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History Doesn't Repeat, But it Often Rhymes

By Barbara Kay

The dorm building, Big Haus, that students are looking to have renamed (Photo via the SUNY Purchase website)

The Political Science Club has created a petition to rename the dorm building Big Haus, a term critics say echoes that of an enslaver’s plantation home.

“[President of SUNY Purchase, Dr. Milly Peña] can stand up there and see what she sees,” said Navah Little, a junior anthropology major. “She’ll only see the name [of Big Haus] changing, but we see the plantation we’re on. We see the bodies [of enslaved people] that are still here.”

The Political Science Club says the dorm building Big Haus shares the same name as the enslaver’s home on Antebellum plantations. While this may, or may not have been the intention of the SUNY Purchase students who voted on the name in 1989, the club is not “invested in who to blame, but what to do now,” said political science Professor Samuel Galloway, who is also the faculty advisor for the club.

The cultural and historical significance of the name is too reprehensible to keep, according to the club, and supporters of their petition.

Diana Cassells, visiting professor of political science, reiterated the idea that keeping the name Big Haus was unfavorable in both a historical and societal context.

Cassells noted the phrase “big house” often refers to a prison, which is controversial considering the mass incarceration of Black and Brown people and the school-to-prison pipeline. Historically, the Big House belonged to an Antebellum plantation owner.

The Political Science Club’s petition to rename the dorm building Big House (Photo via the Political Science Club’s Instagram)

The petition, which had 328 signatures by the time the forum gathered on Oct. 27, has three demands: The first, to rename the dorm building; the second, to acknowledge the slavery that took place on this land; and finally, to educate the campus through a commemorative plaque and a permanent installation in the Neuberger Museum.

The petition is a part of a much larger movement concerning racial injustice on campus. Students have continued to rally to reinstate the Black Student Union and to equitably enforce the code of conduct in a way that does not criminalize Black students.

Black faculty have also been at the center of this movement as there is a limited number of Black professors, and the Black faculty who do work here are at risk of losing their jobs.

Cassells is only a visiting professor, and Toivo Asheeke, an assistant professor of sociology, is not tenured and vulnerable to termination.

Asheeke assigned a research paper to his class, which junior film major Quincy Campbell used as an opportunity to do further research on the history of slavery in the Westchester area.

“I am really in the early process of this research and still want to find more stories and names of those enslaved on this property,” stated Campbell. “That's really all the project was initially, though having it be a paper is a new development. I hope something comes of it though!”

John Thomas put an ad in a 1776 newspaper for the location of an escaped enslaved person by the name of Abraham (Photo via the New York Gazette Archive)

Campbell discovered an ad in a local newspaper from Sept. 28, 1767, submitted by John Thomas, a man with the same name as the revolutionist who owned the land Purchase College was built on, looking for an escaped enslaved man named Abraham on the New York Gazette Archive.

Lisa Keller, professor of history and campus historian, referred to the land as an “estate” in a 1993 New York Times article rather than a plantation. She wrote in an email that although there was no building of the name Big Haus on this campus, the Thomas Family did keep enslaved people.

“There was no plantation. There was no building of that name. There was a farmhouse,” she wrote. “Thomas Thomas did have a few slaves, as was typical of owners of farms at the time. In this area of the county, there were independent farmers (as opposed to the large estates on the western part).”

Before its redesign in 2017, the Purchase website featured two small segments acknowledging the history of slavery on this land and the small cemetery across from the Stood. These segments have since been removed, and the only mention of the cemetery on the website is under Purchase College Development 1964-72 “Small Sanctuaries.”

Betsy Aldredge, the college’s assistant director of public relations, said, “The web page was written by a historian. Some faculty members were uncomfortable with the way the history was presented.

“We were asked to take the page down so that it could be reviewed and revised for historical accuracy and inclusive, responsible language,” she continued. “This review is now part of the DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] strategic plan, which is being written by a cross-campus committee of faculty and staff.”

Keller, who oversaw the historic references removed from the web page, disagreed. “The material was fine,” she said “To be clear, what is/was on the website was the product of several years of research by students in my Local History Workshop.

“I supervised it but they did a fantastic job,” Keller continued. “We researched at the Westchester County Archives and other places. The information is hard to come by. Some people have incorrect information.” wrote, “Information about the Thomas family on the Purchase College website mentions that by 1790 Thomas had eleven slaves and, in 1810, he and John together owned nine slaves.”

“It also notes that, ‘New York State…law mandated gradual manumission in 1799, and by 1817, the law provided for the extinction of slavery. In his will, Thomas Thomas provided for the few remaining slaves on his farm,’” the site wrote.

The club maintains that their proposal is about much more than changing the name, but acknowledging the history of Purchase College, and creating an inclusive legacy.

“It’s not just about renaming but acknowledging [Purchase’s] history, and [Campbell’s] unpaid labor,” said political science major Kaelin Martin.

In a campus-wide email sent out at the time the Big Haus forum ended, Peña wrote, “Two other near-term changes we can pursue include the renaming of Big Haus. As you may be aware, the residence hall was originally named by students and can - and should - be renamed with student support.”



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