Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

Peekskill Herald

The legacy of these African Americans won’t be found in a book

They were told they were emancipated by white people; but really, “We emancipated ourselves”
Joseph Squillante
Left to right: Ernestine Martin-Wyatt (Harriet Tubman descendant); Kevin Douglass Greene (Frederick Douglass descendant); James Taylor and Ellie Moshier (related to John Jacob “Rifle Jack” Peterson descendants); Wilamina Green Brown and Gerald Brown (Hawley & Harriet Green descendants)

Families pass on stories as a way to preserve their personal history and if they’re lucky, more than a few generations benefit from the information. For six African Americans, the stories their families tell have become etched into the narrative of Peekskill’s connection to the Underground Railroad and other historical events.  

During a panel discussion at Peekskill’s Central Firehouse on May 11, descendants of Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Hawley & Harriet Green, and John Jacob “Rifle Jack” Peterson spoke about what they learned through the storytelling about their ancestors. 

“Talk to your relatives,” said Ernestine Martin-Wyatt, a great, great, great grandniece of Harriet Tubman. “When an older relative tells me a story, something is triggered inside me to want to know more. I want the next generation to be proud of what they did.” 

The event, sponsored by Sisters in Support and the City of Peekskill, and presented by the Peekskill Business Improvement District, saw some 50 members of the public listen to ‘family’ stories about illustrious names from the Revolutionary and Civil War eras.

“Harriet Tubman was a freedom fighter. Her dad taught her about reading the environment and her mother taught her about roots and plants. She had seizures from being hit in the head. She understood herself well but wasn’t able to read and write. She dictated a book and always gave glory to God. People always heard her singing, others thought her to not be intelligent.   

“Harriet knew how to disguise herself so she was hiding in plain sight. She was a strategist and an analyzer. She wanted to be remembered as a woman of God, faith and love,” recalled Martin-Wyatt.

Ernestine Martin-Wyatt, descendent of Harriet Tubman. (Photo credit: Joseph Squillante)

Martin-Wyatt said that unlike the mural on the building that houses Fern Tree, on North Division Street, Harriet wouldn’t have been carrying a lantern because that would have drawn attention to what she was doing, guiding people to freedom. “Her story is large and looking at the statue of her [at the intersection of Central Avenue and N. Division Street] reveals how her life symbolizes illumination and inspiration,” said Martin-Wyatt.

Photo by Chloe Trieff

Kevin Douglass Greene grew up in California where people didn’t know his blood connection to the great Abolitionist. He’s the great, great grandson of Frederick and Anna Douglass. Greene, who was born in Paris into an Army family and raised in California, didn’t have to grow up as a Douglass as did his mother who lived in Washington DC.

Kevin Douglass Green, descendant of Frederick Douglass. (Photo credit: Joseph Squillante)

You gotta figure out where you have to fit into the puzzle.

— Kevin Douglass Green

“It was a privilege, an honor and a heavy load to grow up as a Douglass,” he explained. “I was raised away from the mystique of my ancestor. We were raised to be ourselves.” It wasn’t until they figured out, “How do we present ourselves or live in a way that it benefits others?” that it became known who his relative was. “People come to see me because I’m a descendant of Frederic Douglass. I had to learn more about my family and I had to bring something beneficial to the table.” 

Greene noted that the challenges in living up to a historic legacy: “You gotta figure out where you have to fit into the puzzle.” He told the audience how he has five children that he’s homeschooled and they know their lineage and they can grow into it. “The suit can be heavy and overwhelming. You don’t wear that suit until it’s ready to fit.” 

Greene also talked about the three branches of the Douglass Legacy carried out by his relatives. The first is Family Initiatives based in Rochester, NY, run by Douglass descendant Kenneth Morris. Family Initiatives advocates against modern day slavery (sexual trafficking) and combats racism. The second initiative is headquartered in Easton, MD run by Terrance Bailey. Operation Frederick Douglass on the Hill, is a nonprofit serving the community of Talbot County, Maryland. Greene, who has a full-time job with the department of Veterans Affairs and five children, travels and gives presentations like the one he did for Peekskill residents. 

Wilamina Green Brown is a sixth generation descendant of Harriet Green, an Oneida woman, who had 36 property transactions in Peekskill between 1827 and 1865. Harriet was married to Hawley who owned a barbershop on N. Division Street, not too far from where the statue of Harriet Tubman is now. The front of the shop was a drugstore and Hawley’s barbershop was accessed through the rear by an alley. “It was alongside the [McGregory] creek, before it was covered over.”

Wilamina Green Brown, descendant of Harriet Green. (Photo credit: Joseph Squillante)

Green Brown and her son Gerald, have copies of deeds of property that Harriet owned. “No one believed us but we have something to show. There were people of color here, owning property and running safe houses.The abolitionist movement was strong here. The Green’s owned a house at 1112 Main Street that is still standing.

Gerald Brown, descendant of Harriet Green. (Photo credit: Joseph Squillante).

Two of the panelists live in the Peekskill area and shared the story of John Jacob “Rifle Jack” Peterson who played a role in the American defeat of British troops. Ellie Moshier and James Taylor married into the Moshier family and its matriarch, Kay Moshier was very interested in ancestors and traveled all around the area researching genealogy.

Ellie Moshier, married to a descendant of John Jacob “Rifle Jack” Peterson. (Photo credit: Joseph Squillante)

Through Kay Moshier’s investigation, she learned the story of Peterson who fought for the Americans at Saratoga, where he was shot.

James Taylor, married to a descendant of John Jacob “Rifle Jack” Peterson. (Photo credit: Joseph Squillante)

Peterson was recognized by Pierre Van Cortlandt for his time in the American army. After spending three years in the military, he got a job working on a farm at Tellers Point (Croton) in September 1780. He saw a British ship, The Vulture, approaching. He hid in the bushes and being a marksman shot at the boarding party that was coming from the British ship. 

Continue to search for your ancestors, because they are a source of your pride,” said Ernestine Martin Wyatt. 

The panel was moderated by Professor William Sales Jr., a Peekskill resident who is the former chairperson of the Department of African American Studies at Seton Hall University.

Professor William Sales. (Photo credit: Joseph Squillante)

“We build a community, a beloved community, with a program like this today. This is the never ending task in the African tradition, the ancestors never die. This is not just a commemoration, it’s a marching order, to tell the stories”, said Sales.

About the Contributor
Regina Clarkin
Regina Clarkin, Editor and Publisher
When the Peekskill Herald weekly newspaper ceased publishing in August 2000 it was the first time in the history of the city that there wasn’t a local newspaper.  The award-winning weekly was often referred to as the ‘glue’ of the community. Founded on January 9, 1986 by Regina Clarkin, Kathy Daley and Rich Zahradnik with a $7,000 credit card line, the paper filled the void created when the daily Evening Star was sold to Gannett and moved out of town. Founding publisher Regina Clarkin continued to live in the Peekskill Cortlandt area and turned her attention to other life endeavors.  Through the ensuing 19 years, Clarkin was frequently stopped in town and asked when she would start up the Herald again. In January 2019, Clarkin decided it was less labor intensive to deliver a weekly blog than a print newspaper so she began posting one story a week about life in Peekskill. After a successful crowd funding campaign in 2020, the Herald was incorporated as a non-profit corporation in July of 2021. Peekskill Herald is a digital relative of the former print edition, featuring many of the favorite aspects of the beloved Peekskill Herald such as old pictures, personality profiles and well written stories about newsworthy events. Regina Clarkin is the editor and publisher of the site. Photo by Joe Squillante