A grand Long Island manor – inhabited by members of the same family since 1735 – offers a glimpse into the forgotten history of Northern slavery.
It’s an extraordinary trek that Mac Griswold guides the reader on, less of distance than through time, beginning in the infancy of the United States, before we were one nation, when our ancestors – white, black, and Native American – were defined as much by who they weren’t as by who they were.
The trip begins in a rowboat mirroring the coast of Shelter Island, an idyll nestled between Orient and Montauk points on Long Island’s east end. It is here, in 1984, that the author and her main character, a grand 18th-century manor, meet: “The reflection of the house in the glassy water doesn’t tremble. No wind. I hold my breath, too, as if the building would disappear if the water moved…. This place isn’t self-consciously ‘historic;’ it’s not restored in any sense. It has simply been here, waiting for time to pass. Waiting for me.”
No one is home that day, but Griswold writes the owners several times, finally gets an answer, and returns to the house to meet Alice and Andy Fiske, he being the fifteenth member of the founding family to live on the property stretching back to 1652.
They are a nice couple, the kind that dress up to go to the Post Office, but on the manor tour a sordid piece of family laundry is aired: Andy points matter of factly to the “slave staircase,” narrowing winding steps that lead to a cramped, drafty attic long since closed off. He had been talking about the “servants” who had built his circa 1735 house, and it is now clear that the term is an egregious euphemism.