by Catherine Laurent
Beneath the grounds of Purchase lies the history of those in bondage. The Purchase property, which included central parts of the current campus, was owned by a white settler named John Thomas and his family in the 18th century. In 1790, The Thomas family owned 11 slaves, who some believe are buried deep in the soil of the burial site located next to the Stood.
“They’re not resting,” said Karen Washington, co-founder of Black Urban Growers and an activist from the Bronx. It has been two years since Washington has discontinued her lectures about food and social activism at Purchase as a guest speaker due to the cemetery’s lack of recognition. Today, the cemetery is in poor condition due to years of neglect. Headstones are damaged, eroded, and indiscernible amongst the growing weeds, but what is most important to Washington is a lack of identifying marker noting its history.
“Where’s the plaque?” she asks.
Daisy Torres-Baez, former Coordinator of the Multicultural Center, has been aiding students who have voiced these same concerns. “While this history is on the college website, I asked around and got mixed responses–stories that included fact and fiction,” said Torres-Baez. She took it upon herself to research information pertaining to the slaves using archives from the New York City American Historical Society and contacting the Port Chester NAACP.
Ever since last October, Torres-Baez has been scanning original documents with student workers so that anyone can have access to these historical findings. “I think it will provide peace and healing for those on campus that felt this history was not acknowledged,” she said.
Torres-Baez has made it her priority to spread this information before she left her position to not only students, but throughout multicultural organizations on campus. “That took us aback because we were not even aware that this was going on,” said Soulangie Leeper, co-chair of the Purchase Student Government Association's Diversity Committee alongside Julia Tortorello-Allen. Their job consists of working as a liaison between the student body and the faculty.
“We met with students to indicate our support for a plaque or sign,” said Elizabeth Robertson, a member of College Council and a board member of the Purchase College Advancement Corporation. “We then turned it over to the students interested in this project to do whatever research necessary to create the text for the plaque or sign.” The school senate plans to work with students, leaving the work of the signage to fall on them. “It has to come from the students,” said Washington.
These feelings have been stirring up since early September, and now students are tasked with envisioning what proper signage looks like. “You can’t just put a plaque and then be like okay yeah, uh huh,” said Washington. Students, as well as Leeper and Washington support the idea of organizing a ceremony to truly commemorate the legacy of the slaves. It is more than simply writing a plaque for the Diversity Committee and minority communities on campus. It is an effort to maintain the cleanliness of the slaves’ interments while also honoring their existence. “I already see it in my head, I see the drumming, I see the dancing, I see the food,” said Leeper.
Washington also envisions a ceremony and plans to get Richard A. Ball, the New York State Commissioner of Agriculture, involved. She also speaks of reaching out to Governor Andrew Cuomo for the recognition of the slaves not be only within the Purchase community, but acknowledged statewide.
The official date of the plaque is not yet set in stone because there are still more important findings to be made regarding research of the slaves for the proper verbiage. Although there is work to be done, Leeper claims that by next year it should be up. “It’s been this long already, so to do a rushed job is like a disservice to the ancestors,” said Leeper. Once this is completed, the college can move forward to find the necessary funding and work alongside the students, Diversity Committee, and Karen Washington to determine the proper location. “This is something that’s going to happen, you can count on that," Leeper said.