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Another History is Possible

Alyssa Goldstein
October 18, 2012

[caption id=“attachment_12523” align=“alignright” width=“406”] The view from Montgomery Place. Photo by the author[/caption]
by Alyssa Goldstein
I recently watched the documentary Monumental Myths, in which filmmaker Tom Triney rides across the country to visit different historical monuments and examines what kind of stories they tell. Overwhelmingly, they are the stories of (surprise!) white people, often to the denigration of American Indians and Black people. It’s worth a watch, but if you don’t want to sit through the whole 45 minutes, skip to the end when Triney visits Mount Rushmore. The type of reactions he gets when he brings up designer Gutzon Borglum’s membership in the KKK are astonishing.
The film reminded me of a historic site very close to where I went to college: the Montgomery Place Historic Estate. I would often visit there to look at the beautiful view of the Hudson river off its back porch or to eat the apples from the ancient trees in the parking lot. However, though every brochure and website I’ve seen about Montgomery Place proudly mentions that it was designed by the celebrated architect Andrew Jackson Davis, none of them include the fact that the building was constructed by slaves. The brochures available at the site paint a rosy picture of Hudson valley estate life, with only a passing mention that “both free and enslaved labor” was used to maintain the estate. Montgomery Place’s wikipedia page is unintentionally ironic when it states that Janet Livingston Montgomery “established a working farm on the property, employing many slaves and freemen” [emphasis added]. (She was a job creator! A job creator for slaves.)
As Howard Zinn says in the documentary, we can’t change history, but the past continues to affect us. How we portray it speaks volumes about what we value in the present. If the educational materials at a historic site can’t be bothered to delve into the fact that the site itself would not even have existed without the labor of enslaved black people, that is racist. Yes, being forced to think about how human beings were held as property--not just in the Evil Bigoted South but in New York--will disrupt the lovely sightseeing and make people feel bad. Uncomfortable. Hopefully angry.
There is a different history to be told, for Montgomery Place and for countless other sites in America. Instead of reciting the succession of the house’s wealthy white owners, we can turn our attention instead to the enslaved people who those same wealthy white owners forced to work for them. What were their lives like? Perhaps their names are recorded somewhere. Perhaps their descendants still live in the area. Their stories should be central, not the stories of the people who oppressed them. Another history is possible, and it’s time we demanded it.