Pentecost Sunday? — Think Pinkster, Gotham’s famous African holiday you may have never heard of

Illustration from The Begum’s Daughter, Edwin Lassetter Bynner’s 1890 serial novel

Like New Orleans’ Mardi Gras or Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, New York’s own tradition of festive abandon, and maybe a little dirty dancing, is now mostly forgotten.

In 1890, Edwin Lassetter Bynner set his historical novel, The Begum’s Daughter, in New Amsterdam, English New York’s Dutch colonial predecessor of some two and a half centuries earlier. In a telling scene, an old African slave “came in and asked for leave to go the Pingster feast,” for which he had already dressed to the nines. A couple of bored young ladies in the household exerted a bit of cajoling assist on the man’s behalf, whereupon, his wish granted, “he went off with a fine strut, fluttering his ribbons, and charging them not to fail to join the crowd of lookers-on at Pingster Hill.” Thus were the festivities of this holiday (usually spelled Pinkster) eagerly awaited.

Rooted in the Christian celebration of Pentecost, or Whitsunday, it marked the descent of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ disciples after his Ascension. The Dutch colonists of 17th-century New Amsterdam — New York’s predecessor — imported the holiday from Europe, but it was New York’s enslaved African population that, by the nineteenth century, would spin the holiday into one of the city’s most popular faith-based festivals.

Dutch treat in an African wrapper

The Pinkster festival lasted about a week. Unique to the Hudson Valley environs — which historically mingled Dutch and African cultures — Pinkster was well known between New York City and Albany, along stretches of New Jersey and out on Staten Island and Long Island.

Bynner conjures up a vivid description of the jocular pageant of food, costumes, sporting contests and, of course, dancing. “All along the way the air was filled with the holiday clamor of groups of children, both white and black…all alike bedizened with cheap jewelry and gay streamers, and decked out with branches of lilac and cherry blossoms.”

Flowers were evidentally sacred to the festival. According to historian A.J. Williams-Myers in his 1994 book, Long Hammering: Essays on the Forging of an African American Presence in the Hudson River Valley to the Early Twentieth Century, “Pinkster was also associated with the change of season, the blooming of flowers and the rebirth of life in spring.” The flower most conspicuously associated with the holiday was the pink azalea — sometimes called Pinkster flower — which bloomed commonly throughout the Hudson River Valley region.

Pinkster Frolic

To many, the spectacle’s “carny” atmosphere would smack familiarly of county fairs. Bynner describes booths giving on side-shows where “a negro, loudly beating a drum, advertised the tricks of a conjurer,” another in which “a dancing bear was performing to a tune ground out by a monkey on a hurdy-gurdy,” and a third where “a two-headed pig was exhibited as the greatest living attraction of the age.”

But James Fenimore Cooper, an even earlier 19th-century New York novelist than Bynner, was more specific about the holiday’s activities. “The features that distinguish a Pinkster frolic from the usual scenes at fairs, and other merry-makings, however, were of African origin,” Cooper pointedly observed in his 1845 novel, Satanstoe, whose descriptions surely influenced Bynner forty-five years later. “[T]he traditions and usages of their original country were so far preserved as to produce a marked difference between this festival, and one of European origin.”

Of those traditions, the intoxicating “Totau” dance was a salient feature of the pageant. Cooper paused raptly to observe the mutual assessment of a group of African- and American-bom blacks. “[The latter] gazed at this group with intense interest…regarding them as so many ambassadors from the land of their ancestors…The [American blacks] even endeavored to imitate the acts of the [Africans], and, though the attempt was often ludicrous, it never failed on the score of intention and gravity. Nothing was done in the way of caricature, but much in the way of respect and affection.”

New York Legislature’s “Pinkster Law” abolishes the holiday

“Another Dutch festival of universal observance was Pinkster, held in the springide,” U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in 1906, reflecting on the olden-days New York of his ancestors. “It grew to be especially the negroes’ day, all of the blacks of the city and neighboring country gathering to celebrate it. There was a great fair, with merrymaking and games of all kinds on the Common, where the City Hall park now is; while the whites also assembled to look on, and sometimes to take part in the fun.”

A century had barely passed since a New York newspaper noted the advent of the annual celebration. “Whitsun-Monday…is also known as sweep-chimneys’ holiday,” the Public Advertiser reported on May 23, 1809. “On this day, all the negroes of Long and Staten Island obtain permission from their masters, to visit New York, to participate in the ‘amusements of the day.’ On their arrival in the city, they immediately repair to the Parks, which is the general rendezvous…”

In the “Narrative of Sojourner Truth: A Northern Slave, Emancipated from Bodily Servitude by the State of New York, in 1823” (1853), by Olive Gilbert and Sojourner Truth, the latter (Isabella) recalls a bygone “Pingster.”

But the great anticipation was to be short-lived. In 1811, the State Legislature in Albany passed a “Pinkster Law” prohibiting any person, on the days commonly called by that name, “to march or parade, with or without any kind of music,” in any public streets in that city. In due course, New York City’s own Pinkster jubilee faded, too, stirring memories only occasionally like a half-forgotten string of Mardi Gras beads.

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(Originally published in 2010 on suite101[dot]com)

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New York City-based independent historian and author.

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Eric K. Washington

Eric K. Washington

New York City-based independent historian and author.

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