Last Saturday, a man I’ll call Jake who grew up in my new house showed up at my front door with his teenaged son. This happened to me at our old house too – twice. I must be sending messages through the ether: come tell me your story and that of my new home. And so, he did. Jake’s dad was handy and made the built in cabinets in the basement, a cedar closet and even a flagstone porch, one of the things that sold me on the house. Jake and his five siblings spent countless hours sliding down the hefty wooden banisters, (something I’ve banned my kids from doing) and playing with their dog in the back yard (something my kids can’t wait to do). He had a funny story about his sister getting locked in her bathroom (now my girls’) their first night in the house and his dad chiseling away at the jam to free her. (There is still a notch in the wood). His mother was an avid gardener and I am the benefactor of all her hard labor: The apple tree she planted is starting to drop hard green fruit that will ripen as the weather warms. Her lillies are just starting to stretch their orange faces toward the sun. From her peonies, I’ve clipped two full bouquets. But the best part of the visit was when he went to his old bathroom and looked at himself now in his 40s in the same mirror where he learned to shave as a teen, probably around his son’s age. My husband didn’t skip a beat. He told him to take the mirror. It was his after all. Maybe some day, his son will learn to shave in it too. Nothing better than returning something to its rightful owner.
Knowing the history of a house I find grounding. It gives me a sense of place, something I seem to always be reaching for. So, it seemed fortuitous that our new house is just down the street from our town’s historical society. The Montclair Historical Society is housed in part in the Israel Crane House, a Federal Revival style landmark home built by a local entrepreneur in 1796. I pass it every day as I take my daughter to school. After sleeping in a slave dwelling at another historical society back in March, I got curious about my local historic society and learned that Crane had slaves. Ever since, whenever I pass Crane’s house, I look up into the fancy lattice work on the attic windows where I imagine the slaves probably lived and I blow a kiss or smile or just say amen.
Crane had at least two slaves living in the house named Dine and Joe, but that’s the extent of what is know about them…for now. Currently, the MHS is trying to find out about more recent history of African Americans in the Crane House. They’re undertaking an oral history project about the years from 1920 to 1965 when the Israel Crane House served as the YWCA for African Americans. Luminaries from Langston Hughes to W.E.B. Du Bois came and spoke there. There will be an update on the project at MHS’s annual meeting on June 19th.
If you or someone in your family remembers the Montclair YWCA, contact the historical society and share more of the stories this house has to tell.