Commemorating Enslaved Africans in Irvington Through Public Art

by The Irvington Historical Society

Commemorate, a group of local advocates, was founded in March 2018 to commemorate the enslaved Africans who lived and labored in what is now known as Irvington. A primary goal of the group is to foster civic engagement to reveal the history and to honor the humanity, resilience, and contributions of these enslaved people. And, through ongoing education, they hope to promote community activism to dismantle the economic and social legacies of enslavement.

For four years, Commemorate Co-Chairs Cathy Sears, a journalist and researcher, and Sarah Cox, an educator at Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, studied how slavery shaped Irvington.  They examined estate inventories, court records, wills and other historical records of the founding families who enslaved women, men and children of African descent. “In 1790, one out of every four households in Greenburgh Township enslaved people.  Among the 13 families in Irvington, the number jumped to one out of every two households.” Sears further notes, “some of our founding families enslaved four to ten people.”  Sears and Cox wrote a journal article, “Our Town and Slavery” for the Irvington Historical Society’s “Roost” and gave presentations of their findings to standing room only crowds at the Irvington Public Library and the Irvington Presbyterian Church.

See the Zoom Presentation of “Our Town & Slavery: Irvington, NY

Commemorate is proud to announce that Irvington, New York, is on the cusp of becoming a destination for visitors to contemplate a memorial garden marking the putative site of a newly rediscovered African burial ground and to engage with celebrated artwork honoring the legacy of enslaved Africans who helped build this historic village. “Mark your calendars for the June 18th, 2022 groundbreaking” says Cox, “Vinnie Bagwell’s public art will join the pantheon of Irvington’s historic monuments in a place of honor on Main Street.” Main Street is where Irvington proudly displays its historical monuments, such as the war memorials and the Rip Van Winkle statue. “The prominent placement of this monument to these enslaved Africans is critical in order to serve as a contextual and educational counterpoint to the existing display of Irvington founders’ Eurocentric storytelling,” adds Cox.

Sarah Cox eloquently explains the importance of using art to tell this story.

Vinnie Bagwell, a renowned Yonkers-based artist whose sculptures are found throughout the United States, is dedicated to promoting community engagement through her public art. Bagwell is a leading artist, activist and educator who has won prestigious commissions all over the country bringing to light this important part of our collective history. Her figurative art expresses humanity and thus invites a visceral connection between the viewer and this important subject. Vinnie Bagwell’s epic Enslaved Africans Rain Garden is set to open in Yonkers in 2022.

Village Trustee Arlene Burgos notes, “A second tribute—a memorial garden, benches, and plaque by the Hudson River—will honor the area where an enslaved African burial ground was once located. This hallowed land will serve as a serene place of mourning and reflection for these people and their families.” Sears and Cox rediscovered  this enslaved African burial ground through their in-depth review of historical maps and vintage Irvington Gazettes from the 1920s and 1930s–during the time that Barney Park was being developed. Last June, the Irvington Village Trustees approved a Commemorate proposal to create an enslaved African burial ground memorial garden on  village-owned property alongside Barney Brook on South Buckhout Street.

Bagwell unveiled the proposed design for the sculpture she will create for the Commemorating Enslaved Africans in Irvington Memorial Project at Irvington’s 2021 Juneteenth Celebration at Main Street School. Since many of the enslaved were youth, Bagwell imagines a bronze bas-relief sculpture (36 inches wide and 33 inches high) that features a pensive African girl.  An image of enslaved Africans toiling at agricultural work rises off her garment to expand the narrative. Bagwell explains that, “The title, Yesterday, evokes the notion that while slavery ended 200 years ago, the myriad legacies of slavery persist and are as close to the present moment as yesterday.” The bronze bas relief will be affixed to a beveled black granite slab (57 inches wide and 48 inches high). A bronze descriptive plaque will also be included on the brick wall just below the sculpture.

Civic engagement, education, and student-led tours are also key parts of the proposal that Commemorate made to the Irvington Union Free School District (IUFSD) and the Board of Education. Commemorate is thankful that the Irvington Board of Education and the school district unanimously approved the proposal for Vinnie Bagwell’s commemorative art and a plaque to be located on Main Street School grounds on November 23rd. Dr. Kristopher Harrison states, “It’s an important piece of our local history all residents and our students must grapple with, as uncomfortable as it may be.”

“These two projects,” explains Lisa Genn, co-chair of the Irvington PTSA Diversity and Inclusion Committee, “intersect in powerful ways with the ongoing multi-year collaboration between the Irvington school district and the NYU Metropolitan Center for Research on Equity and the Transformation of Schools that brings a racial equity lens to school curricula, hiring practices, culture, and other aspects of school life.”

Kelli Scott, Executive Chef of Orchestra X Experience and Chair of Irvington’s Juneteenth Celebrations says, “This monument comes as communities across the country are reckoning with racism following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020”. Scott continues, “I remember crying after seeing the monument’s design last June.  This public art brings momentum to address historic wrongs. Change is born in the belly of discomfort.  The only way change comes is to make people uncomfortable.”