The East Hampton Town Trustees are to be congratulated for changing the name of their annual scholarship. After being alerted by the Plain Sight Project, which studies slavery and its legacies on the East End, that William J. Rysam, the scholarship’s namesake, had himself been an enslaver, the trustees spent about a year thinking it over. After weighing the scope of Rysam’s involvement with the slave trade — and the named enslaved individuals he left to family members in his will — they made the only decision possible.
Rysam was an interesting character. He arrived in Sag Harbor a rich man in about 1785 from Norfolk, Va. He was a sea captain whose fortune in part came from an earlier slave ship voyage he made between Barbados and Virginia; such south-north voyages were a frequent way that captive Africans were brought to North America to be sold. Records from the time he settled in Sag Harbor indicate that Rysam enslaved two men, named Tom and Jack, and a woman whose name remains to be discovered.
Rysam’s wealth quickly afforded him considerable stature here. He operated a rope walk and a salt works. In a time when there were few banks, many prominent Sag Harbor and East Hampton men had substantial mortgage debt to him. Among his holdings was a mahogany grove in Honduras. He built a 200-ton ship, likely for the West Indies trade, and was an investor in one of Sag Harbor’s early commercial wharves. An inventory of his possessions and accounts at the time of his death in 1809 included two more enslaved people, Dick and Petre, both described as “negro boy.”
Awareness is growing that Rysam, for whom a street is named in Sag Harbor, was far from alone as an enslaver. Nearly everyone of means from the early colonial era to about 1800 “owned” other people. Many also are memorialized to this day in street names and spoken about fondly by antiquarians. And yet the work of enslaved people of African and Indigenous heritage helped create the East End towns as much as that of white colonists. They are the forgotten founders of our own communities — and the United States. Recognizing that fact and beginning to question the degree to which their enslavers should be remembered will help reduce the divides that plague us as a nation even today.