GOSHEN – February is Black History Month and Orange County Executive Steven Neuhaus said it is a time to “celebrate and honor all black Americans who have played a significant role in the common history of our County.” He noted 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 County Historian Johanna Yaun, Black Americans have had positive impacts on the history of the 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. The 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. The NAACP was founded in 1909 and that same year a chapter was formed in Middletown.
“Black History Month is a time to celebrate and recognize the many contributions African Americans have made to our country and our county,” said Inaudy Esposito, the county’s executive director of Human Rights. “This month asks us to honor the exceptional roles that many black individuals have played in paving the way and fearlessly fighting for justice and equality for all. The commission is grateful to those who came before us and to those who continue to lead the way today.”
Some prominent African Americans that made an impact in Orange County in the 20th century include:
- Frederica Warner, a prominent community activist, founded Meals on Wheels of Greater Newburgh in 1972. Warner died in 2019 at the age of 101.
- Harvey Burger of Newburgh became the first African American elected to the Orange County Legislature, according to Town of Warwick Historian Dr. Richard Hull.
- In 1991, Hull noted, Audrey Carey became Newburgh’s first Black Mayor and the first Black woman mayor of any city in New York State.
- Jim Moss became one of the first African American publishers of a general-circulation daily newspaper.
- In World War I, Corporal George Washington Jackson of Goshen was a key member of a regiment that was awarded the prestigious French Croix de Guerre for distinguished service.
“Black Americans have played a critical and prominent role in the history of Orange County, and I am proud and grateful to recognize their contributions and achievements,” Neuhaus said.