NEW PALTZ, NY – Plans are underway to restore the historic Ann Oliver House, built by New Paltz Black carpenter Jacob Wynkoop in the 19th century to house Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis Black History Research and Cultural Center.
Esi Lewis, attorney and board member of New Paltz Town, serves as custodian of the historic 1885 home at 5 Broadhead Ave. next to a Stewart’s shop. She estimates that it would cost $500,000 to restore the structure, which serves as a black cultural center and houses museum exhibits on Hudson Valley black history while also providing psychiatric services.
“I want it to happen so people can see black history as American history, rather than separate,” Lewis said. “This is the story of the Hudson Valley.”
Lewis added that the house has an amazing story to tell about an era in the area’s history.
“A lot of black people couldn’t have had a home,” she said. “It’s wonderful for a black woman to have a black man build a house.”
Lewis hails from New Paltz and is the daughter of the late Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, who helped found the Black Studies Department at SUNY New Paltz. Lewis said the house has fallen on hard times over the years and was nearly demolished.
“It has not been occupied for some time, other than by squatters, and no maintenance has been carried out on the property,” she said. That said, she noted, while the building is currently booked, the building inspector went through and gave it a structurally clean bill of health.
Lewis has already begun making improvements to the property. She pointed to a flower box her fourth grade teacher had built that was outside on the lawn by the house. The garden is adorned with flowers donated by Wallkill Valley Farm.
The project also received honorary architectural drawings from Bolder Architecture, while the Ulster Savings Bank also provided a starter grant.
Lewis narrated the story of Ann Oliver and Jacob Wynkoop. Wynkoop was born free in 1829 to Thomas and Jane Deyo Wynkoop, formerly enslaved. His older brother, born in 1827, was not subject to the New York Emancipation Acts.
“People don’t realize how racist the economy is,” she said. Lewis said the practice of slavery had economically benefited the white community in New Paltz, in New York, in the young United States and around the world, giving a great incentive to keep it going.
Wynkoop would continue to serve in the US Civil War alongside Ann Oliver’s husband, Richard Oliver. Oliver and Wynkoop would both survive the bloodiest war in US 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 enable him to vote. Unequal electoral laws at this time in the 19th century still required black men to own property in order to vote, a requirement they had abolished for white men years earlier.
“The fact that she was able to buy land is remarkable,” she said. Jacob lives on Mulberry Street, she added.
In 1885 Jacob Wynkoop, then an established carpenter, built the house for Oliver. His work has unique elements, Lewis said as she pointed out a distinctive round semicircular window in the gable of the house overlooking the street. This feature is also present in the Wynkoop-built house which forms part of Deyo Hall on Historic Huguenot Street.
She noticed how a more modern addition to Deyo Hall attempted to emulate Wynkoop’s style.
Wynkoop worked as a carpenter until he was 70 and lived into his 80s. He is buried in Ulster County Veterans Cemetery.
Wynkoop began building a vicarage for the long-defunct 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 burned three times, with the fires being far from accidental, Lewis said. She noted that these acts terrorized and traumatized New Paltz’s small but resilient black community, contributing in no small measure to nearly all leaving to seek work elsewhere like Poughkeepsie.
Lewis said fears of racial terror are far from being remnants of a bygone era, and such fears were very much on her mind when she helped organize New Paltz’s June 16 celebrations last month. She noted that she worked with the city’s police chief, Robert Lucchesi, to ensure there was a “presence” to protect against potential acts of violence targeting the events.
Juneteenth commemorates June 19, 1865, when Union soldiers broke news of freedom to enslaved blacks in Galveston, Texas, two months after the Confederacy’s surrender in the American Civil War. This happened about 2 1/2 years after the Emancipation Proclamation liberated slaves in the southern states.
Today, the legacy of this 19th-century community lives on through a small collection of just over half a dozen surviving homes built by Wynkoop.
“There are seven houses that were built for black people that have survived, and the fact that this house will be owned and operated by black people is significant,” Lewis said.