Decades after slavery was abolished in New York, the Elmendorfs, Historic Cherry Hill’s 3rd-generation Van Rensselaer descendants in Albany, used orphaned African American children as servants.
Jimmy (1843-1885), Jane (1845-?), Richard (unknown), and Minnie (1852-1903) Knapp became wards and servants of several Van Rensselaer households after the death of their mother, Jane Jackson Knapp, in 1854.
Conjectured to have descended from prior generations enslaved at Cherry Hill — two of the children are named after Van Rensselaers — the children had quasi-family status, but were servants.
While the Elmendorfs worked alongside their servants, they left the heaviest labor for them. The Elmendorfs help provide education and religious instruction into adulthood, and included them in holidays and outings — but the children slept in the family’s garret (attic) and basement.
Historic Cherry Hill’s collections include their photographs, letters, greeting cards, toys and ephemera — compelling objects that form the foundation of most Americans’ experiences with history.
With funding through a $30,000 NEH Cares Act grant, Historic Cherry Hill is planning to digitize collections related to African American life at Cherry Hill during slavery as well as the Antebellum and Reconstruction eras, illuminating lingering inequalities in 19th-century New York. Historic Cherry Hill is one of 317 grantees out of the more 2,300 organizations that applied, and one of only two Capital Region institutions to receive a grant.
These digital packages are expected to be made available by the end of 2020 to teachers (and the general public) — along with guidance on their use — to support teachers’ efforts to discuss slavery and its vestiges using local history resources.
NEH Cares funding will also allow Historic Cherry Hill to build a digital model of the house, enabling users to make connections between the historical players, spaces and collections, and visualizing the suppression of enslaved people’s humanity through the marginal spaces they occupied. This model will also aid the museum’s accessibility initiatives.
More information about the National Endowment of the Humanities can be found on their website.
More information about Historic Cherry Hill can be found on their website.
Photo of Minnie (left) and Jane Amelia (middle) Knapp, African American wards and servants of the Van Rensselaers. The daughter of another Cherry Hill servant appears on the right, provided.