Rye is celebrating its 350th anniversary this year. Historically rich, as the home of John Jay, a “Tenacious” population of African American survivors and Gilded Age railroad commuters, the Knapp House and the Square House are leading the celebration. With a series of events, the Rye Historical Society will capture the past and “Light” up the summer for its attentive residents.
Built in 1663, the Knapp House is featuring a running exhibition called “Tenacity,” which highlights 350 years of African Americans in Rye. The first evidence of a slave transaction took place when Rye’s John Ogden sold “Antony” to a RichardFloyd of Brookhaven. That allows us to initiate the discussion of slavery in Rye, says the Knapp House’s Richard Hourihan, archivist of the Rye Historical Society.
At the center, Rye is John Jay - 1st Chief Justice to the Supreme Court and governor of New York. He signed the gradual emancipation act of 1799, says Mr. Hourihan, and was the president of the New York Manumission Society, but as is to be expected, delving deeper into the history is less clear-cut, he adds.
“It’s problematic,” he says when taking into account the reality of the time. New York was still an agrarian society and removing the economic system wasn’t so easy for the very people who were also arguing against it. Including John Jay, says Mr. Hourihan, “Many prominent slave owners were members of the New York Manumission Society.”
On the other hand, the area was certainly home to those who rose above the conflict of interests that were prevalent. For example, just prior to state abolition in 1837, a fugitive slave named Peter John Lee was abducted in Rye and extradited back to his owner as stolen property. “It was a cause celebre and the people in Rye were outraged,” he says.
The same kind of split personality accompanies the exhibition’s discussion of Amos Williams – member of the 131st U.S. Colored Regiment. Exhibiting newspaper accounts from 1888, much flag waving went along with erecting Rye’s Civil War Cemetery (even though many rich residents were able to purchase their way out of conscription). Unmentioned are Williams and other African Americans who fought in the war, as they are segregated to the adjoining cemetery. “That’s why the exhibit is called tenacity,” he says.
Otherwise, civil war was not new to Rye because the Revolution, in a sense, can be seen as one, and the same sort of everyday reality applies. Put yourself in their place, he says, because it often came down to which side do you think is going to win.
Additionally, since New York was under British control for the duration, the people of Rye had to be attuned to this proximityin making a stand. Nonetheless, standing out among the aristocracy was John Jay. “Most landed people sided with the incumbent government but Jay was different,” says Mr. Hourihan.
Ebenezer Haviland of the Square House also took a risky and principled stand, which gives the Historical Society a nice segway to put an actual Revolutionary militia on the field at Rye Town Park on June 26th. “The Militia is called the Sheldon’s Light Horse Dragoons and they’ve been considered an active militia since the Revolution, says Rye Historical Society President, Sheri Jordan.
Regardless, they’ll leave the muskets unloaded, while reenacting local battles, producing real musket balls and demonstrating the equestrian maneuvers that preceded military engagement. There’s a process to getting the horses to fall into formation and then executing a charge, she says.
There will also be colonial music, uniform making and an old fashioned clam bake on June 25th at Oakland Beach, but Mr. Hourihan feels it’s important to recognize Rye’s own revolution for independence in the 20th century. The formation of the village in 1904 and later the city in 1942 gave the area a sense of identity beyond just being a gilded age country escape for the rich.
In other words, Rye’s experiment in self-government begins. “People really start getting involved in politics - what the city looks like, how it should expand and where tax dollars should be spent, he says. For example, in 1928, Rye took advantage of that new found independent spirit to maneuver through the political waters required to create Playland (below).
Keeping in the spirit of activism, The Square House is giving students the chance to document history as it unfolds now with the “Day in the Life” exhibit and competition. Possibly inspired by the early 20th Century bathing beauties below, Rye High School students taking part might document the vast differences in a day at the beach today.
The winners will go into the historical record itself. “The photos will become part of the archives,” says Ms. Jordan. That leaves Rye at a place in which the continuing record of its historical contributions will not die with this generation and a foundation is set for the succeeding ones.