THE HISTORY CENTER BLOG
At the beginning of September, The City of Ithaca announced their intention to remove the “White Settlers” plaque in DeWitt Park. The monument, consisting of a bronze plaque bolted to a boulder, identifies two Revolutionary soldiers, Jonathan Woodworth and Robert McDowell, who are described as the “First White Settlers” in Ithaca. The plaque has become the frequent focus of protests that decry its exclusionary message and the people the plaque ignores. The City of Ithaca will donate the plaque to The History Center’s collections, if approved for removal at the October Common Council meeting.
I don’t profess to be an expert local historian, so I feel uncomfortable speaking to the veracity of the plaque’s historical claims. Others much more knowledgeable than I highlight the complex realities at the end of the 18th century and how our understanding of that history has changed over time. The plaque’s simplistic and definitive statement flattens these complexities, and we are left with an incomplete understanding of our community. I am also a white male-identified person, which carries an obligation to listen when others state that the plaque’s language creates an environment of exclusion and oppression.
I can attest to the learning opportunity the plaque has afforded me. The removal process offered me a gateway to better understand multiple periods of Tompkins County’s past. It took active engagement to move beyond Woodworth or McDowell. Only through purposeful exploration does the engaged audience discover the histories of the many peoples who called this land home before them, like the Tutelo or the Gayogo̱hó:nǫ'. Nor does it mention Yaple and Dumond, another pair of “first settlers” identified on a New York Historic Marker on nearby Buffalo Street. The plaque’s inherently reductive representation of local history erases the powerful complexity of the moment it commemorates.
As an engaged audience, we should also aspire to understand the moment in time that produced the memorialization. The Cayuga Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution installed the plaque as part of an effort to honor the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution. Again, our responsibility as an engaged audience is to pursue the diversity of stories and people. The narrative surrounding the D.A.R.’s early monument work focuses on their commemoration of largely male, white colonizers. The narrative is justified, but also ignores some efforts of the Cayuga Chapter of the D.A.R. For example, they did attempt to honor indigenous communities by collaborating on programs and historical markers. As always, the depth of our local past requires us to be active participants in the exploration of our past.
That leaves the lessons of the plaque for the current moment and the discussion today. Future generations will understand us, in part, by our decision to remove the plaque. Our challenge in this third moment is to capture the multifaceted voices of our time for future generations. I’m thankful for the public discourse the plaque’s removal inspired and to live in a community where such a debate is possible. Once the plaque is accessioned into The History Center’s collections, we will strive to represent the diverse voices involved in its history through exhibits, programs, and other learning opportunities. This allows us to continue recording the diversity of our current moment for future generations – a vital aspect of recording and memorializing the people and places of Tompkins County.
Executive Director of The History Center in Tompkins County
Originally published in the October 2020 History Happenings Monthly Newsletter.
Pledge to support Executive Director Ben Sandberg as he embarks on a 24 hour bike ride through Tompkins County on September 7th!
Support Ben here: PledgeIt.org/TChistory
Ride along virtually with Ben as he bikes as many miles in Tompkins County as he can in a single 24-hour period. Your pledge per mile - whether $.25, $.50, or $1.00 - strengthens The History Center’s continued resilience. This year, Ben is riding county roads to support our postponed exhibit honoring suffragists of Tompkins County. We can still celebrate the 100 (+1!) anniversary of the 19th Amendment in the summer of 2021 with your pledge!
Before making a pledge, you might be curious about Ben's riding capacity. His current biking record is 140 miles in one day. His September 7th goal is 175 miles, but if the ride goes smoothly, he won't stop there.
Ben Sandberg first fell in love with local history through his passion for biking. He has done a number of bike tours around the United States, in addition to many long days in the saddle. His routes frequently are planned to stop at historical societies and local history museums. Moving through a community at biking speed gives a deep appreciation for the people, the landscape, and the built environment. Through biking in his early 20’s, Ben realized that we live surrounded by local history that shapes our lives in often unnoticed ways. He is excited to more deeply understand our whole county through this endurance test on September 7th, 2020.
Stories from Inside” is a project and website created by the History Center Youth Ambassadors to present selected stories of Tompkins County residents during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring. The website includes diaries, press releases, photographs, poetry, and more from people across the community, including students, teachers, business owners, and local government officials. This project was created by the History Center Tompkins County’s Youth Ambassador Program and the submissions used in the website are included in our COVID-19 in Tompkins County Archival Collection.
Our thanks to the History Center Youth Ambassadors who contributed their time this spring and summer for this project: Sunny C., Raia G., Giancarlo R.V., Emily W., and Isaac W.
Monday, July 20th, 2020
For Immediate Release
The Alex Haley Memorial Project and The History Center in Tompkins County unveil historic signage celebrating Alex Haley on August 8th, 11 am.
ITHACA, NY. July 20th, 2020 – The Alex Haley Memorial Project, in collaboration with The History Center in Tompkins County, will live stream a ceremony to honor Ithaca-born Alex Haley on August 8th, at 11am. Alex Haley is a celebrated author, best known for his 1967 book Roots: The Saga of an American Family, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The ceremony will unveil a historic place sign on Cascadilla Street marking the house where he was born. The ceremony will include thoughts from members of the Alex Haley Memorial Project, the Legacy Foundation which provided funding for the sign, The History Center in Tompkins County, and local representatives. Due to an abundance of caution, interested audiences are encouraged to participate through a livestream on The History Center’s Facebook page. A sign language interpreter will be present to ensure equal access to the livestream.
Alex Haley was born in Ithaca on August 11th, 1921. His parents were enrolled respectively at Cornell University and the Ithaca Conservatory of Music. The connection to Tompkins County higher institutions of education was unusual for Black Americans in that era, and is an important reminder of the continuing systemic inequalities that persist today. His work Roots: The Saga of An American Family and the subsequent television adaption is one of the most influential and important U.S. works in the last century.
The unveiling ceremony on August 8th closely marks the 99th anniversary of Alex Haley’s birth. The Alex Haley Memorial Project and The History Center in Tompkins County look forward to additional programming next summer for the centennial anniversary.
The History Center in Tompkins County helps communities use the tools of history to understand the past, gain perspective on the present, and play an informed role in shaping the future.
For additional information, please contact:
Benjamin Sandberg, Executive Director
Phone: (607) 273-8284, ext. 222
In recent weeks thousands of demonstrators have gathered across Tompkins County to protest police brutality and racism in the wake of the recent killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by law enforcement, and Ahmaud Arbery by white vigilantes. These local protests are part of a global movement that has emerged to protest systemic racism and excessive force used by police departments across America on black and brown bodies.
The problem of unjustified and horrific violence against black and brown people, often at the hands of the police who are tasked to serve the community, is not new. There is a long and grim history behind the recent killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. This history is coupled with the black and brown community's heightened vulnerability to the effects of societal stressors, most recently seen in the disproportionate physical and economic effects of COVID-19. This moment in time has become an inflection point, and black and brown people, with allies of other groups, are seizing it and speaking out with righteous fury and saying, no more.
Protests are spreading across the world in support, and we at The History Center are watching this history in the making, hoping to preserve the parts of it rising in Tompkins County. We are reaching out to the community and asking any of you to contact us with your experiences of this critical moment and send them to us. It could be an email, a diary, a blog, photographs, protest banners and signs, a video or podcast; any form of communication that works for you we would be grateful to receive.
The History Center's Black History Collection will be enhanced with an accompanying Black Lives Matter Collection, and it will become part of the archived history of Tompkins County; used in exhibits, educational programs, and by researchers and students documenting the history of this county. We recognize the current Black Lives Matters protests emerge out of a long history of organizing, and community action in Tompkins County. It is our intent that this archive will also include information about anti-racist efforts from previous years and decades, and the community is encouraged to share their previous recollections of other efforts with us as well.
This post was written by Al Chaffee, Newfield Historical Society President.
1. All early burials were done in a west to east or approximate west to east direction with the head always to the west. It was said that if the dead were to be able to sit up they would face the sunrise. The tops of the bodies or caskets were maybe a foot or so deep, as far as I’ve been able to tell.
2. Easily over 95% (possibly around 98% ) of the burials done in the first 25 years of Newfield history were done on the family’s own land - not in a public cemetery which was then called a burying ground.
3. Of the Town of Newfield's twelve original public cemeteries six or half of the cemeteries were located very close to one-room schools. Part of the reason for this was that the early schools were used for community events, church services and for funerals. Many years ago Lochary VanKirk and I visited his distant cousin, Dora (Earl) Decker, who resided at the Folts Home; a nursing home up in Herkimer, N.Y. Lochary lived at 90 VanKirk Rd. in the large house that his grandfather, Andrew Jackson "Jack" VanKirk built. Marty and Linda Burun now live in that house. Dora told us about when she was a girl; she went to the one-room Jackson Hollow School. She recalled a day when school was dismissed for the funeral of Miss Nancy Schoolcraft. Nancy died on Feb. 2, 1892 and was buried in the Chaffee Creek Cemetery. Albert Knettles”A.K.” Allen was a Newfield undertaker at this time. A. K. chose Nancy's funeral to be the first one that his son Archie “A.R.” Allen, would handle by himself. A. R. was only 15 years old when he did the funeral for Nancy Schoolcraft down in the Jackson Hollow School. A.K. and A. R. were the first two of the three generations of the Allen family to operate the Allen funeral business in Newfield.
4. Many of the rural public cemeteries in Newfield were started around 1850. Earlier dated grave stones in these cemeteries were for loved ones' bodies that were brought in from private land and buried there after the cemetery was started. The first burial in the Estabrook Cemetery along Rte. 13 in Pony Hollow was that of William B. Estabrook who died on Apr. 12, 1852. In the same front row is a marble marker giving the death date of Desire, Isaac L. Smith's wife, as Nov. 29, 1832. Also very close to Wm. B.'s stone are the stones of two of Robert P. Beebe's wives, Mary and Hannah whose stones show that they died in 1839 and 1845 respectively. All three ladies must have had their bodies brought in, probably from private land, after Wm. B.'s burial in 1852. Burials on private land were very common and prevalent even up to and well past the 1850's in Newfield. People viewing the stones in Estabrook Cemetery would incorrectly assume that Desire Smith was the first burial in that cemetery in 1832. This situation is common in most public cemeteries.
5. The first burial in the Woodlawn Cemetery was on Jan. 16th, 1881. It was for a 9 year old Charley Sebring who had died just two days earlier. Charley's father, Charles Sebring, a Civil War vet had died in 1875 at the age of 31 and was buried in the Sebring Settlement Cemetery up on the Trumbulls Corners Rd. There are 43 grave markers in the Woodlawn Cemetery with death dates earlier than the first burial in 1881 going back to as early as 1827. One of these is for Charley's dad, Charles, whose body was later moved down and reburied next to Charley. Most of these earlier than 1881 markers are for bodies that were moved in from the less well kept rural cemeteries but some were for bodies brought in from private family owned land. My Grandmother, Mamie Chaffee, told me about Rebecca Cook (1846 - 1885) who was killed in a buggy accident. Rebecca was originally buried on private land up behind Hazel Shulte's present home on Burdge Hill Rd even in 1885 after the Woodlawn Cemetery had been in operation for several years. Several years later Rebecca's body was brought down and reburied in the Woodlawn Cemetery.
6. I was told by the old-timers that early Newfield residents commonly considered death as just a part of life. In the Newfield Village Cemetery on Bank St. there are 47 marked graves of folks who died in the 1830 - 1839 decade. Of those forty-seven deaths, twenty-three or half were 9 years old or younger when they died. The average age of those 47 at their time of death was 23. And adults would have had a better chance of being buried in a public cemetery with a proper marker than a child.
7. The grave of Capt. Joseph Gregg of Co. I, 137th Regt. N.Y.S.V. in the Newfield Village Cemetery on Bank St. has become a lot more well-known in the last three or four years. He now has an approximately 16 foot flag pole and flag and a new marker which calls him the "Hero of Gettysburg". As Civil War historians and researchers did more in-depth research, they found that the basically previously unknown Capt. Gregg and his men played a very important part of the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. On the evening of July 2nd the 137th was left to guard the foot of Culp's Hill. The rebels started to move up through that area in the dark and Capt. Gregg, with a group of men, made a bayonet charge against them. With vision being very limited due to night time darkness, the southerners retreated. Captain Gregg's gravestone reads "fell while nobly leading his men at bayonet Charge at the Battle of Gettysburg". I think that Capt. Gregg received two bullet wounds with a serious one to his upper arm. He had his left arm amputated at the shoulder and he died the next day, July 3, 1863. It is thought that it is possible that if it were not for Capt. Gregg and his men's bayonet charge in the darkness of night, the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg may have been different. Capt. Gregg was survived by his wife Hannah, daughter of Major John and Annis Puff. Capt. Gregg and Hannah's only child, Jennie, died a year earlier at the age of 3 months.
8. There are another five American flags placed every year before Memorial Day about three or four feet apart up in the northeast corner of the Newfield Village Cemetery on Bank St. Back in the 1950's and early 1960's I remember William Kellogg "Willie" Ellison placing flags at the heads of these five then very obvious graves. Willie explained that these were the graves of five soldiers that never received proper markers. Well we are still placing flags on these graves in remembrance of those five soldiers whose names have been forgotten and whose actual graves are no longer discernable.
There is so very much more that could have been written but we wanted to keep this short. We hope that you found this somewhat interesting. Please contact us if you want to discuss or want more information.
Also please consider joining the Newfield Historical Society. You can contact me at 564-7778. Our goals are simply to research, preserve and share a very interesting Newfield history.
Al Chaffee, Newfield Historical Society President
We are living through one of the most demanding and disturbing times in modern history. The whole world is grappling with the unsettling realities of the Coronavirus outbreak. Tompkins County is no exception, and our community has completely restructured in the past 2 1/2 weeks with the goal of protecting our most vulnerable, and slowing down the spread of the virus locally so our local health workers can continue to provide the best care to all patients. Many historians have been comparing the COVID-19 outbreak to the global influenza pandemic of 1918. In this instance however we have an opportunity to better document this pivotal time in our community than we've ever had before.
The History Center in Tompkins County and the Cornell University Archives are collaborating in creating ongoing archival collections related to the impacts of COVID-19. Cornell is focusing on the impacts nationally, while we at The History Center are focusing on the issues locally. To this end we need your help!
Please let us know how you are coping with these tremendous challenges. Write about your experiences with this virus and the impacts you are seeing in the local community. Capture pictures of ways community spaces have changed, and how you are practicing social distancing in your own lives.
If you are a local business that has been impacted consider sending us any materials you designed or developed to share this news with your patrons.
Teachers, this can also be an activity for students to pursue in their own way.
In this time of great urgency we are seeing many people step up to provide aid and comfort to those in need, such as our elderly and ailing neighbors. We are all in this together and sharing our stories can lighten our emotional load. Our stories are the first draft of the history our descendants will read when we're gone.
To all of our community we send our best wishes to stay safe and well.
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