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 the Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis Black History Research and Cultural Center.
Esi Lewis, a lawyer and New Paltz Town board member, is the steward of the historic 1885 home located at 5 Broadhead Ave., next to a Stewart’s Shop. She estimates $500,000 would be needed to restore the structure to serve as a black cultural center housing museum exhibits on black history in the Hudson Valley while providing mental health services.
“I want this 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 incredible story to tell about a time in the region’s history.
“A lot of black people couldn’t have had a home,” she said. “For a black woman to have a house built by a black man is wonderful.”
A New Paltz native, Lewis is the daughter of the late Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis, who helped found the Black Studies department at SUNY New Paltz. Lewis said that over the years the house had fallen on hard times and was nearly torn down.
“It hasn’t been inhabited for some time, except for squatters, and maintenance of the property has not been done,” she said. That said, she noted as the building is currently displayed, the building inspector came by and gave it a structurally clean bill of health.
Lewis has already started 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 house. The garden is adorned with flowers donated by Wallkill Valley Farm.
The project is also receiving pro bono architectural drawings from Bolder Architecture, while the Ulster Savings Bank has also provided a start-up 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 once enslaved. His older brother, born in 1827, was not subject to New York’s emancipation laws.
“People don’t realize how racist the economy is,” she said. Lewis said the practice of slavery economically benefited the white community of New Paltz, New York, across the nascent United States, and around the world, providing many with an incentive to maintain it.
Wynkoop would go on to serve in the American Civil War alongside Ann Oliver’s husband, Richard Oliver. Both Oliver and Wynkoop would 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 her mother had purchased property for her to vote. Unequal election laws at that time in the 19th century still required black men to own property in order to vote, a requirement she said 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, then a well-established carpenter, built the house for Oliver. There are unique elements to his work, Lewis said, pointing out a round semicircular window in the gable of the house facing the street. This feature is also present in the house built by Wynkoop which is part of Deyo Hall on Historic Huguenot Street.
She noted how a more modern addition to 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 Ulster County Veterans Cemetery.
Wynkoop began building a rectory for the long-defunct New Paltz African Methodist Episcopal Church. The church was the center of the black community of New Paltz in the years following the Civil War.
Sadly, the church would burn down three times, with the fires all but accidental, Lewis said. She noted that these acts terrorized and traumatized New Paltz’s small but resilient black community and were a big part of almost everyone leaving to seek employment elsewhere like Poughkeepsie.
Lewis said fears of racial terror are far from relics of a bygone era and such fears were very much on her mind when she helped organize the June 19 celebration in New Paltz last month. . She noted that she had 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 announced freedom to enslaved black people in Galveston, Texas, two months after the surrender of the Confederacy in the American Civil War. This happened about 2½ years after the Emancipation Proclamation freed 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 homes built by Wynkoop.
“There are seven houses created for black people that have survived and the fact that this one is black owned and operated is significant,” Lewis said.