Origins and Founding
From the time of its founding meeting in John Jay II’s home in 1883, the Huguenot Society of America expanded Reverend Alfred V. Wittmeyer’s original goal of commemorating the bicentennial of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes into a broader program of fostering the memory of the Huguenots and their contributions to the United States of America. The Society inaugurated its foundation with a members’ dinner. Within the first year members began to assemble an impressive library on Huguenot history and printed abstracts of the Society’s proceedings. Lectures on Huguenot history (often followed by music and light refreshments), publications, and the library preoccupied the Society for many years to come.
In 1898, as the tercentennial of the Promulgation of the Edict of Nantes approached, the Huguenot Society’s membership and events blossomed. Planning for the celebration to be held in New York began as early as 1894, with invitations to sister societies soliciting their participation in what would be the first international confluence of Huguenot organizations. Events included services at l’Église française du Saint-Esprit and a reception at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the numerous delegates from English, French, and Swiss Huguenot societies, as well as members from throughout the United States. A grand banquet at Delmonico’s completed the week-long tercentennial celebration, which began on the anniversary, April 13, 1898. Widely reported in the newspapers, choirboys from Grace Church sang the national anthems of all the delegates present in the flag-draped banqueting hall. After the dinner, the United States flag and Huguenot banner were carried through the hall and placed at the table of honor, where newly elected president Frederic J. de Peyster presided as toastmaster. These festivities were followed by the 1900 publication of a handsome commemorative volume on the Edict of Nantes.
On May 10, 1902 the Society presented a bronze tablet to mark the site of the first Huguenot church in New Amsterdam (1688–1704) on the west side of the New York Produce Exchange. In 1915, at the First Presbyterian Church of New York they unveiled the imposing stained-glass Huguenot Window, designed by Maitland Armstrong and donated by member Dr. Benjamin G. Demarest.
The Huguenot Society in the 20th Century
In 1910 the Society moved to new rooms in the Engineers Building at 29 West 39th Street. That year, the society organized a lavish concert featuring the renowned Madame Tetrazzini at the Waldorf Astoria. The event was lauded as one of the highlights of the social season. Annual dinners and events continued at New York landmarks such as the Hotel Knickerbocker, the Colony Club, and Delmonico’s.
In 1939 the Huguenot Society moved to the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society building on East 58th Street. The new rooms were inaugurated with a members’ tea in the library. On July 13th the Society, in collaboration with the Huguenot-Walloon Commission, sponsored Huguenot-Walloon Day at the French Pavilion of the New York World’s Fair. The Huguenot Society also made donations to the Paris Theological Seminary and to the Huguenot Church in Charleston, South Carolina, in addition to its usual gifts.
On April 30, 1940, attendees of the Plaza Hotel banquet dined on Petit Marmite Henry IV, listened to a speech by Dr. Norman Vincent Peale, and received a copy of the Record of the Church at Narragansett and the 1933-40 Society Minutes. It was the last of the old-world dinners. In December, a circular called “France Forever” was sent to members, with a plea for help from Mme. Maurice Garreau-Dombasle, whose husband had resigned his position as Financial Attaché of the French Embassy after France collapsed to become leader of the De Gaulle movement in America. The following May, the Huguenot Society participated in a service of intercession for the people of France at the Collegiate Church of Saint Nicholas in New York. They also made substantial donations to the United Service Organization for National Defense.
In these bleak, wartime years there were few social events. One happy occasion was the first annual Huguenot service at the newly finished sixth Église française du Saint-Esprit. The Society held a more solemn service there in 1944 as a memorial for Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., son of the American president and a Huguenot descendant, who was the first Allied general officer to wade ashore on the Normandy beachhead on June 6, 1944 and who died on the battlefield five weeks later.
Progress and Philanthropy
In 1956 the Society established its first scholarship at Cornell University for an American of Huguenot descent. At the same time, the Society amended its constitution to establish a standing Color Guard to carry flags at receptions and services. In September 1957, the Huguenot Society of America, in collaboration with the Society of Daughters of Holland Dames, the Holland Society of New York, and the St. Nicholas Society, held a reception for Princess Beatrix of the Netherlands at the National Society of Colonial Dames, making her an honorary member and presenting her with a gold insignia.
In 1972 the Society made a donation to the Huguenot Historical Society of New Paltz for restoration work on the Huguenot Street houses. In October 1976 members made an excursion to visit the refurbished village. By this date, many members had participated in Huguenot pilgrimages farther afield—in the summer of 1969 a trip to La Rochelle, France, and in August 1972 sites in England, Holland, Germany, France, and Switzerland. In October 1980 the Society installed a bronze plaque at l’Église française du Saint-Esprit to commemorate twenty United States Presidents of Huguenot descent. The annual banquet moved to the Union Club on December 11, 1980. At this event, a new Society flag took pride of place.
Mrs. Hans A. Frech became the first woman to serve as President of the Society in 1983. In 1985, the annual meeting was held on April 12th at the Museum of the City of New York, where curator Margaret D. Stearns took members through an exhibition of Huguenot silver from New York. A group of Society members traveled to Europe to commemorate the upcoming quatercentenary of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes during the summer months. The Huguenot Society of London entertained the Americans, who also visited a comprehensive Huguenot exhibition and attended a service at St. Paul’s. French President François Mitterand later greeted the group in Paris after they had toured Huguenot sites throughout France. The next year the Society published a special book, Huguenot Participation in the Settling of Colonial North America, edited by Dr. Peter Hannon and containing essays by eleven members.
From the New Millennium to Today
In 2000 the Society supported a project of l’Eglise française du Saint-Esprit to recreate the plaques picturing fifty Huguenot and Walloon shields that decorate the sanctuary, the old plaques having deteriorated. In 2001 the Society joined with the New Netherland Institute and the Holland Society of New York in a three-day seminar with scholars from across the nation and abroad, “New Netherland at the Millennium,” held in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Society’s auditorium.
The Society’s first Web site was launched in 2002. This year saw the publication of papers by three of our grant recipients and medalists in From Strangers to Citizens: The Integration of Immigrant Communities in Britain, Ireland, and Colonial America, 1550-1750, the Proceedings of a conference held in the Dutch Church, Austin Friars, London, in 2000. The chief highlight of 2002 was the publication of Quatercentenary Celebration of the Promulgation of the Edict of Nantes, edited by member Michael J. Burlingham, which contains accounts of the events celebrating the Edict’s 400th anniversary, essays, and illustrations. Finally, in 2003, the Society’s Constitution was revised.
After eighty years at the New York Genealogical & Biographical Society building, the Society moved to its current headquarters in the General Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen Building at 20 West 44th Street in the spring of 2008. The Huguenot Society of America is a living memorial to the Huguenots’ struggle, fortitude, and triumph over adversity, as well as an ongoing resource of many facets of Huguenot history. The Society, over one-hundred-forty-five years after its formation, continues the work and honorable endeavors of its founding members.
Remember that our inheritance of honorable names and of the incessant blessing of civil and religious liberty carry with them the obligation to keep them in honor and maintain and defend them… that we hold them in trust, to enjoy in our lifetime and transmit them untarnished and undiminished to posterity. We cherish these traditions, not for the glorification of family names, but for the honor and advancement of humanity, as incentives to those private and public virtues that constitute the true strength of a nation.
The Honorable Thomas F. Bayard (1828–1898), American statesman, diplomat, lawyer, and United States Ambassador to Great Britain, 1893.