Historic Ann Oliver House in New Paltz to be turned into black history/cultural center – Daily Freeman

NEW PALTZ, NY — Plans are underway to restore the historic Ann Oliver House, built by 19th-century New Paltz Black carpenter Jacob Wynkoop, to house Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis Black History Research and Cultural Center.

Esi Lewis, an attorney and New Paltz Town Board member, serves as steward of the historic 1885 house at 5 Broadhead Ave., which adjoins a Stewart’s Shop. She estimates it will take $500,000 to restore the structure so it can serve as a black cultural center that houses museum exhibits about black history in the Hudson Valley while also offering mental health services.

“I want to see that happen so people can see black history as American history as opposed to segregation,” Lewis said. “This is the story of the Hudson Valley.”

Lewis added that the home has a great story to tell about an era in the area’s history.

“A lot of black people wouldn’t have been able to have a home,” she said. “For a black woman to have a house built by a black man is wonderful.”

A native of New Paltz, Lewis is the daughter of the late Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, who co-founded the Black Studies Department at SUNY New Paltz. Lewis said the house fell on hard times over the years and was almost torn down.

“It hasn’t been inhabited for a while, except for squatters, and property maintenance hasn’t been done,” she said. That said, she noted that while the building is currently posted, the building inspector went through and gave it a structurally sound bill of health.

Lewis has already begun making improvements to the property. She pointed to a flower box built by her fourth-grade teacher that sits outside on the lawn next to the home. The garden has flowers donated by Wallkill Valley Farm.

The project is also receiving pro-bono architectural drawings from Bolder Architecture, while Ulster Savings Bank also provided a seed grant.

Lewis shared the story of Ann Oliver and Jacob Wynkoop. Wynkoop was born free in 1829 to Thomas and Jane Deyo Wynkoop, who were formerly slaves. His older brother, born in 1827, was not under New York’s emancipation laws.

“People don’t understand how the economy is racist,” she said. Lewis said slavery benefited the white community economically in New Paltz, in New York, across the fledgling United States and around the world, so it provided plenty of incentive to keep it going.

Wynkoop would go on to serve in the American Civil War alongside Ann Oliver’s husband, Richard Oliver. Oliver and Wynkoop would both survive the bloodiest war in American history, but Oliver would die on the way home after contracting malaria, leaving Ann a widow, Lewis said.

“Jacob was one of the first black men in New Paltz to vote,” she said, adding that his mother bought property to allow him to vote. Equal voting laws at this time in the 19th century still required black men to own property to vote, a requirement she noted had been removed for white men years earlier.

“The fact that she was able to buy land is remarkable,” she said. Jacob lived on Mulberry Street, she added.

In 1885, Jacob Wynkoop, by then a well-established carpenter, built the house for Oliver. His work has unique elements, Lewis said as she pointed to a signature round semicircular window in the house’s street-facing gable. This feature is also present in the Wynkoop-built home that forms part of Deyo Hall on Historic Huguenot Street.

She noted how a more modern addition in Deyo Hall sought to emulate Wynkoop’s style.

Wynkoop continued to work as a carpenter into his 70s and lived into his 80s. He is buried in the Ulster County Veterans Cemetery.

Wynkoop got his start building a parsonage for the long-gone New Paltz African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. The church was the center of New Paltz’s black community in the years following the Civil War.

Unfortunately, the church would burn three times, and the fires were anything but random, Lewis said. She noted that these actions terrorized and traumatized New Paltz’s small but resilient black community and contributed in no small part to nearly all leaving to seek jobs elsewhere such as Poughkeepsie.

Lewis said fears of racial terror are far from vestiges of a bygone era, and such fears were very much on her mind when she helped organize New Paltz’s Juneteenth celebration last month. She noted that she worked with city Police Chief Robert Lucchesi to ensure there was a “presence” to guard against potential acts of violence targeting the events.

Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers brought news of freedom to enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas, two months after the Confederate surrender in the American Civil War. This happened about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the South.

Today, the legacy of the 19th century community lives on through a small collection of just over half a dozen surviving homes built by Wynkoop.

“There are seven houses created for black people who survived, and the fact that this will be owned and operated by black people is important,” Lewis said.

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