c. Obed Obwoge

Elevating Black Queer Ancestors: An Inside Look

June 7, 2024

Celebrate Pride with Prospect Park Alliance at the Lefferts Historic House on Thursday, June 13, for Elevating Black Queer Ancestors: a meaningful history-packed evening presented through the Alliance’s ReImagine Lefferts initiative. The event will be hosted by Lefferts Historic House ​​Public Programs Manager Riah Kinsey, who brings a colorful background and interest in Black queer history. Learn more about Riah’s work to delve into the histories of Black queer ancestors and get a sneak peak at the stories that will be shared at the event. 

RSVP for Elevating Black Queer Ancestors.

Riah Kinsey pictured outside of Lefferts Historic House in Prospect Park

Riah Kinsey pictured outside of Lefferts Historic House in Prospect Park c. Obed Obwoge

Riah started their journey into the history field through a passion for recovering the stories of marginalized people. While issues of race, gender and sexuality always formed the core of their scholarship, it was not until he began to consider their own identity that the focus of their work truly began to shift to center on Black queer lives.

Their interest in Black queer history was sparked in their university studies of historical archaeology. When tasked with searching through documents in preparation for an upcoming excavation, Kinsey encountered a will that forbade the sale or hire of an enslaved woman by her enslaver’s widow, which ensured her freedom upon the widow’s death.

“I realized that if there are historical documents that speak to the intimate lives and experiences of even the most marginalized inhabitants of the property we were excavating, then there could be documents that do the same for my own ancestors. And if there is this kind of documentation for my biological ancestors, then what about my spiritual ancestors: the Black, queer people who came before me?” Kinsey recalls.

“I quickly found that there is a necessity to think outside the box, both about where to look for information and about how to interpret findings. This need for creativity isn’t due to a comparative lack of information, or even a lack of quality information, but because the current frameworks for research and analysis were never designed to tell our stories.”

This desire to think creatively when tracing Black people’s lives through history, even when there are dead-ends in records, is exactly what interested Kinsey in the Alliance’s ReImagine Lefferts initiative, which seeks to explore the lives, resistance and resilience of the Indigenous people of Lenapehoking, whose unceded ancestral lands Prospect Park and Lefferts House rests upon, and the Africans enslaved by the Lefferts family. Kinsey is excited about instilling in others the range of careers, knowledge and meaning-making that are possible in the field of history, especially through events like Elevating Black Queer Ancestors

In preparation, Kinsey has pulled from a variety of uncommon archives in tracing key figures to highlight and honor. This includes Mary Jones, a Black, trans sex worker and pickpocket in antebellum New York. Mary is one of the first recorded gender non-conforming or transgender persons in America. Her life can be pieced together through newspapers, court records and contemporary tabloid literature, which documents countless arrests and incarcerations, many of which were a direct result of her refusal to present as a man. In one famous police interview, Mary was asked “How do you identify? Why do you dress like this? What is your background?” Kinsey explains that her answer was something along the lines of “I always dress like this amongst people of my own color,” which speaks to the experience of queer people of color finding community with each other at that time.

Pictured above is a source from Kinsey’s research on Mary. “The Man-Monster, Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones &c&c. Sentenced 18th June 1836 to 5 years imprisonment at hard labor at Sing Sing for Grand Larceny. Published by H.R. Robinson.” Image courtesy The Smithsonian Institute. Despite its salacious title, the lithograph portrays Jones as an elegant Black woman.

“The Man-Monster, Peter Sewally, alias Mary Jones &c&c. Sentenced 18th June 1836 to 5 years imprisonment at hard labor at Sing Sing for Grand Larceny. Published by H.R. Robinson.” Image courtesy The Smithsonian Institute. Despite its salacious title, the lithograph portrays Jones as an elegant Black woman.

Many believe that Mary’s life story ends with her infamous 1836 incarceration for pickpocketing. Kinsey however dug deeper to find she was arrested an additional 12 times, and often imprisoned further following these arrests. While extremely tragic for Mary, each arrest created some form of documentation that helps to fill in the gaps of her extraordinary life. 

These findings led Kinsey to ask the question, “Can we use the same methods of research as we did with Mary Jones to learn more about other queer Black people?” Utilizing free-to-use digital archives such as Internet Archive, HathiTrust, and Fulton History, Kinsey used their research experience with Jones to search keywords like effeminate, masculine, dressed in womens clothes, or masquerading as a man, and was amazed at how much there was to find. Through Elevating Queer Ancestors, he hopes to show that there is much, often buried, information to be sifted through to find the beginning threads of many Black queer ancestors’ stories in New York and throughout the world. 

“Whether it’s talking about Mary Jones or uplifting the untold stories of the indigenous Lenape people or the Africans enslaved here in Flatbush, all of the work within the ReImagine Lefferts initiative points back to the question of which stories have been historically neglected and why, and how can we tell them now?” shares Kinsey. “While the work done through the initiative uncovers the names of people enslaved by the Lefferts family, the fact of the matter is that the records were always there, they just needed someone to look for them and interpret them appropriately. The same is true of the as-yet-unknown Black queer residents of early New York.”

Kinsey and the team at ReImagine Lefferts understand that many make the detrimental assumption that records on the histories of Black life and especially Black queer life do not exist. “This is just blatantly untrue. Though many historical archives have been designed to hide or silence a person’s or a group of people’s existence, there are always ways to look deeper and to expand and contextualize stories–which is exactly what the ReImagine Lefferts Initiative aims to do,” reflects Kinsey.

“The dire importance of championing research and building access to marginalized histories is incredibly clear, especially now. When people can see themselves in history, especially young people, that can help expand their hopes and dreams of what is possible in the world,” explained Kinsey, on their goals to develop regular programming on genealogy and historical research. 

It is important to reflect on how far New York and our society have come in striving to secure equality, but also how marginalized people have always worked within our own communities to uplift and support each other, regardless of the oppressive forces at play. “Initiatives like ReImagine Lefferts do just this and more, encouraging us towards a better future for everyone – Black, trans and queer people included.”

RSVP for Elevating Black Queer Ancestors on Thursday, June 13, and learn more about Prospect Park Alliance’s ReImagine Lefferts Initiative.