Historical Archaeology of Free African-American Communities - Saxon Woods, New York Remembered
Many aspects of African-American freeperson communities in Massachusetts are in parallel with neighboring states. Saxon Woods is a former African-American Freeperson enclave in the south of affluent Westchester County, New York, just twenty minutes outside New York City. In the 20th century, much of Saxon Woods was taken in a series of purchases, seizures and power leveraging to build a posh gold course and create a small conservation area along the Mammaroneck River.
My departed grandmother-in-law was a child of Saxon Woods. Her paternal family had been freepersons for more than 250 years, according to Grace Peterson Lane. The Peterson family, she said, descends on one side from an early Swedish immigrant who married a Lenape resident in what would become New Jersey. The family later became intergrated with freeperson African-American families, part of a pattern of African and Indigenous marriage that is frequent through the Colonial period. Her departed husband, Herman Lane, descended from Cherokee and African parentage, and whose Cherokee ancestor is documented as a cavalryman from Tennessee.
Grace Peterson Lane later owned an apartment building in Mammaroneck, down river from Saxon Woods, and lived out her later life in Mount Kisco, in central Westchester. Like many Saxon Woods families, their fortunes carried them to greater heights. New York Times featured Saxon Woods in a 1978 retrospective, but Ms Lane noted, "They didn't tell the whole story, the real story," and went on to explain that Scarsdale wanted to build a golf course at Saxon Woods. The African-American presence was removed by what Lane called "dirty tricks." Today the area is pricey "mcmansions" and African-Americans are few.
Across the USA, there is a pattern of de-landing African-Americans. African-American communities suffer destruction and erasure, frequently by slow attrition and lack of investment by towns and cities, sometimes by direct attack by Euroamerican neighbors. While archaeology and preservation of Colonial structures and communities is avidly pursued, Saxon Woods is a case pointing to neglect regarding African-American historical archaeology.
To date, it does not appear that preservation or archaeology have been performed at Saxon Woods. It appears that only informal history has been collected on the community.
Oral History of Saxon Woods
Three bungalows are grouped on small plots near a larger Victorian cottage. At dusk, without street lights, these treeshrouded houses evoke a sense of mystery—the past.
The Petersons are one of three families that still owned houses - referred to as "bungalows" in reports - and a Victorian home at Saxon Woods in 1978. There were no street lights, unlike the rest of town, and the road was an unpaved dirt path. The four picturesque houses were mostly built around 1920; three of them still housed descendants of Scarsdale African-American Freepersons since before the Civil War.
Granny Johnson, at 80 the was the oldest living resident of Saxon Woods Road, in 1978 :
“Mother Johnson,” she said, referring to Esther Johnson, her late mother-inlaw, “gave this location to my husband, Meredith, and me for $100. We had to pay her in $10 installments, and the land was swampy. We built a house in 1924. should remember; I carried more concrete than anybody. Mother Johnson used to work for white people up on the hill who, I think, gave her the land when they moved out sometime after the Civil War. She also gave little plots to the Petersons and the Pitts, who are all related and interrelated by marriage. They still live here in houses next‐to me.”
Mrs. Johnson remembers that her husband hauled coal in a truck, and that during the Depression he “worked over at the Cadillac place on Mamaroneck Avenue, washing cars for 25 cents apiece. But we all pitched in. Mostly we worked over the washboards, day and night, washed and ironed and washed. There were little gardens and things like that then, but don't remember any big farms along the road.”
According to Mrs. Johnson “I heard in the old days that the underground railroad was in the old, old Houston house next door that was torn down. And a runaway slave came here to the road and didn't leave like the others. He lived in a cave or a barn.” Some claim the person's name was Purdy. “I never heard of a black Purdy,” Granny says. “I heard of a white Purdy, the one that lived on the hill and owned slaves.”
Mr. Parnell claims Purdy was Meredith's ancestor. The census records for 1850 list black family by the name of Purdy. Old Elijah, who was 86, was listed ‘gentleman,’ while Robert Purdy, 30 years old, was a laborer. And there was a Bella Johnson. She was a servant.”
Then Mr. Parnell tells of an old cemetery that is little known but still exists in Scarsdale. “Drive about a mile on Mamaroneck Road. Turn tight at Colonial. Go as far as you can. You'll find it.”
The postage-stamp-size graveyard is hidden in a wood of tall trees, so dense that the ground below is damp and shadowy, even on a cloudless day. sparrow is the sole mourner. Here lies “Ruth Merritt who departed this life Jan. 2, 1822 in the 85th year of her age” and John Cornell, 1781‐1869. A few steps away is a Purdy, Jane, wife of William Purdy, born 1822, died 1855.
Ms. Johnson's story of the underground railroad is confirmed by a tale told in Hansen's history of Scarsdale. According to this account, abolitionist sentiment ran high in Scarsdale during the Civil War and pre‐Civil War era, and the Quakers in East Scarsdale (near Saxon Woods Road) helped escaped slaves find their way to the North.
In 1971, there were still families like the Parnells moving into Saxon Woods. Mrs. Parnell recalls how astonished white neighbor's child was when she brought her black baby to school one day. Because the white child had so little contact with black people, he thought blacks were born as full‐grown maids and butlers. As far back as the 60's, Mr. Parnell was a vocal representative of both his road and his race. One year, the jockeys got to him. Driving around Scarsdale, he became more and more annoyed at seeing effigies of black jockeys standing on front lawns pointing to the back door.
Mr. Parnell said, “I didn't like their big red lips and the direction in which the jockeys were pointing. I brought it to the attention of some people, and The Daily News ran a story about it. The next thing I knew, high‐school students were volunteering to paint the jockeys light- brown or white for anyone who wanted done. A lot of jockeys were painted that year.”
When Scarsdale started to build sewers next to the Saxon Woods area, the old residents requested tie‐ins. The village refused, saying it would be inconvenient and expensive. Later, the village tried to tax these residents for sewer lines that serviced houses other than theirs. Ms. Johnson, the Parnells and my late gradnmother-in-law,made all the papers in vociferous denunciations of taxes that would literally put the old families out on their doorsteps.
Since 1978, the neighborhood has been acquired to build Saxon Woods Golf course and a conservation area along Mammaroneck River in otherwise built-up and busy southern Westechester. Grace Peterson Lane recounted that sepculators bought out land from some descendants without consent of others in the family, and without stating their intentions to remove the whole neighborhood. After that, there were legal challenges to other residents, and what she called "dirty tricks." On the other hand, the neighborhood was slowly becoming depopulated as resident's children spread out around the county and the region.