Reimagining a Historic House: A Community Conversation - Prospect Park Alliance
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c. Elizabeth Keegin Colley

Reimagining a Historic House: A Community Conversation

October 12, 2021

Prospect Park Alliance hosted a Community Conversation with Meredith Sorin-Horsford, Director of the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum, as part of its Re-Imagine Lefferts Historic House initiative to re-envision the mission and programming of this historic house museum while it undergoes restoration, recognize the role the house played as a site of slavery, and tell the stories of enslaved Africans and Native Americans who lived and worked the land.

In the lead up to the event, we asked Meredith a few questions about Dyckman DISCOVERED and her team's approach to sensitive historical research.

Can you tell us a bit about your Dyckman DISCOVERED  Initiative?
The Dyckman DISCOVERED initiative investigates the stories of the enslaved and free people that lived and worked on the Dyckman Farm and the community that is now called Inwood in Upper Manhattan. This initiative brings an inclusive history to the community, fosters a sense of transparency and, we hope, engages visitors who have not seen themselves represented in the current narrative.

Where did you find information about the enslaved Africans and others who lived and worked the land apart from the Dyckman family?
We utilized the Dyckman papers at the New-York Historical Society as well as runaway slave ads, bills of sale and papers that relate to families that the Dyckmans did business with.

If you don't have a lot of information about an enslaved person who lived in the house, how do you give visitors a sense of their lives?
Every piece of information that we find gives us an inkling into their lives, the languages they spoke, the skills they possessed, the food they ate, the spaces they would have occupied, etc. Additionally, information about the lives of enslaved people in the region might also help us to learn more about their lives.

How did you engage your community in your project?
We held community conversations during which we talked about the research that we found and used that as an opportunity to find out more from our neighbors about what they would like to learn more about. We have also held numerous public programs that relate to the Dyckman DISCOVERED initiative, including a lecture series and site-specific contemporary art installations.

Why is it important to preserve authentic and meaningful documents, artifacts, images, stories and places?
Authentic historic documents, images, stories, and places are so important to preserve because they tell us where we have been and how we ended up where we are now. Utilizing historic artifacts and stories are also a great way to engage our present-day community in conversation about the past and how it is connected with the present.

What kinds of programs help participants to see how their experiences in life are related to the interpretation of slavery?
I think that our lecture series, Talking About Race Matters: Join the Conversation, illustrates this best. This series, which we have hosted three times since August 2020, features professionals in the fields of history, archeology, anthropology, Africana and Latinx studies, women and gender studies, music and dance to talk about race from different perspectives. Through these community conversations, attendees are able to learn about, discuss, and ask questions about how the institution of slavery has shaped the history of this nation and the evolution of who and where we are today.

For those who couldn’t make it to the community conversation, the Alliance created a form where you can respond to the questions that were raised to our audience, and we encourage you to share your feedback. We do plan future community conversations in the coming months, and hope that you can join this continued dialogue.

The restoration of Lefferts Historic House is made possible through $2.5 million in funding from the Brooklyn Delegation of the New York City Council, and includes replacing the roof, restoring the exterior of the building, and repairing paths and drainage surrounding the house. The restoration is currently underway, and slated to be completed in 2022.

Learn more about Lefferts Historic House.