As our nation struggles to redefine itself amid massive protests in our streets, the stories of our museum may provide a compelling and useful mirror.
The Townsends of 1776 were committed revolutionaries — dreamers, perhaps — who risked everything for the right to self-determination. Nevertheless, those same Townsends also held about nineteen people as their personal property, denying them the right to keep their own children, let alone to cast a hopeful eye on the “unalienable rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of happiness” proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence.
The Townsends were far from alone in this. In 1703, 40 percent of New Yorkers held people in slavery. Records show that 16 percent of New Yorkers were enslaved African Americans. Every municipality including Oyster Bay was required by New York State law to employ a person whose job it was to whip slaves, and Oyster Bay’s town records list the names of several of those men. Raynham Hall holds in its collection a blacksmith’s ledger with an entry for the repair of the manacles on the town whipping post. Arguments that northern slave owners were more humane than their southern cousins are undermined by the apparent need for a whipping post, and by the hundreds of runaway slave ads in Long Island and New York City newspapers of the period.
These are historical facts. Many visitors to Raynham Hall, including teachers shepherding classes on field trips, are unaware of these facts. These visitors tell us that they are amazed by what they have learned, and by the very idea that they had not previously learned this history, which has only been hiding in plain sight.
Ultimately, we as educators believe that the unjustified use of force by some in law enforcement, more visible now with the incontrovertible evidence of video, is only the most urgent aspect of a system that must change before our nation can live up to its founding ambitions. For example, the Wall Street Journal last year reported that one public school in an affluent Long Island district spent $37,600 per child in 2016-17, while in the neighboring town, whose school population is largely black and brown, the public expenditure per child was only $24,500. Similar disparities in education, housing, health outcomes and every other measure of well-being reflect a social bias many people are unaware of and would deny exists.
From our nation’s founding as a refuge for rebels and opportunity-seekers in the 17th century, we have often been perceived as a beacon for freedom and democracy in the world. But how can we reconcile our identity as the nation that welcomes the world’s “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” with George Floyd’s and Eric Garner’s jarringly opposite, shocking, dying plea, “I can’t breathe”?
The demonstrations in communities throughout the nation, by people of all colors, despite the real dangers of gathering in the midst of a pandemic, give us hope that this time of reckoning will finally become the time when we can truly begin to live up to our founding, revolutionary, promise.
Raynham Hall Museum is committed to being an educational partner in our community, to faithfully work to uncover, re-discover and convey our true history, and in so doing to help forge a stronger nation for all our people, “with liberty and justice for all.”
Harriet Gerard Clark, Executive Director
Board of Trustees, Raynham Hall Museum
For the safety of our patrons and staff during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, Raynham Hall Museum will be closed to the public and has cancelled all programs until further notice.
For at home activities and information on distance learning programs for schools, please click here.
Our last exhibit, “The Home Needle: Nineteenth-Century Textiles from the Raynham Hall Collection” is now online!
In an effort to support Oyster Bay businesses and the community during these uncertain times, please visit this page, http://www.visitoysterbay.com/community-resources-covid19.html, for available resources.