Author Holly Metz shows how Stevens’ slave history is not black and white

Members of the Hoboken community gathered in Babbio 118 this past Wednesday to hear from author and longtime Hoboken resident Holly Metz on her ongoing findings regarding “the Stevens family’s history of involvement in the slave trade and the life history of Peter Lee, who began his life as ‘the property of Colonel John Stevens.’” The event, entitled “Slavery and the Stevens Family” was co-hosted by the College of Arts and Letters (CAL) and the Office of Undergraduate Student Life (OSL) and had attendees ranging from members of the Hoboken Public Library to Stevens faculty and students.

The speaker was brought to campus after she and Science and Technology Studies Assistant Professor Lee Vinsel gave lectures at the Hoboken History Museum’s “The Extraordinary Stevens Family” exhibit. After seeing her talk on slavery, Vinsel thought that Metz “should re-give the talk on Stevens campus because it was important.” For this presentation, Metz went through a considerable amount of historical artifacts, from letters and notes written by members of the Stevens family to a document spanning 60 linear feet.

Metz organized her presentation into two larger statements: debunking the conception of Northern slavery as “mild — non-existent,” and the absence of Peter Lee as an agent of his own life. On the former, she discussed the prominence of family-separation in Northern slave trade, projected letters between “Honorable” John Stevens and William Alexander recounting their partnership in managing the Perth Amboy port of slave trade, and contextualized in detail the circumstances of the Stevens family-owned slaves. Regarding the latter, Metz relayed the haphazard documentation of Peter Lee’s life: how she could find no legal document of his manumission or the act of a slave owner freeing his slaves, but could find many accounts of his meticulous nature as a reported butler.

A pointed insight within this portion involving the validity of a New York Herald article on Lee’s death titled, “Born a Slave in the Stevens Family,” consisted of the determination behind whether a child was born a slave — the status of the enslaved mother. Metz said how she not only discovered Lee’s mother’s name, Sylvia, but that she was was “meant to be liberated by the 1800 will of Elizabeth Stevens.” According to Metz, if Colonel John Stevens, Elizabeth’s son, “followed through on his mother’s wishes” and freed Sylvia, then Peter Lee, long claimed by the family to be born in 1804, “would have been born a free person.”

Several members of the audience were just as engaged with the presentation topics. One of the earliest topics brought up was “Tales from Castle Stevens,” a video produced by the Class of 1960 in July of last year, and the debated validity of family stories featured of Lee, discrediting them as “family lore.” Another asked about the education of the slaves, with Metz bringing up conflicting reports of Lee’s literacy based upon the family’s recount and common practices of slave education. At the time, reading was taught to slaves to emphasize biblical lessons of devotion while writing was taught separately as a “commercial tool.” One of the last points stressed the importance of further exploration into this history of Stevens, as it helps break down the “sanitized notion of what slavery was.”

This sentiment was echoed by many attendees. Vinsel brought up the concept of “Disney History,” what professional historians call widely distributed stories focusing on the positive light and accomplishments of historical figures: “A distinctive feature of [this] is that it leaves out human suffering, including the suffering of black, enslaved bodies.” Vinsel conveyed that “we have a moral and spiritual duty to be witnesses to suffering,” and that the talk “is an invitation to moral adulthood [and] to learning how to tell our collective story in a new and more truthful way.”

When asked what she wanted Stevens students to take away from the talk, Metz said, “The Stevens family used the labor of enslaved men, women, and children to build their estates and run their households,” and that “family members were actively involved in the slave business, as traders. This aspect of the historical record has been obscured. As inheritors of history, we should fully examine and weigh all of it.”

Metz hopes to further explore and publish this research dependent on funding, providing a comprehensive account of this complicated history. A second Black History Month event hosted by CAL and OSL is planned for Wednesday, February 24. The talk is entitled “Black Comedy: No Tears Just Politics” and will feature comedian Grant Cooper and Dr. Lindsey Swindall. While Stevens is planning diversity events and talks for the semester, “Slavery and the Stevens Family” shows that, in order to tackle these issues, the problematic past that future advancement is built upon must be thoroughly examined.