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Shelter Island exhibit honors emancipated slaves, American Indians

Julia Dyd Johnson who worked for Samual Smith

Julia Dyd Johnson who worked for Samual Smith Gardiner, lord of Sylevester Manor, and became a landowner herself. Credit: Shelter Island Historical Society

The Shelter Island Historical Society is opening an exhibit to honor emancipated slaves and American Indians who lived on the island from 1827 to the modern day.

"Race and Ethnicity," opens Monday in the last week of Black History Month. It was originally titled "Black History," but was renamed to embrace the American Indian presence, officials said.

"Many people think that Indians had disappeared by this time [after 1827], but prejudice and intermarriage played a part," said Nancy Jaicks, a retired New York University history professor and researcher.

In 1790, almost a quarter of Shelter Island's population was black, and half of them were slaves, according to U.S. Census data. In the 18th century, American Indians were often categorized with African-Americans, which prevented historians such as Jaicks from recovering accurate statistics for the American Indian population, she said. "In the days before DNA, people disappeared because of lack of ability to see beyond a dark face," Jaicks said.

The display will showcase about 100 photos, letters and other historical documents that belonged to emancipated slaves. The documents will be available for viewing in the parlor of the Havens House, a historical society-owned building that acts as Shelter Island's only museum, until March 22.

Among the items in the exhibit are the indenture contract of a 5-year-old boy and his brother.

Many Shelter Island residents are descendants of the original settlers; 17 of them were interviewed and incorporated into the exhibit, said Nanette Lawrenson, executive director of the historical society.

"Those of us who live on Shelter Island are very passionate about Shelter Island's history," she said. "We also want to celebrate the fact that many of the enslaved went on to be successful property owners."

Lawrenson and the historical society's board of trustees collaborated with historians, Sylvester Manor (a historical educational farm), and the Shelter Island school district to organize the display.

Jaicks is scheduled to lecture at the exhibit on Saturday, when she will speak of the "forgotten heroes of our island," such as brothers James Madison and Henry Hempstead, who voluntarily served with African-American troops in the Civil War.


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