Even 2,000 years later it’s not easy to be named Pilate and God help you if your first name is Pontius. Names can become symbols, and when the association is dark, there is a price to pay. In New Paltz, in Ulster County in New York State where I grew up, historical research on black history has been bringing to light the grim reality for blacks that occurred periodically in and around New Paltz. The university there, SUNY New Paltz, has, for many years, had buildings on campus that were named for New Paltz’s founding families and it has confirmed that some of these families held slaves and in some cases abused them. The university recently voted to remove names associated with these findings.
Slavery was part of the economic and social structure of the town into the early 19th century and while abhorrent today, was accepted then. It was also astoundingly cruel. Slaves’ lives were briefer and their legal protections as chattel property, close to non-existent. Their standing seems to have rested on their utility and cash value.
So the names of New Paltz’s founding families will come down. That’s been decided and there are some lessons to be learned.
There is no statute of limitations for racial cruelty and little or no consideration given to the morally upright behavior of the ten generations of descendants that have since lived and died in the New Paltz area. Their family names too are coming down. But, as the names on the buildings derive from those of the original founders and not their heirs, their connections too will be swept away.
I will not think less of the many people I grew up with in New Paltz in the 1950s and ‘60s who were solid then and remain upstanding today. What happened there 200 hundred years ago was terrible as it was across many of the states in that era. But what should come of this is reconciliation, perhaps a public reconciliation of sermons and gospels that, for a few hours, would let both sides see that those on the other, perhaps except for their color, are just as human and open to reconciliation as they are.