'It can be uncomfortable': how a New York farmhouse is facing its racist past

Nadja Sayej
·5-min read

When people think of buildings in Manhattan, chances are they think big and brash, cloud-piercing skyscrapers for tourists to marvel at.

But the borough is also home to the far more modest Dyckman Farmhouse, a white clapboard home built in 1765. It’s the oldest farmhouse in the city, and just off 204th Street in Inwood, once home to the Dutch farmer William Dyckman, his family and their slaves.

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It’s now known as the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum and this fall until next, it’s honoring an overlooked history in an exhibition called Unspoken Voices: Honoring the Legacy of Black America.

It features the artworks of three local artists, all women, who respond to the legacy of the farm and its past with slavery. It’s a way to tell untold stories, says Meredith Horsford, the museum’s executive director.

“Even though we are a historic site, we relate the history to our present day, and that connection is imperative to talk about race,” said Horsford. “It can be uncomfortable, but it still needs to happen.”

Slavery, says Horsford, is a topic that museum visitors are curious about, but cautious. “They think, oh we’re in the north, that wasn’t an issue here,” she says. “From my perspective, working with artists around this is a conversation starter, it’s a topic that is usually difficult to talk about.”

The exhibition, partially funded through the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone, all started when Horsford put out a call for artists. Each artist then decided to take a different approach to the theme of slavery, peeling back the layers of history. “People who have been enslaved have been portrayed just as that, but they don’t say much more,” she said.

On the Dyckman Farmhouse, there were roughly seven enslaved people living at the house, shortly after it was built. Records show that Francis Cudjoe was an enslaved man who would later be freed in 1809, and others known only by their first names; Will, Gilbert, Harey and Blossum. A free black woman named Hannah, who was a freed descendant of slaves, worked as a cook for the household.

There was also a burial ground for slaves nearby, known as the Inwood Slave Burial Ground, which contained over 30 slave families (today, it’s a parking lot for a school on 212th Street).

“We wanted to give voice to people and make sure it came across that we’re talking about multi-faceted individuals, people who have their own lives and families when they were put into these horrible situations,” adds Horsford. “We never want to say: ‘these people were just slaves,’ because there’s so much to the story than just that.”

In the exhibition, artist Gwendolyn Black has created life-size figures, which represent some of the farm’s former inhabitants. One represents Hannah, the cook, who stands in the family kitchen as a way to celebrate the legacy and roots of African American cuisine.

“I wanted 3D figures, so people can feel and see them, and we, today’s generations, are human,” said Black. “That’s something that was not felt before. Each of them has fantastic stories to share, so I wanted to be sure that their history will be remembered.”

Black created these figures from mannequins who stand at 5ft 3in tall, masks inspired by African mask-making and each wearing period clothing designed by Wilma Ann Sealy, who used vintage gingham, calico, lace and period-era buttons for each outfit.In the background, the song Like Leaves hums throughout the farmhouse, co-written by Emme Kemp and Milton Polsky, dedicated to former slave Henry Box Brown, and is performed here by Black and Kemp.

“We must learn from history; the good, bad and the ugly, so that we as a society can keep making strides to eradicate systemic racism to ensure everyone can feel free, be free to enjoy life,” said Black. “Not just select people.”

Meanwhile, artist Rachel Sydlowski uses the first floor of the house for an art installation that lets visitors look back through history through UV light. Her artworks are sprawled across the fireplace in the “front parlor”, a leisure room where slaves were forbidden entry. Screen-printed foliage on paper continues behind the desk and before a grandfather clock.

The room is lit by a UV light and features two UV-reactive ersatz candles, which visitors can use as a light source to search for hidden images through the foliage. It lights up information “relating to the lives of the slaves hidden throughout the room”, said Sydlowski. “These images are not visible under the conditions of normal lighting, and this unveiling of information is similar to the act of researching lost histories.”

Sydlowski’s work is accompanied by ceremonial clothing made by Marquise Foster, “created specifically for those who were enslaved”, she said. “The parlor is transformed into a space for recognizing their lives and contributions; I selected this room because it felt like the most powerful one in the farmhouse, a place for ceremony, and reckoning.”

It captures an ongoing battle. “New York City was divided, in regard to slavery, and it was tied to capitalism and the building of wealth in this county,” said Sydlowski. “My installation engages with the difficult truths about the history of slavery at the Dyckman Farmhouse, the city, the country and the lasting effects we are still dealing with today.”

A series of expressive paintings, mixed-media portraits and a video installation are found throughout the farmhouse, created by artist Sheila Prevost, whose work responds to the African Burial Ground national monument in lower Manhattan.

“Highlighting these burial sites increases awareness and understanding of the enslaved history of Africans through institutionalized racism all the way to current times,” said Prevost.

“Today, we are repeatedly confronted with brutality and killing of unarmed black men by law enforcement, and it is essential to recognize the common thread within the narrative of our past and present ideas, behavior and leadership with regards to race and equality,” she adds.

“Following our recent election, we’ve learned how divided the country remains regarding race and equality; many who claim to be extreme pro-life still do not acknowledge that black lives matter.”