Historian Puts a ‘Premium on Empathy’

By Matthew Colon

During a recent visit to the Captain David Crawford House, headquarters of the Newburgh Historical Society, Dr. Kevin M. Burke became another of many natives to admire the award-winning exhibit, “Growing Up in Newburgh.” Unlike most visitors whom may have been motivated by nostalgia, Dr. Burke as a professional historian is equally interested in how the historical record becomes the starting point for a conversation.

In a conversation we shared, Kevin discussed how his experience and roots in Newburgh influences how he encounters history. I gained insight into how although our memories can obscure the truth, being equipped with the facts and empathy may reveal new perspectives and a greater connection to our past.


What exactly is the conversation? That depends on those having it.

There are a variety of these discussions taking place all throughout the country. They take place at our dining tables, on morning talk shows, at work, city hall, etc. Whether or not these conversations are indeed grounded in historical facts is up for debate, but they are influenced and guided by historical memory. Kevin continues to explore this idea not only locally – he graduated from the Newburgh Free Academy in 1994 and is President of the Downing Film Center – but regionally, as acting chair of the Hudson River Valley Greenway Conservancy, and globally through his work as Director of Research at the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research at Harvard University. He also is the co-author of the book And Still I Rise: Black America since MLK with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a companion to the PBS film of the same title (airing this fall), and the Director of Research on Henry Louis Gates’s popular genealogy series on PBS, Finding Your Roots.

The book And Still I Rise paves the way for conversation as an illustrated chronology of the past fifty years of African American history, from the march for voting rights in Selma in 1965 to the two-term presidency of Barack Obama.

One New York Times review implies the reader doesn’t need to wait for the PBS program to start a personal conversation. “Reading it can quickly become a game of ‘I remember that!’ or ‘That means something to me!’”

The personal conversations Kevin has had along the way led him to discoveries that include his own family history and Newburgh’s collective narrative since World War II – reaching its pinnacle as the “All American City” in 1952, its decline and relationship with race.

“Misperceptions about race crept into and poisoned that narrative from an early period,” Kevin said.

GUIN_PreviewThe exhibit at the Crawford House, a place Kevin has visited many times, was the perfect place to start another such conversation. He was surrounded by images suspended from the ceiling, captured mostly within the last fifty to sixty years, that show a variety of views of Newburgh alive with children. He could not help but to be struck by the pervasiveness of nostalgia. It’s all too easy to connect with the smile inducing universal themes of children at play, in parades, at the park, in school and playing music. His smile grew ear to ear when faced with a vibrant detail of 1960 Downing Park in the spring. Tulip patches that were raised in a nursery on the grounds were planted along the hillside. Looking closer at the background, a golden retriever appears to be driving a family’s 1956 Ford station wagon, bringing Kevin to laugh.


Other images in the exhibit beg for a deeper look than nostalgia can provide. Nostalgia feels good, but a sentimental look upon the past is both subjective and only a single perspective (not to mention, unreliable). “The best historical work and scholarship that I’ve read has the ability to … see things from multiple point of views. I think that makes for the best storytelling,” Kevin said during our conversation, “and good storytelling is the foundation for insight.”


In the exhibit, standing out among a group of images of children and music was a group portrait of “Uly’s Alsdorfians,” the performing junior class during a 1944 Christmas recital and reception. The students display a variety of instruments and facial expressions giving us clues into how they might have recalled this single memory of growing up in Newburgh. My smile returns as my eyes pan over their expressions. It reminds me of my own class photographs where some days I was excited and other days bored out of my mind. It starts to resemble a typical event many of us have experienced until one notices the instructors at the edges of the photograph of the all-white class, Ulysses and Simon Alsdorf. The museum label describes the brothers “as African American musicians who taught music and hosted many concerts and receptions at the Academy.”

What was their experience like growing up in Newburgh? The Alsdorfs as a celebrated musical family have been widely covered by the newspapers over the years. One article reads, “‘Uly’ and his brothers, Simon and Charles, were among the most popular and respected citizens in Newburgh.” Another article printed in 2008 claimed “there are still several Newburgh residents alive today who remember taking their first piano lessons from Ulysses Alsdorf.”

What do those residents remember about the family? The newspaper accounts that I’ve come across are more sentimental. Mostly putting forth the family’s notable accomplishments: they descended from a freed slave; their father was the first black member of the musicians union; Ulysses and Simon Alsdorf were the first African American students to attend the local school; Ulysses composed the official march for the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in Newburgh in 1909; and they were also community advocates.

The Alsdorf perspective seems to be missing from these accounts. It seems that within our historical memory, the family has met a lot of “firsts,” but how does their experience illuminate the other side of those celebratory “firsts,” which implies struggle, perseverance, conflict and drama? How does our perspective change when we learn that their grandfather, George, born into slavery was freed by law, not by escaping or the benevolent will of a slave owner? What was slavery like in the Hudson Valley? Or, what does it do to learn that “Blacks were not allowed” at the prestigious Newburgh Academy and the brothers’ father, Dubois Alsdorf, petitioned the State of New York to allow his sons access? Or, that despite coming so far in the community, the family still experienced racism that was documented in the local newspapers?

“The importance is to be able to recognize the role that memory plays in both recalling events and imagining them,” Kevin continued about how a community’s sense of history may be influenced. “Keep track of those multiple perspectives. What story am I’m not seeing? What story did I miss? How would this have looked from a different vantage point?”

Maurice Halbwachs, a French philosopher and sociologist known for developing the concept of collective memory, wrote extensively throughout his career about how we use our mental images of the present to reconstruct our past. In his 1950 book, “The Collective Memory,” he wrote, “our memory truly rests not on learned history but on lived history … [and] it is well-nigh impossible for two persons who have seen the same event to describe it in exactly the same way when recounting it later on.”

As our conversation continued into interpreting for the public about race and the topic of slavery, Kevin said that it can become uncomfortable and draw defenses. His advice for interpreters and history organizations is to allow the visitor to arrive at his or her own conclusions with a firm grounding in facts, rather than preaching to them. “Bring characters and stories into view,” he said.

“In a diverse and inclusive society, a premium must be placed on empathy.”


Putting a premium on empathy is a principle that Kevin aspires to in his life. He is the child of two public school teachers and says this value was fostered early in his childhood. As a result, he was always aware of difference. He also credits his diverse and inclusive experience to attending school in the Newburgh system. “These are the things that are at the core of my being.”

Headstone of Civil War veteran Daniel T. Wakeman. Photo provided.

Headstone of Civil War veteran Daniel T. Wakeman. Photo provided.

History, of course, is also very important to Kevin. He was interested in history as far back as he can remember. Kevin credits his parents for fostering this passion and curiosity in him. “They were wonderful about taking us on trips, mainly within the country, visiting historic sites, presidential homes and battlefields, so that we could make a personal connection to what we were learning in the classroom.” He fondly remembers, while attending South Junior High School, volunteering at Knox’s Headquarters State Historic Site. He took his interest to college at Harvard. During the summers he worked as a National Park Service Ranger leading three-hour walking tours through Boston’s historic Beacon Hill neighborhood. This experience is how he ended up majoring in African American History and then pursuing his doctoral degree in American studies while attending law school and preparing for the New York bar.

The connections he made along the way include Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a former professor who hired Kevin to return to Harvard and the Hutchins Center and inviting him to work on the third season of his genealogy series, Finding Your Roots. “It’s exciting to work on the show as an historian. Every day is an inspiration working with Professor Gates and the team he has assembled to place the family members who show up on his guests’ trees in time and space … connecting them to a larger story in the country.” The show, a popular series on PBS that traces the family histories of influential guests, just completed its third season.

Kevin caught the genealogy bug himself and soon after working on the show began tracing his own family history here in Newburgh where he discovered ancestors buried in a cemetery he regularly rode his bike by as a child. “Not until this year did I know that I have a series of relatives who are buried there,” including Kevin’s great-great-grandfather Daniel T. Wakeman, who served in the 56th New York Infantry Regiment from 1861-1865 before settling in the City of Newburgh. Since making the discovery he and his family visit regularly throughout the year and bring flowers and wreaths.

“We are very good at classifying ourselves in the world, but when you realize that everyone’s family tree has turns in it and has characters that show up that are unexpected – it’s enriching, empowering and very exciting!”


That’s why our local historical societies, sites and museums are so vital, Kevin says. “They give people, when it’s done well, the tools they need both to know the narrative of the place they live in and also the tools to approach the history in a more grounded, more conscious way.”

More importantly, when it comes to interpreting the past and having conversations that may be perceived as embarrassing or controversial, just create a “safe space for encountering history.”

I came away from our conversation feeling both outside of my own skin and inspired to ask more questions. Come on in. Let’s start a conversation. Although our memories may not coincide exactly with the historical record, equipped with facts and empathy we will develop a deeper understanding of the past and may arrive to the conclusion that histories that seem unalike are likely connected.


Harvard’s Hutchins Center historian to discuss native roots
Immediately following the annual meeting of the Friends of the State Historic Sites of the Hudson Highlands on March 7, Dr. Kevin M. Burke, historian, author and Newburgh native will discuss his work and roots in Newburgh.What do you remember about Newburgh after World War II?

The public is welcome to join members for the 2 p.m. discussion at Washington’s Headquarters State Historic Site, located on the corner of Washington and Liberty Streets in the City of Newburgh.

The public is also welcome to learn more about the Friends, their activities and mission during their annual meeting beginning at 1:30 p.m.

Admission is free and refreshments will be provided. For more information or directions please call (845) 562-1195.

The Friends is a registered non-for-profit organization that exists to benefit three New York State historic Sites that include Washington’s Headquarters, New Windsor Cantonment and Knox’s Headquarters. The supported sites gain from this organization’s mission to increase public awareness of their significance and raising funds to support the educational, programming and collection needs of the sites.

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