Shortly after New York’s cultural organizations closed to the public due to the pandemic, Dr. Sarah Litvin, the Director of the Reher Center for Immigrant Culture and History, reached out to Sarah Wassberg Johnson at the Hudson River Maritime Museum to discuss how local museums might help each other promote digital programs and resources or even create a new digital projects. Several history museums and historic sites in the Kingston area came together to form the History Alliance of Kingston, a collaborative group that shares local history through events and activities that reflect and promote a deeper understanding of the diverse social and cultural history of the Hudson Valley.
In May 2020, Litvin contacted Kingston area organizational leaders Troy Ellen Dixon at the African Roots Center and Jane Keller at Friends of Historic Kingston. “I was interested to see if they wanted to do something together,” said Litvin. “I reached out to a couple of folks because I was so new and I was lucky enough to get the support of people like Jane Keller who is so well connected and respected. She reached out to her network and I thought okay, this was really going to happen.”
A core group of seven to nine people representing the same number of organizations meets every week over Zoom: The Reher Center, D&H Canal Historical Society, Century House Historical Society, AJ Williams-Myers African Roots Center, Ulster County Archives, Senate House State Historic Site, Hudson River Maritime Museum, and an independent contractor. “It’s pretty remarkable to have this many come every week.”
Map of participating organizations on the History Alliance of Kingston’s website
Joining the Alliance is fairly organic. “You show up, share your skills or resources, and contribute,” said Litvin. Not all museums or historic sites participate every week and some only join for one meeting. “We want to connect organizations together to form new partnerships and share resources so we try to be as flexible as possible. We all have a piece of it [the Alliance]...whether it's history knowledge or specific skill sets. We can all contribute.”
A key goal for the group is to include the public in local history activities. Group members assist each other in the promotion of events, shared or separate. “We really like working together,” said Litvin. “We came up with community agreements and we’ve been meeting with each other once a week for almost a year.”
In early meetings, the group discussed three potential ideas for collaboration: combining forces by merging Zoom lectures into one local history series, creating a mobile app for a Kingston history walking tour or creating a local history digital scavenger hunt. “The last one really stuck,” said Litivin. In order to accommodate as many people as possible who might be interested in the scavenger hunt, the Alliance launched an in person and a virtual hunt.
Hudson Valley History Hunt
The concept for the Hudson Valley History Hunt was to promote local history to the public in a new way and help participants discover online collections where they could learn more. The first hunt focused on historical figures in local Kingston cemeteries, Montrepose Cemetery, and the Old Dutch Church Cemetery. A series of clues guides participants to find specific gravesites on the History Alliance of Kingston’s website. Some clues are linked to further information about the person. The D&H Canal Historical Society’s YouTube Series: Virtual Museum Episode 8 includes information on the gravesite of Louis Hoysradt, a paymaster for the canal. Once a grave is located, participants can take a photo and share it to social media tagging #hvhistoryhunts.
“There was no literature about Montrepose Cemetery and no signage despite the fact that some very important people are buried there,” said Litvin. “We included key people that can help the public understand the history and diversity of Kingston. We brought together the story of a famous planter with a Jewish immigrant baker and an African American chauffeur. Each of these people and their stories could not be told by any one organization and this became the model for future programming.”
Promotion for the Hudson Valley History Hunt
The History Alliance of Kingston also created a Map Hunt to promote Kingston’s historical buildings and a Q&A Hunt in which participants had to answer a series of questions using online resources to help find the answers.
The Black History Project of the Hudson Valley Collaborative Research Project
The History Alliance of Kingston’s next (and ongoing) project is their Hudson Valley Black History Research Project. The Alliance is designing a digital guide to compile existing Black History of the Hudson Valley resources and collect new ones for researchers and the public. This effort builds upon ongoing work done by the region's Black community including Dr. AJ Williams-Myer’s research, the creation of the African Roots Center, the Conference on Black History in the Hudson Valley, and other community projects. “Too little has been written about the Black history of our region, and our institutions did not consciously collect or catalogue items focused on these stories,” says a written statement on the Alliance’s website. “Now, as our member institutions independently undertake Black history research projects and respond to requests from researchers who are eager to learn more, we decided to pool our resources in an effort to share the source materials that can help tell a more complete story.” The History Alliance of Kingston wants to make these resources available and more accessible for researchers and the public.
The Alliance announced this project to the public via a Zoom presentation as part of Black History Month in February where they shared an early draft and the start of their resource collection.
“Part of the February presentation was us also sharing work in progress about Black History that we’ve been researching. That was something that the public was most interested in hearing more about,” said Litvin. “We were so focused on creating this resource and it was great to hear that the public wants to also know more about the history itself.” About 60 people attended the presentation. “Our goal was to share the idea, share why we’re doing it, and ask the community for their support and participation.”
Ultimately, the Alliance hopes to create a resource guide where the community also contributes. “It’s an ongoing project,” said Litvin. “We’ve identified what we need to do next, but it’s going to be a long term project.”
Strength in Partnership
The History Alliance of Kingston created an ecosystem to provide support and share skills. “We (the Reher Center) received funding from the Hudson River Greenway to create outdoor signage that tells a people’s history of Kingston’s Rondout neighborhood and I probably had five members of the Alliance review the signage text,” said Litvin. “The D&H Canal Historical Society loaned me images to use as well. I have learned so much from my colleagues.”
Zoom screenshot with a few History Alliance of Kingston Members discussing their Hudson Valley Black History Collaborative Research Project in February.
Upcoming plans and Goals for the Future
Since January, the group has been offering a biweekly column about local history in the online news service KingstonWire. Starting this month, the group plans to add more clues several times each month to the Hudson Valley History Hunt via their Facebook page. They are also working together to cross-promote each others’ sites and events through rack cards and a digital calendar.
“My hope for the History Alliance of Kingston is that it is a mechanism to tell a more holistic story,” said Litvin. “I can’t speak to the structure and future of this specific organization but the legacy I hope will be to put together small pieces into a tapestry that really tells a rich socially, culturally, and diverse narrative of what happened here. The D&H Canal Historical Society knows everything about the canal, but the canal workers lived in the Rondout so I can share that piece of history. The Friends of Historic Kingston know so much about architecture and can tell the story of why the canal workers lived in these types of housing in the Rondout and the significance. That type of filling in the gaps requires humility and curiosity. I think that’s what organizations need, curiosity and humility, in order to work together.”
Learn more about the History Alliance of Kingston: https://www.historyallianceofkingston.com/