When you think of African-American heritage, upstate New York is not the first place that comes to mind. While many larger farms in our region had slaves (including William Beekman’s,) they numbered far fewer than in the South or in early American urban centers.
So how did our region become home to the very first truly African-American holiday?
Ironically, it’s because we had so few African-Americans.
While slavery in the northern states may not have been as brutal as it was in the south, the life of a northern slave was still oppressive and bleak. Because of the harsher climate and fewer number of slaves per household, most slaves lived right in the homes of their owners, typically in attics or basements. Some local lore claims that a set of chains in the Beekman basement was used to chain slaves. However other stories speak of William Beekman’s benevolence towards his slaves.
Because northern slaves were fewer and farther apart they rarely encountered other Africans, and so didn’t have a chance form their own cultural identity as they did in the South. With one notable exception: the weeklong holiday they named “Pinkster.”
Pinkster derives its name from Pinksteren – the Dutch word for Pentecost. Pentecost is a Christian holiday that falls seven weeks after Easter. Dutch families, like William Beekman’s, celebrated Pinksteren with typical springtime festivities.
But more interestingly, Dutch slave owners around upstate New York temporarily “freed” their slaves during Pinkster, allowing them to travel to central locations and gather with other African Americans. One of the biggest Pinkster gathering places was Albany, NY. Arriving in small groups over several days, the “freed” slaves built African-styled structures in the parks, and formed their own temporary society. They brought handmade goods to barter and sell, danced to African drumming, and capped the week off with a large parade. It was truly a spectacle, with reports of white citizens gathering to watch and sometimes take part in the colorful and noisy festivities. The gathering was especially important to those slaves born in Africa as a chance to preserve and impart their African heritage to newer slaves born in North America.
The highlight of the Pinkster festival was the crowning of the Pinkster King, who ruled over the week’s festivities. It was a rare chance to honor respected members of the black community. Like Boxing Day in England, the festival represented an almost satirical inversion of the social order. African Americans elected their own royalty, and mimicked (and mocked) the customs and fashions of their white owners.
One King in particular was very renowned, and was re-elected every year between 1790-1810 – the height of Pinkster celebration’s popularity. His name, according to a lengthy poem called “The Pinkster Ode,” was Charles. He allegedly descended from Congolese royalty, and was a master drummer.
Pinkster celebrations had mostly disappeared by 1850, a result of the gradual abolition of slavery in New York State and the ascendance of English immigrants, who viewed the Dutch and their traditions as boorish and backwards.
We don’t know much about Beekman 1802 Farm’s slave history. We hope that William Beekman allowed his slaves to travel to Albany for Pinkster since the farm was built during the height of its popularity. But regardless of our farm’s history, we’re proud that our central New York region can lay claim to America’s first truly African-American holiday.