In late March 2018, the New England Archivists (NEA) and the Archivists Roundtable of Metropolitan New York (ART) Spring Conference was held in New Haven, Connecticut. The conference was entitled RISE UP; its theme was archival advocacy.
Some of the main questions considered throughout the three-day conference included “How can archivists better demonstrate the cultural value and social urgency of their work?” and “What kinds of advocacy can amplify awareness and bolster support for archival repositories within established institutions?”
As St. Michael’s Archivist, I made a presentation with two colleagues, Juliana Kuipers from Harvard University and Ross Mulcare from Brown University on What the Archives Reveal: Slavery in American Churches and Universities.
In my presentation, I focused on colonial and early national Episcopal Church archives as sources of information on slavery in the church, and I provided examples from St. Michael’s own archives. Among these were the story – to the extent that we know it – of the VanBrunts.
Written in the meticulous hand of St. Michael’s second rector, Samuel Farmar Jarvis,
John and Jane both slaves of William S. Davis, married on Sunday evening, July 14th, 1816 with the consent of their master & at the request of their mistress
A little less than two years after their marriage, John and Jane had a little boy, Charles. Jarvis’ entry is interesting on three counts. First, John and Jane have now acquired a family name, Vanbrunt or VanBrunt. Jarvis identifies them as “people of colour” and associates them with the Davis family, starting to write “slaves” and converting the word to “servants.” And almost two years later, in 1820, the VanBrunts had another little boy, Henry Rudolph.
Charles son of John and Jane Vanbrunt people of colour and slaservants of William A. Davis. Born April the 10th 1818. Baptized June 14th 1818. Sponsors, the parents.
Henry Rudolph, son of John and Jane VanBrunt, people of colour, born March 17th, 1820, Baptized April 16th 1820. Sponsor Ann Eliza Davis.
Although the wealthy Davis family figures prominently in the first several decades of St. Michael’s history, the slave couple, John and Jane – subsequently free, and the parents of two little boys – disappear from St. Michael’s records. Further research beyond St. Michael’s is required to uncover their story. How did John and Jane become free? Did Mr. and Mrs. Davis give them their freedom outright? Did they allow them to purchase their freedom? Slavery was not officially abolished in New York State until 1827; did Mr. and Mrs. Davis manumit John and Jane because they believed it was the right thing to do, or because they wanted to be sure to be ahead of the law? How different was the relationship of the slave couple and their owners from that of John and Jane as “servants” and the Davis family. … And where did the VanBrunt name come from?
Within the archives of colonial and early national universities in the East and the South are records of slavery as an integral component of their institutional culture. Universities such as Brown and Harvard have been mounting extensive exhibits about this material: special collection curators and archivists have been leaders in raising public awareness about the extent to which slavery permeated every aspect of colonial and early American life. The Episcopal Church is now beginning to confront its own complicity in slavery, segregation, Jim Crow and racism; primary source material – such as sacramental registers, vestry minutes and governance documents – are being carefully studied. Archivists and historians are together on the moral front-lines.
At St. Michael’s, the archives have been examined over and over again for almost two hundred years to look for details about the Davis family and their friends.
Now, we look for details about the VanBrunt family and theirs. It is an honor to do so.
April 21, 2018