The rich but often little-known history of African Americans in the Peekskill area from the 18th century to the present became more accessible three years ago through a book by Peekskill City Historian John J. Curran.
Peekskill’s African American History: A Hudson Valley Community’s Untold Story, published in the spring of 2008, blends an informative, readable text with eye-catching archival and contemporary photos.
“Viewed together, the struggles, setbacks and accomplishments for those who can, in some way, trace their roots to Africa are an American success story,” Curran wrote in the preface. The 159-page paperback provides an informative look at those struggles and successes while not shying away from such unsettling topics as slavery, the Robeson riots of 1949 and the civil unrest of the 1960s.
Curran’s interest in Peekskill’s African Americans grew from research on the Underground Railroad in conjunction with Waymond Brothers and LaFern Joseph, who revived local interest in the network that helped escaping slaves reach safety in the years before the Civil War. In the process he discovered a treasure trove of little-known local history. “As the Peekskill civic historian, I realized I had better access to archival material than most people have,” he said of his initial thoughts about writing his book.
He began researching nearly 100 photographs at the Peekskill Museum and library archives in January 2007. With extensive help from the Moshier, Tapley, Taylor and Wortham families, among many others, he completed his text a year later. Trying to be as complete as possible, and true to archival sources, he organized his findings into five time spans – 1759-1815; 1815-1900; 1900-50; 1950-70; and 1970-2008. Contemporary information was provided by those still living or directly involved.
- At one point, New York had the second highest number of enslaved Africans of any state. The first U.S. Census, in 1790, listed 66 slaves in Peekskill and Cortlandt.
- The house at 1112 Main St., owned by free African Americans Hawley and Harriet Green in the 1830s, has been identified as a safe house on the Underground Railroad.
- The Lone Stars Baseball Club, an all-black team that predated the Negro Leagues, competed with the best of the amateur and semi-pro teams around 1900.
- In the late 1800s, Professor T.A. Beckam, whose specialties included dermatology and barbering, held forth in a multifaceted establishment on Central Avenue. Other services and merchandise at the Grand Central Shaving Saloon included loans, real estate, telephone service (new at the time), cigars, pipes and snuff.
- The Charitable Six, organized in 1961, was an association of six African American men who worked to raise and donate money to various charitable causes in Peekskill.
“This is really American history, not so much black or white history,” Curran told the Van Cortlandtville Historical Society during a June 2008 program about his new book. He discovered no monolithic black thought or community; rather, he found that people of African descent “are quite individualistic, like everybody else.”
The historian acknowledged that his most recent book “does not pretend to be the comprehensive last word. It is more like the best I can do at this time.”
Peekskill’s African American History: A Hudson Valley Community’s Untold Story, was published by The History Press, Charleston, South Carolina, www.historypress.net Copies are available from Curran at the Peekskill Museum and from local book stores.