Washington Street, between Mill Street and William Street, Newburgh
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Alsdorf family homes were important safe houses on the Underground Railroad. Many people escaping slavery through the Underground Railroad (a network of covert routes and safe houses) passed through the Hudson Valley on their journey northward. Those who did often went through Goshen, New York, where multiple train lines converged and there was a system of coordinated local efforts to aid fugitives. However, if slave catchers were in close pursuit, those fleeing enslavement would often divert their route to Newburgh, where the Alsdorf family would conceal and care for them.
George Alsdorf, who had been born in enslavement to the Alsdorf family in Shawangunk, New York, and his wife, Caroline, purchased a lot of land on Washington Street sometime between 1840 and 1845. Alsdorf had found financial success as a musician, mainly performing at parties, after gaining his freedom through New York manumission laws in 1827. His sons Dubois and Charles later bought adjacent properties. The Alsdorf holdings on Washington Street included multiple adjoined lots with homes, which were situated near Mill Street, around numbers 260 and 262.
When the Alsdorfs settled in Newburgh, they were among the wealthiest African American families in the city. George and Caroline ran a variety of businesses in Newburgh, including a men’s clothing store, a catering company, a bakery, a tailoring shop, and a hair salon. Their customer base was interracial. The neighborhood surrounding their residence on Washington Street was one of the more diverse areas of Newburgh. When New York State manumission laws went into effect in 1827, many who had been born in enslavement moved to Newburgh, attracted by the job opportunities available in the port city. The families who were selling property on Washington Street happened to be sympathetic to the abolitionist movement, and they were willing to sell plots of land to African American families, while others in the city were not.
Dubois, George and Caroline’s oldest son, followed in his father’s musical footsteps. In 1849, Dubois opened a music and dance academy from the family’s buildings on Washington Street. At the same time that they provided sanctuary to fugitives from slavery, the Alsdorf homes hosted the school, teaching music and dance to Newburgh youth and adults, most of whom were white and affluent.
Dubois taught music and dance in the style of social dances that were popular with the newly wealthy families that populated the Hudson Valley. Quadrilles, waltzes, and polkas were especially popular. By teaching these dances to Newburgh’s distinguished families, the school contributed to their popularization and helped to establish a uniquely American style of music and dance, which blended historically African American and European styles. Dubious’s three musically talented sons, Charles, Ulysses, and Simon, continued to run their father’s school, which eventually transferred to Alsdorf Hall (built in 1915) on 93 Liberty Street in Newburgh.
Today on Washington Street, there are small stores and a vacant lot at the approximate location of the Alsdorf properties.
Take the Metro-North train (Hudson Line) to Beacon. At the station, take the Stewart Shuttle to the Grand Street and Broadway stop in downtown Newburgh. From there, it is an approximately 9-minute (0.4 mile) walk.
To learn more:
Kevin B. Bilali, “The Alsdorf Legacy.” Orange County Historical Society Journal, vol. 23, 1 Nov. 1994.
Roger A. King, The Underground Railroad in Orange County, N.Y.: The Silent Rebellion. Library Research Associates, 1999.
Tashae Smith, “In Washington’s Shadow: An African American Walking Tour of Newburgh.” Sound and Story Project of the Hudson Valley, 2017.