A grand Long Island manor – inhabited by members of the same family since 1735 – offers a glimpse into the forgotten history of Northern slavery.
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In 1680, family patriarch Nathaniel Sylvester listed 24 human beings among the many “possessions” in his will. They had contributed greatly to his considerable wealth. New York State did not completely abolish slavery within its borders until 1827. Slaves were never compensated for their suffering or for the work that they did.Skip to next paragraph
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The number of slaves on the island would gradually diminish, and Nathaniel’s tribe, like the Indians, would resort to land sales to make ends meet. Familial continuity on the island, which now stands at 361 years, often was in doubt. But, in the nick of time, a prosperous scion or a well-heeled spouse would appear to save the day, to keep the estate stately and solvent. The most recent example is Eben Fiske Ostby, Andy’s nephew and a co-founder of Pixar. Much of the family land is now in conservation easements and a nonprofit educational farm operation has been established.
The reader should know up front that this journey is not always easy or confined to one small upscale island. This is no breezy survey. The author’s mission is ambitious and she is attentive to telling and even minute details. It encompasses glaciers, the English Civil War, diverse and obscure flora, Barbados, West Africa, Amsterdam, Victorian women’s fashion (one will learn what a farthingale is, or was), and a cast of characters who are sometimes hard to place (the genealogy in the front helps). Her notes alone, in small print, consume 116 pages. There are stretches when one longs for Long Island again.
But this ambitious narrative is well worth it. The multifaceted story – albeit about a house on a small island and the mostly un-famous people who lived there – is not provincial or obscure. It is a transcendent saga about the power of history and place, about who we were as a people, centuries before, and how that identity is part of who we became. As William Faulkner noted, “The past is never dead. It's not even past.”
The author clearly was fond of Alice Fiske who, before she died in 2006, endowed the Fiske Center for Archaeology Research at the University of Massachusetts in memory of her late husband. She was a pleasant, intelligent woman without whom this book would not have been possible.
Her annual Christmas party at the manor was a grand occasion, with guests of all descriptions and walks of life. But they were all white, including the director of the local historical society, whose husband is black and Native American. Alice did not invite him.