Fragments of African American Life in Long Island: An Anthropology Alum Recovers Artifacts From a Soon-to-Be Demolished Site

Allison McGovern and Peter Crippen House. (Photos courtesy of McGovern)

So far Allison McGovern (Ph.D. ’15, Anthropology) has recovered shards of ceramics, bottle and window glass, animal bone, and metal and nail fragments from the archeological dig at the Peter Crippen House, a critical site for African American history in Huntington, Long Island, that has been ravaged by time and neglect.

Peter Crippen founded the first Black church in Huntington, which alone would make the house a site of importance. Yet because of its state of severe disrepair, the house will be demolished. (The date has not been set.) Until that time, McGovern, a public archeologist, is uncovering objects that might shed light on African American life in the town during the period the house was occupied by Crippen’s family. McGovern, who often focuses on subjects related to race in the New York City area, recently spoke to The Graduate Center about this project:

The Graduate Center: What have you learned or what do you hope to learn about African American history from your finds at the Peter Crippen House?

McGovern: The most important thing we have learned so far is that there is indeed an intact archaeological context that dates to the Crippen family occupation, and that the site has the potential to retain important information about African American family life and lifeways for roughly 100 years, spanning the post-emancipation period to post-Civil Rights.

"During that time frame, the family experienced the negative effects of several environmental impacts to their property, including the construction of the sewage treatment plant next to their property, the filling of Mill Pond, and the redevelopment of Creek Road. For the last 20 or so years, the house was uninhabited and the property was used for parking by its industrial neighbors. From an archaeological perspective, these conditions, along with the continuous sinking from the marshy land, have complicated an understanding of site formation processes. 

We were very excited to find an intact archaeological deposit that dates to the Crippen occupation of the site! Our next step is to develop a research design for a next phase of work that will allow us to examine the historic archaeological deposit in greater detail. 

GC: The larger plan is to turn the Peter Crippen House into a museum dedicated to Huntington’s African American history. What would you like to see included in such a museum?   

McGovern: I am really excited by the idea that the Town of Huntington will start an African American history museum! I hope I get the opportunity to be a part of that project. I would love to see information about the archaeological investigations included in the museum. I think it’s really important to highlight the varied experiences of Huntington’s people of color in such a museum, and to educate visitors on the important contributions made by families like the Crippens to the town’s history.

Most importantly, I would like to see the descendant community be a part of the museum planning and implementation. Involvement of the descendant community is key if the museum is to be an effective place of learning about Huntington’s African American history.

GC: What drew you to historical archaeology and, more specifically, to studying the history of Black people and communities on Long Island?

McGovern: I developed an interest in archaeology as an undergrad at Hunter College. That is when I was first introduced to anthropology, and I wanted to learn more outside of the classroom. At that time, the archaeological materials recovered from the excavations at the New York African Burial Ground were being analyzed in a lab in the World Trade Center under the direction of Dr. Warren Perry. I interned in that lab and in the Office of Public Education and Interpretation of the African Burial Ground Project.

This was my first experience with historical archaeology and its role in the investigation of sites of African captivity and freedom. Before this experience, I had no knowledge of the historic Black experience or of the impacts of African captivity in the North. Not only did I learn about this important, silenced part of history, I also learned about the importance of challenging the dominant Eurocentric paradigm in archaeological research. I took these lessons with me as I began working in contract archaeology on Long Island, where I am from.

GC: You’re the one of the first recipients of the Gotham Center’s Robert D. L. Gardiner “Writing the History of Greater New York” Fellowship for your forthcoming book, Long Island Dirt. Can you tell us about that project? 

McGovern: I am really excited about the fellowship, which is supporting my write-up of Long Island Dirt, a project that comes out of more than a decade of archaeological research on Long Island. As a professional archaeologist in the cultural resources management field, I have developed an understanding of past landscapes on Long Island through archaeological investigations. It is where I live and where I have done most of my work. 

The results of this research end up in the “gray literature” of technical reports, never making its way to the general public. Yet I have found that there is a real public interest in archaeology and how we can learn about the past from it. So this book will present information on some of my more interesting archaeological projects to a general readership who is interested in local Long Island history.

GC: What was your experience in The Graduate Center’s Anthropology doctoral program like, and how has it affected your career? 

McGovern: I had a great experience in The Graduate Center’s Anthropology doctoral program. I chose this program because there were professors whose work I respected, and I knew I wanted to work with them. I was also drawn to the history of political action and attention to social injustice that has been seen in much of the work coming out of the department. I had the opportunity to explore a wide range of courses with the faculty, and explored courses at other universities through the interuniversity consortium. Overall, I enjoyed my time at The Graduate Center, and am happy to be back for the fellowship!

Published by the Office of Communications and Marketing

Submitted on: FEB 18, 2021

Category: Alumni News, Alumni News, GCstories, General GC News, Grants, Voices of the GC