Orange County Executive Steven M. Neuhaus is proud to recognize Black History Month, which runs through the month of February.
“Black History Month encourages us to celebrate and honor all black Americans who have played a significant role in the common history of our County,” Neuhaus said. “African-Americans have been important benefactors in the development of Orange County. They have served as leaders and renowned professionals in, among other fields, business, music, dance, and education. We are proud of the many contributions that Black Americans have made to our County’s wonderful history.”
According to Orange County historian Johanna Yaun, Black Americans have had positive impacts on the history of Orange County dating back to the 1600s. In about 1620, Jan Rodriguez, an interpreter for the Dutch West India Company in New Amsterdam (now New York City), began working in Orange and the surrounding counties. Orange County also played an integral role in the Underground Railroad, the route used by slaves to escape to freedom in Canada in the mid-1800s. Safe houses that sheltered escaping slaves have been chronicled in Goshen and in Newburgh.
Approximately 178,000 soldiers of African American descent served in the Civil War on the Union side. Several hundred were from Orange County and received pensions after the war, using these funds to buy small homes and farms here. In 1870, celebrated civil rights activist Frederick Douglass visited Newburgh, toured Washington’s Headquarters, and spoke at the Opera House to urge black men to exercise their newly won franchise rights. The classic autobiography detailing the abuse of young black women bound in slavery, Incidents in The Life of a Slave Girl, was written in Cornwall by Harriet Jacobs who escaped from Maryland and made a new life in Orange County.
Newburgh is the birthplace of James Varick, who founded the AME Zion Church in 1821 and was its first bishop. Orange County also played a role in the early stages of the country’s civil rights movement.