A hidden history

— “It’s a little like looking for a needle in a haystack because you’re reading through hundreds of journal entries,” said D’Angelo. “They don’t identify necessarily who is African American and who isn’t, so we look through … records and come up with a list of people. It’s a process of sifting through the information.”

But the clues are there, so D’Angelo said she was shocked that no comprehensive history exists.

“It’s a hidden history I think is important to document,” said D’Angelo.

It’s not just the role of blacks in the Shaker Community that has been overlooked. D’Angelo said human stories in general are lacking.

“The vast majority of books about Shakers have to do with their furniture, which is wonderful and beautiful, but historians simply have not looked at the human stories,” said D’Angelo.

Ever since seeing a watercolor painting from a Shaker community in New Lebanon that included a black man, D’Angelo has made it her mission to discover what Shaker attitudes toward blacks were.

“What’s clear is they believed in racial and gender equality from the very beginning. There were blacks as early as 1790; that’s quite amazing considering that they already were ostracized because of their unique religious beliefs,” said D’Angelo. “It was very brave of them to accept black people as equals in their community.”

A cornerstone of the Shaker faith was treating and loving one another equally.

“When a family joined the Shaker community the children were put in a children’s order, husbands were put in one part of the community and wives in another part. … They were expected not to care for each other any more than they would have for other brothers and sisters in the community,” said D’Angelo.

In fact, the first person buried in the cemetery at the 1848 Shaker Meeting House site in Albany was a black woman who had likely been a slave at some point.

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