were local instances of Southerners boat-kidnapping free Black youngsters. An important free Black boat captain worked the Hudson River around this time.

On the eastern border of Dutchess County, slaves worked on some farms. In the Smithfield Valley, according to a letter, Mrs. Smith had at least three personal slaves serving her at her wedding. Jeffway estimated about thirty agricultural slaves in that neighborhood in the early part of the 18th century.

Jeffway noted that there was a small Black cemetery in Lithgow, and in the 1870s there was a Black community in Clove Valley in northern Union Vale, just south of Millbrook. At that time Black women were predominantly the owners of land in the Black community.

Shortly after the appearance of the automobile, Mr. Collins, a Black man, ran a successful taxi and bus transportation service between Millbrook and Poughkeepsie. His wife ran a laundry service, with washing machines in their backyard, for the wealthy ladies of Millbrook.

Manet Fowler (1916-2004) was the first Black woman to acquire a doctorate in cultural anthropology. The U.S. government assigned her to survey Dutchess County on the “readiness” of people of color to serve in World War II.

By 1944, inspired by Lincoln, the Millbrook Black Republican Club was formed.

Elements of this lecture drew on the Millbrook Library’s Archive on African Americans in Dutchess County.

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