History in The Hills

If you walk far enough into Westchester’s Silver Lake Preserve,  you can walk into the past.

Hidden among the trees that stretch across the borders of Harrison, North Castle, and White Plains are the remnants of a community unlike any other in Westchester County, and Dr. Edythe Ann Quinn, a professor of American history at Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, is its chronicler.

“We’re treading on old paths,” she says, her walking stick in one hand, her new book in the other.

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Dr. Edythe Ann Quinn

In Freedom Journey, Quinn traces the rise and fall of the Hills, once the county’s largest African American community, against the backdrop of the Civil War. Of the approximately 190 free blacks who called the area’s rocky terrain home, 36 men fought to end slavery in what Quinn says “for them was a crusade, their service a mission ordained by God.”

Using recruit rosters, pension records, and soldiers’ letters to families back home, Quinn constructs detailed accounts of three regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and the community they left behind. 

“It’s an important story because it’s a missing story,” says Quinn. “The history of Westchester County is not sparkling clean, and that has to be acknowledged.”

Protected by its rugged landscape, the Hills thrived in isolation; the community of freed slaves-turned-subsistence farmers soon boasted its own school, church, and cemetery. Nearby White Plains, however, was the epicenter of a pro-South, anti-Lincoln sentiment, championed by Edmund G. Sutherland, a prominent Democratic Party boss, and his Eastern State Journal, the county’s leading newspaper. 

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In spite of this hostile political climate, in spite of the prospects of unequal pay and the hardships endured by their families, and in spite of the Confederate policy that captured black soldiers would be executed or sold into slavery, these men of the Hills enlisted—not for money, Quinn argues, but rather for “liberation for all black people, everywhere.”

And liberators they became. In a letter to his wife dated February 15, 1864, Sergeant Simeon Anderson Tierce wrote of his arrival in New Orleans: “All the colored people down here welcome us here with glad hands.”

The Hills community has since faded to its foundations, piled stones in the woods recognizable only to Quinn and others who know where to look. While its cemetery was admitted to the National Register of Historic Places in 1999, a longstanding dispute between the Village and Town of Harrison and the Mount Hope AME Zion Church of White Plains (which traces its lineage back to the Hills church) has left maintenance of the site in limbo.

Mount Hope A.M.E. Zion’s senior pastor, Dr. Gregory Robeson Smith, says the church is the rightful caretaker of that property, so the town should transfer its ownership to the church; the Harrison Town Board has repeatedly refused those petitions, leaving Smith to ponder other action in order to move his plans for a memorial park forward.

Deep in the woods, Quinn finds one of the 13 USCT markers scattered among the many unmarked graves in Stony Hill Cemetery. An American flag waves in front of it. Each Veterans Day, members of Pastor Smith’s congregation decorate the graves of the Hills veterans buried there—a tribute, Quinn says, to not just the soldiers but also the community’s contribution to freedom.

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Faded, perhaps, but not forgotten. 

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