This weekend, the Crailo State Historic Site in Rensselaer, New York is recognizing a holiday first celebrated by the Dutch and later adopted by African American slaves.
Fort Crailo, just across the Hudson from downtown Albany, bills itself as the premier Dutch museum in the Capital Region. It will host its second annual Pinkster celebration Saturday. Sam Huntington, Crailo’s interpretive programs assistant, says Pinkster was once a Dutch holiday commemorating Pentecost; it became a distinctly African American celebration by the end of the 18th century. Pinkster is derived from the Dutch word for Pentecost.
“The celebrations were held over the course of about a week, on the top of what was sometimes referred to as Pinkster Hill, which is actually where the New York state Capitol is today. It usually featured a parade, a nomination and selection of a Pinkster King and typically this person was somebody selected by the organizers of the Pinkster event and the enslaved community as somebody serving as essentially a leader,” says Huntington.
Huntington says the celebration was also a time for enslaved people to spend time together. Cordell Reaves is the Historic Preservation Program Analyst with the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. He says it’s not known why the Dutch holiday transformed into primarily an African American event. Reaves says Pinkster was a time when enslaved people did things that were normally outlawed.
“So congregating in large groups would have been a problem other times of year. Taking leave time off for three or four days, sometimes as long as a week, without having to work. Traveling without passes, staying out at night after 9 p.m. without expressed written permission from their owner. These are all things that helped them reconnect. Being able to play their drums, being able to dance their dances and being able to share their food with one another,” says Reaves.
Crailo originally focused on the beaver trade, the primary good exchanged between the Capital Region’s Dutch settlers and Native Americans. In 2013, Crailo received a grant from Yale University allowing museum staff to study the slave trade.
“Three staff members here went to Yale University for a summer institute where we focused on slavery history and how to interpret that,” says Hill.
Heidi Hill, the Historic Site Manager at Crailo, says this allowed the museum to expand Dutch trade exhibits. Museum staff have also created a traveling exhibit, which describes the slave trade in the New Netherlands as well as the Pinkster celebration.
“So the name of our exhibit is ‘A Dishonorable Trade: Human Trafficking in the Dutch Atlantic World’ and we have really broken it up into three parts. The history of trade and how the Dutch actually entered the slave trade, the middle passage, and how people were taken from their homes, and communities, their environment and traveled across the Atlantic. Then we have a third section that really focuses on the lives of these people,” says Hill.
Reaves says the exhibit allows visitors to learn about life as an enslaved person in the 18th century — with hopes they’ll better appreciate the freedom Pinkster provided.
Saturday’s celebration runs from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. and includes traditional African music, dance and drum troupes, theatrical demonstrations and storytelling.