POUGHKEEPSIE, NY—Vassar students in Brian McAdoo’s Digital Underground class and Quincy Mills’ African American history class have spent part of the fall semester researching and rediscovering the vibrant black community of 19th century Rhinebeck. Through a geophysical survey in a section of the Rhinebeck Association Cemetery as well as research of historical archives, they unearthed a rich history that includes Revolutionary and Civil War veterans, successful artisans and craftsmen, and early Hudson Valley real estate moguls.
“When we were first asked to do this project, Lorainne Roberts of the Dutchess County Historical Society said that she wanted to know about African American Revolutionary War veteran Andrew Frazier and his family.” explained McAdoo, Program Chair of the Department of Earth Science and Geography at Vassar. “We then expanded the project to include the rest of the ‘Potter's Field’ section of the Rhinebeck cemetery. Now, as we interpret the geophysical data and review the historical documents, this story and why we should care about it begins to emerge.”
Their research shows that in the 1800s, this Northern Dutchess area had a vibrant black community, including a neighborhood of black artisans on Oak Street in the village of Rhinebeck and the Frazier family, which owned quite a bit of land in the Town of Milan.
“The most recent census data shows a much lower percentage of black families in this area — now perhaps best known as a weekend destination where Chelsea Clinton was married,” remarked McAdoo. “What happened to the black community, when and why? Was there a rural-to-urban shift in northern black communities that mirrored similar shifts in the south? Does loss of land or wealth shed any light on present-day racial and economic demographics? The answers to these questions may be beyond us now, but we hope to consider them in the future.”
The research team will present a preliminary report of their project, entitled, “The Black Underground in 19th Century Rhinebeck: Section E of the Rhinebeck Association Cemetery,” to be followed by a discussion on Friday, December 10, at 6:00pm at Rhinebeck’s Starr Library located at 68 Market Street. This presentation is free and open to the public.
About the project
The “Potter’s Field” section of the Rhinebeck cemetery known as the “Negro Burial Ground,” is located on a half acre of land that was given for “people of color” by Mary Garrettson on August 27, 1853. Garrettson was the daughter of the Reverend Freeborn Garrettson, a noted abolitionist Methodist preacher in Rhinebeck.
A small number of monuments remain in the cemetery, however many burials discovered by this project were unmarked. The geophysics class used high-tech geophysical methods, including electrical resistivity and ground penetrating radar analysis, as well as cesium-vapor magnetometry, which McAdoo terms, “a glorified metal detector.”
While the science students were collecting their data, the history class was pouring over the land records at the Dutchess County Clerk’s office. “We appear to have found a conflict — historians love drama!” said Mills. As the Frazier family land switched hands back and forth a number of times in the late 1800s, all the deeds stipulate that the family burial plot be preserved on their private land. Yet the family’s headstones are at the Rhinebeck cemetery.
About the professors
Brian McAdoo, Program Chair of the Department of Earth Science and Geography and associate professor of earth science, was among the first geologists on-site to survey the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Since then, he has led surveys following tsunami in Java, the Solomon Islands, and Samoa, often finding that marginalized communities are those that suffer the most. The history of slavery in New York has been ignored, and he feels it is time to celebrate the contributions of each of the region’s immigrant populations. His current research involves studying the complex interactions between geology and communities that make disasters. At Vassar he teaches Oceanography, Global Geophysics and Tectonics, Carbon Conflicts, Oil, the Environmental Science Field Course, and Digital Underground, where his class investigates the African American history of the Mid-Hudson Valley through its graveyards.
Quincy T. Mills, assistant professor of history, joined the Vassar faculty in 2006. His research focuses on African American urban and business history, race and segregation, and social and political movements. Mills is completing his forthcoming book, Shaving Men, Grooming Race: A History of Black Barbers and Barber Shops, 1830-1970. He is a contributor to the Encyclopedia of New York State (Syracuse, 2005) and the Encyclopedia of African American Business History (Greenwood, 1999). Featured at the end of Showtime's airing of the movie Barbershop in 2004, Mills discussed the historical development of black barbershops at the turn of the 20th century. His course offerings include Readings in U.S. History, African American History to 1865, African American History since 1865, Black Business and Social Movements in the Twentieth Century, andRace and the History of Jim Crow Segregation. He is actively involved in Vassar’s Africana Studies Program.
The Dutchess County Historical Society collects, preserves and promotes the county's history to educate and engage both present and future generations. The Historical Society is known for its publications, educational outreach, and collection of archival materials, photographs, and objects inclusive of the entire county.
Vassar College is a highly selective, coeducational, independent, residential liberal arts college founded in 1861.