Nyack Sketch Log: St. Charles AME Zion Church

NSL_130_St Charles_Featured Image_revisedby Bill Batson

Men and women who survived American slavery built St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Sparkill in 1865. If your eyes haven’t set sight on St. Charles, you’re missing out. It is situated besides a creek and below a tresle bridge on Valentine Ave. The building, with tasteful renovations designed by Nyack Historical Society President Winston Perry, is a living monument to Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and the AME Zion church that they founded.

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Bishop James Varick

When Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning,” he was reflecting on the racial dynamic that led to the creation of Zion Methodism. Sadly, King was describing the state of race relations in the mid-20th century. The legal and cultural customs that discouraged mixed-race religious observance have been a constant feature in American history.

In her exhaustive and exquisite 1983 history of her church and denomination, Jacqueline L. Holland wrote about the conditions facing black Christians in 18th century New York. “There were spots of negro membership in white churches, but it was fashion to segregate them. Negroes were seated in the back of the church, or in the balcony.”

Holland notes that after a slave revolt in New York City in 1712 “whites exhibited a common fear of slave organizations of any kind.” When black congregations sought to hold their own services on Sunday evenings after their European breathren were done worshiping, a motion was adopted at a Methodist congress that said “we don’t want negroes meeting alone together in our church at night.”

In order to have unfettered rights of religious expression, an African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in New York City in 1796. In 1822, James Varick, who was born in Newburgh, NY, was ordained as the first Bishop of the AME Zion Church.

NSL_130_Abraham Sisco_revised

Abraham Sisco, a member of the largest and oldest black family in Rockland County, lived in Skunk Hollow. The Siscos continue to worship at St. Charles AME Zion Church.

From its inception, the AME Zion Church was an active participant in the struggle to abolish slavery. According to Holland’s account, “The Underground Railroad was practically a church movement.” The Underground Railroad was a euphemism for a clandestine network of individuals and institutions that helped slaves escape from legalized bondage in the American south.

St. Charles was built in 1865 by Rev. William Thompson, an itinerant minister who came from New York City. Holland reports that “St. Charles AME Zion Church families can trace some of the family names” from the First AME Zion church in New York City.

Rev. Brandon McLauchlin

 

In September 2017, Rev Bradon McLauchlin  stepped into the pulpit of St. Charles when the Rev. Louis E. Sanders retired after 36 years leading the congregation.

Rev. McLauchlin  graduated from Fayetteville State University with a degree in general music. He went on to earn a Masters of Divinity from Campbell University Divinity School in St. Buies Creek, North Carolina.

The new pastor is married to Nicole McLauchlin, a music teacher at Pomona Middle School.

Before assuming responsibilities at St. Charles, Rev. McLauchlin  was a pastor of Chapel Grove AME Zion Church, Fayetteville, North Carolina. and a former assistant pastor of New Bethel AME Zion Church, Fayetteville

 

Original members of St. Charles were also drawn from a community of free black settlers who lived in an area known as Skunk Hollow. Skunk Hollow encompassed land that includes the Palisades, Piermont, Sparkill and Closter.

St. Charles faces Ferdon Pond, where a black man named John Moore built and operated a mill in the early 1800s. According to historian Dr. Lori Martin, Moore also constructed mill wheels that were said to have produced blankets for soldiers fighting in the Civil War and were used widely throughout Rockland County. Moore’s daughter, Cynthia Hesdra, became a successful businesswoman in her own right, owning property in New York City and Nyack.

Hesdra was also rumored to have used her properties as stations in the Underground Railroad. Piermont Avenue between Hudson and Depew Avenue in Nyack is named for Hesdra, who owned a parcel of land near what is now Memorial Park.

Laurence H. Holland, the brother-in-law of the author of the history of St. Charles, made a material contribution to the church of historic proportions. A chemist at Lederle Labs in Pearl River from 1941-1991 and NAACP leader, Holland won a large lottery prize in the late 1980’s. His generous donations helped finance efforts to renovate and add to the original structure. A fellowship hall was named in honor of Laurence’s brother, Albert Jr., an attorney, who was a respected civil rights leader.

“I was privileged to work as the architect for the addition and restoration with a building committee of outstanding individuals including Rev. Sanders, Leonard Cooke, Albert Holland, Clarence Branch and others,” said President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, Winston Perry. “Wherever possible, we preserved and restored the architectural features of the historic church building,” Perry said.

NSL_130_Leonard Cooke Library and Museum

Leonard Cooke Library and African American Museum

Inside St. Charles is a library and museum that contains the history of the men and women who not only survived the most outrageous aspects of American racism, but managed to build an institution that continues to seek to reverse the most pernicious effects of slavery and discrimination.

As historians, builders, advocates, and philanthropists , generations of St. Charles members have constructed a secure vessel to pursue freedom and justice for themselves and others. To paraphrase the inscription at the base of Dr. King’s monument in Washington: with their faith, the members of St. Charles hewed out of the mountain of despair, a stone church of hope.

A copy of Jacqueline L. Holland’s “The History of St. Charles African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church: A Manifestation of the Black Church in America” is available in the local history room of the Nyack Library.

You can purchase copies of Martin’s book, The Ex-Slave’s Fortune: The Story of Cynthia Hesdra on line here or you can also find it on the shelf at the Nyack Library

 See also:

An activist, artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Nyack Sketch Log: St. Charles AME Zion Church“ © 2018 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to see more.

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Nyack Sketch Log: Write Your Truth

by Bill Batson

My first Nyack Sketch Log, published on August 23, 2011, was an early exercise in truth telling. Liberty Street is Aptly named tells the story of how my African American family achieved middle class status in Nyack in the 1880s, a stunning accomplishment when you consider that slavery was only 17 years dead, and racial discrimination in American was in its infancy. As a memoir, the column gave me a way to explore my personal history, conducting research I might not have ordinarily embarked on, and it let me shine a light on the history of thousands of other black families who live outside of the comprehension of strangers and neighbors not shackled by the stigma of bondage.

On February 22, I will begin teaching a memoir writing class at the Nyack Center that encourages others to write their truths. During the six week course, I will help students use words and images to tell their stories. Scholarships are available. Contact me at wrbatson@gmail.com if you’d like to participate.

When I began this column seven years ago, I had the hubristic goal of telling every story behind every address in our one-square mile village. That conceit quickly collapsed. I realized that there are too many stories and not enough story tellers. After a few years, and hundreds of posts I’ve barely scratched the surface of untold stories. The only way to manage the storyteller shortage is to crowd source the problem, to enlist a murmuration of memoirists.  I quickly found a bird of that feather. One afternoon, when I was giving a talk for my first Nyack Sketch Log book at Valley Cottage Library, I met an 88 year-old, aspiring author named June Sundvik

I helped June publish her memoir Life on Old Mill Road from 1750 t0 1950  in October. I was elated to be able to help a local author add a volume to the library.  I next set out to unleash an entire class room of autobiographers. The work of my Sketch Logging class at the Learning Collaborative is published every Sunday on NyackNewsAndViews in a column called Words & Images. Not only do my students produce a document that their progeny will treasure, there is an opportunity be published online.

Last month, I directed the Nyack Record Shop Project, that will submit three dozen oral histories from the African American community to the Nyack Library.  When scholars sit down to research this period of Rockland County history, they will find an abundant supply of first person material.  This history will not be shaped solely a few elite voices, but a chorus of common people, whom history often forgets or misconstrues.

Join me to develop a short essay, illustrated by a photo or drawing that tells your story. Make a permanent mark on the narrative of our time. Help a family member or neighbor tell their truth.

The impulse to leave a legacy of words behind that chronicle our experience is powerful, but often unrequited. Don’t let your story go silent, or get told by someone else. Join me every Thursday at the Nyack Farmers at the Nyack Center starting on February 22 and tell your truth. I’m listening.

Liberty Street is Aptly Named

August 23, 2011

This house and this street are the remnants of Nyack’s oldest middle class black neighborhood. In the early twentieth century, when Edward Hopper was a teenager, a group of African American families bought homes in Nyack. Homeownership by blacks in Nyack was a stunning achievement when you consider the fact that merely fifty years earlier blacks owned nothing: blacks were owned.

The speed of this reversal in fortune is hard to comprehend. In historic terms, fifty years is a tiny interval. Fifty years ago was 1961.  Imagine a family advancing from slavery to home ownership in the time span that America went from black and white TV to digital cable.  My 60’s reference is purposeful irony.  It was urban renewal; a phenomenon of that era that destroyed the middle class black community that many refer to as Jackson Avenue.  Almost obliterated, that is, except for this house on Liberty Street.

NSL_Liberty St._revised

My great grand parents, George T. and Sarah Avery (center)

My great grandparents purchased the house on Jackson Avenue.  My grandmother used the meager sum that she got through the condemnation process of the eminent domain debacle to buy another home. The only saving grace is that this site now holds much needed affordable housing and a senior citizen development.

As I sat on the ground in front of this modest structure and drew, a parking enforcement officer walked toward me. I asked him if he was going to ticket me for squatting in a parking space. He laughed and said if that was the case, he would have written me up weeks ago; having seen me numerous times perched on the curb side drawing. I think he chose this moment to say hello because he approved of my subject matter. It turns out that he knew my aunt, who was once the Deputy Village Clerk and who grew up on Jackson Avenue.

I was then approached by a local artist who told me she admires, but avoids representational drawings. She is an abstract painter, which I told her I envy. She lamented the demands of linear perspective, telling me how she would throw in the towel after the first line went astray.  Watching my imprecise and quivering depiction, she thought aloud that if she could have forgiven herself  the occasional errant mark, she would have seen that the whole is greater than the sum of its imperfect parts.

Because I draw free hand with black ink on white paper, I confront the fear of failure with every pen stroke. Yet I persist and complete each drawing, motivated by my attachment to the village and enriched by my random interactions with the villagers. That someone who loves Nyack and making art would consider drawing from life after meeting me on this special site was invigorating.  During this encounter, I could feel the freedom that my ancestors must have felt on this spot.  As modest as this home appears, its very existence and hidden history is profound and I am pleased to have archived it.  The cartographers got this one right. Liberty Street is aptly named.

An artist and writer, Bill Batson lives in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Nyack Sketch Log: Write Your Truth” © 2018 Bill Batson. Visit billbatsonarts.com to see more.

The Nyack Sketch Log is sponsored each week by Weld Realty.
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Nyack Sketch Log: Spoken History

by Bill Batson

Major gaps in my ancestry explain my fascination with family, local and black history. I was born in the interval between the March on Washington on August 28, 1963, where Martin Luther King Jr. gave his “I Have A Dream” speech, and the bombing of the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama on September 15, where four little girls lost their lives. I was also immediately put up for adoption. Spoken History, an exhibit that I  created and that opens on Friday, February 2 at 95 1/2 Main Street in Nyack, explores the value of preserving and reconstructing personal narratives.

America was at a perilous crossroads in September 1963. This was a time of great uncertainty for our nation: would we embrace Dr. King’s enlightened vision of interracial cooperation, or descend into the anarchy of violence motivated by racial animus. Having been born to an unwed mother as the result of an interracial union and placed up for adoption, my fate was unclear as well. Fortunately, I was adopted by a wonder family with deep roots in a beloved community like Nyack.

As my life has proceed, decisions made to conceal details of my past, and the very illusive nature of a narrative obscured by secrecy and shame, has produced an artist that is always asking questions, with an unquenchable desire to explore and comment on the aspects of our nation’s history that revolve around race and civil rights. I am driven to weave together the threads of the narrative of the family that raised me, but am always being summoned by the siren song of the stories of a sub-Saharan African family that I have only barely met.

My art, and at times, my day job, has been the practice of storytelling and searching, making art and organizing events, using words and images that seek to unearth hidden facts or heal racial divisions. Spoken History embodies both pursuits.

In Spoken History, and the Nyack Record Shop Project that I recently directed for the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center and the Historical Society of the Nyack, I employ words, uttered and recorded to affirm the existence of Nyack’s African American community to assert its equality. When words spoken so purposefully are heard, they can arouse in us a reaction, like the call and response of a sermon.

It is tragic when a life has no words to accompany it, no song to serenade the survivor, no annotation to measure the pain and pleasure felt. No spoken word or oral history given. That missing narrative has the quality of a black hole, where even light can’t escape.

In my exhibit, Spoken History, I specifically celebrate two figures, one alive and one dead: a blues legend, singer, lyricist and band leader Sam Waymon, and a spectral like figure, Cynthia Hesdra, that escaped oblivion and lives today, thanks to journalists, scholars and several artists that I assembled and directed.

Sam Waymon

Sam Waymon writes notes and lyrics that illustrate the guts and glory of the African Diaspora. Performing since the age of three with his sister, Nina Simone, Waymon has been at the center of the creative dialogue that captures, in excruciating and exalting detail, how much black life matters.  As a neighbor and citizen of our village, Sam’s journey is a living text book that should be required reading. To ease that assignment, and yes, there will be a test, a passage from his oral history has been writ large for all to see.

Artists like Sam are public servants, who often toil without steady income or benefits. Supporting Sam’s art is a way to live the dream of a freedom and equality that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King died to establish when he was killed 50 years ago this April. It is no small irony that Sam and his sister sang at Dr. King’s memorial service.

Cynthia Hesdra

Were it not for scholar and product of Nyack public schools Dr. Lori Martin, Cythina Hesdra’s name would not exist. Hesdra almost died the third death portrayed in the Pixar film coco, when ones name is finally forgotten. Thanks to Martin and others, Hesdra has a street named after her, and a Toni Morrison Bench By The Road monument erected in her honor as permanent tribute. Her heroism as a female African American abolitionist and entrepreneur in the mid 1800s would inspire no one. But evoking her memory has been complicated by the lack of a photographic image of her.

Sam Waymon Needs Our Support

As the result of a recent housing emergency, Sam Waymon needs your support.  Please visit the Sam Waymon page on gofundme  established by his colleague and bandmate Dylan Kelehan, to find out how you can help.

Read Nyack Sketch Log: Sam Waymon Makes Historic Score to learn more about his life and times and talents.

When I directed the Bench by the Road project, there was an palpable tension as many minds sought to conjure up a likeness for a somewhat recent historical figure who had not been photographer or even, as is my preference, depicted in a sketch.  I never felt comfortable arbitrarily giving her life and substituting my imagination for her actual countenance. Now, thanks to a team that I assembled that includes Fabric Artist Sara Bunn, Actor Bev Mitcham, and Photographer Luis Bruno, Hesdra has been given form.

As powerful as these names ring out, there are two window installations that are part of Spoken History, that represent the radical egalitarianism that must exist if we are to be the democratic society of our conceit. Every life story, every improvised verse, matters. And if given voice, and patient ear, you will find that each is as compelling as the story or testimony shared before it. So take the headphones and listen to the 25 stories of African American life given during the Nyack Record Shop Project, an oral history initiative that is an homage to the work of photographer Carrie Mae Weems. Or take the microphone and give a three minute song or soliloquy that captures this moment in time for you. Your words will be recorded and a copy submitted to the Nyack Library.

If you do not speak, on the record, and secure that your words have been archived, the narrative of our time and place will be written without you. And tragically, the stories of people who have struggled the most, and whose suffering and survival and triumph might be most useful to the masses of people are those that are not being collected.  When the aids activists of the 80s said silence is death, they could have continued the observation and included oblivion. Speak to history or history will forget you.

I am still filling in the blanks of my story.  I have yet to fully embrace the history of the maternal line that is known to me, or been able to engage with an African lineage that I am separated from my calculus of distance and custom. But through my words, individual and collaborative art projects and  research, I am weaving together my story and the stories of others. It’s a satisfying sojourn that has become the manner of my service and my art form. Through my columns and exhibits like Spoken History, I hope I can inspire others to travel along.

Read Nyack Sketch Log: Scholar Puts Local History on Global Map to learn more about Dr. Martin and Cynthia Hesdra

Special thanks to Ed and Susan Bonni, Kris Burns, Marisol Diaz, Katie Elevitch, Kerri Lee Green and Bonnie Timm.

Check out the incredible work of Luis Bruno here and Sara Bunn here

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Scholar Puts Local History on Global Map” © 2016 Bill Batson. In Dec. 2014, Batson published “Nyack Sketch Log, An Artist and Writer Explores The History of A Hudson River Village.” Copies of the book can be purchased at billbatsonarts.com.


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Nyack Sketch Log: Reverend Owen C. Thompson of Grace Church

NSL113_New Rector at Grace Church Featured Imageby Bill Batson

The Reverend Owen C. Thompson has led the flock at Grace Episcopal Church since September 2013.  You may have seen the man who prefers to be called Owen around town; sitting in on the bongo drums for a set at GraceMusic, riding a motorcycle or hitting the gym. Father Thompson can also be found rallying for LGBTQ rights or speaking at vigils for black lives silenced by police bullets. Grace’s rector is keeping the beat for a congregation that has a rich tradition of community and creativity.

NSL_113_Grace Welcomes New RectorFather Thompson is the son of the late Right Reverend Herbert Thompson Jr., Bishop of Southern Ohio and the late Ruselle Thompson, a former operatic soprano. Father Thompson has adopted his father’s ministry motto as his own, “To reconcile. To heal. To Liberate. To Serve.”

Father Thompson’s wife, Jonna, is a holistic health practitioner, and they have two young sons, Ridley and Carter.

Father Thompson succeeds the Reverend Richard Gressle, who retired as rector on January 1, 2012. The Reverend Alon White  served the church as Interim Rector during the transition and search process.

NSL113_Grace Church PortraitGrace Episcopal Church was founded in 1861 by Franklin Babbitt. When Babbitt crossed the Hudson on a sailing sloop from Tarrytown, some considered Nyack “an old Dutch place about fifty years behind the times.” At 32, Babbitt swiftly cobbled together a congregation. Two weeks after his arrival at the Burd Street dock, he held his first service and by the end of the month, he presided over a formal meeting where the parish was incorporated.

Babbitt was as much a creative force as a spiritual one during his 56 years as rector. In the early years, he played the roll of organist and choirmaster in addition to his duties as rector and sexton. The greatest legacy to his artistry however, and the enduring symbol of his organizational genius is Grace Church itself. The building functions like a hymn or a painting, elevating those who behold the exterior or experience the acoustics of the interior.

During the course of two interviews, one in 2013 just as Father Thompson arrived in town and an oral history taken as part of the Nyack Record Shop Project interview, here’s he speaks his truth on music and art and the cultural community that is Grace Church and Nyack, coming to Nyack and some of the churches programs.

“There is truly something ethereal and transcendental about music and art.”

“My mother was an operatic soprano who sang on a few occasions at Carnegie Hall, as well as leading roles in off-Broadway musicals such as Carousel, South Pacific, and Porgy and Bess. Our home was constantly filled with the sound and presence of music. When she would sing in the choir at the church we attended during my youth, I, as a toddler would wander up to the chancel and curl up at her feet just to hear her sing.

“It was my mother’s inspiration that led me to join the boys choir at our church and continues to fuel my love affair with music to this day.”Part of what drew me to Grace was its vibrant music program. I was thrilled when I learned that Nyack is a town that is filled with musicians and artists. Call me biased, but I view music and art as that which is rooted in the spirit and brings us closer to one another and points to the mystery that is God, as there is truly something ethereal and transcendental about music and art.

Prior to being called to the priesthood, I was involved in the performing arts (actor) and in the visual arts (video production).  The arts are a big part of my identity. I envision the Church hosting a variety of music concerts, spoken word poetry events, and art exhibits. It is therefore my hope and prayer that music and other forms of art can be a vehicle to build lasting and meaningful relationships between the church and the rest of the community.”

Fond memories of a diverse background

“We started our journey as a family in Brooklyn, Fort Green, Willoughby Avenue. I remember playing on the block with this diverse group of kids from all walks of life. We had Jewish and Greek and Italian and Polish and African American, clearly. We would all go to each others’ homes and get acclimated to all of these different kinds of foods and cultures. Every woman was our mother. You’d often hear the clarion call in the neighborhood beaconing everyone in all of these different languages. Even if it wasn’t our mom, we would heed the call and go to their house tell our mother would come home.”

On coming to Nyack

“I longed to go back to the days of Brooklyn and having that community dynamic, so when I heard there was an opening at the church called Grace I said why not.  Coming here, I fell in love with the diversity within the community. There arevsome elements that remind me of Brooklyn and to see my kids running around the neighborhood with a diverse set of friends, that’s just icing on the cake. So I love Nyack, I love the social involvement, the social activism.”

Practicing what we preach

There are many cultural and community programs contained within the stone walls and stain glass windows of Grace Church. The music program has four choirs. GraceMusic produces events and festivals, including the annual Welles Crowther Concert of Remembrance , a performing arts tribute to a member of the congregation who sacrificed his life saving others on 9/11.

Amazing Grace Circus, a youth art and fitness program, is another response of the Grace community to the emotional abyss that followed September 11th. The youth circus has now touched the lives of thousands of students and families through programs in public and private schools throughout the region. Father Thompson describes some others and the underlying motivation.

In his Nyack Record Shop interview, Thompson elaborated:

“Grace is a church that responds to the needs of the community. With so many programs and offerings, people can find their place at the table whether they are a seeker, hard core believer, or atheist.  They can find solace and find meaning as part of a church that is involved in the community. That is the legacy that I have inherited.

We have Midnight Run, which is a food program. We have a great youth program where our kids every year will go abroad or domestically for service trips. For example, last year we went to West Virginia, this year we are going to Nicaragua, then will go again to West Virginia and then we’ll go to the Dominican Republic. It all began with responding to Hurricane Katrina. What I love about this is that it attracts kids from all over the community, regardless of religion or belief they can come and get plugged in.

And what we’ve had since the 1950s are 12 step groups. The church is seemingly open all the time, but seriously seven days a week and 16 hours a day.

We have a lot of support groups for LGBTQ and trans-families and individuals and we just started Grace’s kitchen a year ago, which is a breakfast program. We are part of the Nyack Hunger Coalition, which we started, all the feeding programs came together and said, what are the holes when it comes to food insecurity, what can we do. We asked about breakfast and boom, we were plugged in. That’s what I love about the church. We are not just sitting back and waiting. This has made my work much more meaningful. It gives me street cred in the community, because we are not some proselytizing, pious, detached, religious institutional group, but a church that practices what we preach.”

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Grace Church” © 2018 Bill Batson.


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Nyack Sketch Log: NAACP President Dr. Frances Pratt

by Bill Batson

NSL87_Frances Pratt Sketch PortraitElegant hats have become the symbol of local civil rights icon Frances Pratt. But when she arrived at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in New York City 62 years ago, she wore a borrowed dress and shoes too tight for walking. On Thursday, April 19, Pratt will officiate the 59th annual Freedom Fund dinner for the Nyack branch of the NAACP at the Pearl River Hilton. From head to toe, France Pratt’s personal story is as bold and compelling as her sartorial style.

Frances Pratt

Frances Pratt presiding over the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. celebration at Pilgrim Baptist Church on Jan. 19.

Pratt grew up with her mother, four sisters and two brothers in rural South Carolina. An incident from her early childhood shaped her future activism. “I walked into an ice cream parlor with my mother and the clerk said, ‘You can buy the ice cream, but you have to eat outside.’ I had never seen my mother demeaned in that way.  If she had spoken up, the clerk would have called the police.”

In May, 1955, Frances, who was attending Friendship College in Rock Hill, South Carolina, learned that she would not be returning to school. “My mother sat me down and said ‘you are going to have to go to work for a while,’” Pratt recalled. “My brother Billy Powell and my mother were not well.” With the support of a teacher, Pratt found a potential employer in New York who would pay her $40 per month that she could send home to support the family. She first had to travel to Clover, South Carolina to pick peaches to raise the $17.50 for her bus fare.

Bill Batson describes the Nyack Record Shop Project at the 34th Annual Interfaith Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Commemoration. Video by M. Diaz

Two years after arriving in New York City, Frances moved to South Nyack into the home of new husband Marshall Pratt. “I met Marshall in Mount Morris Park in Harlem while I was on a field trip with a group of children,” said Pratt. “I was working for a nursery school founded by Dr. Thelma Adair, the first women to serve as an elected Moderator for the Presbyterian Church.  Marshall declared that he wore out four tires circling the park trying to see me again. When he found me, we made a date.”

When Pratt came to Nyack, she dreamed of attending the missionary program at Nyack College. “I wanted to go to Addis Ababa in Africa.” But responsibilities to family required that she find a way to serve the world closer to home, so she enrolled in Rockland Community College where she obtained her degree in nursing. Pratt went on to work at Nyack Hospital for 53 years, holding titles including Head Nurse of the Emergency Room and the Office of Employee Health.

NSL87_NAACP Symbol This week’s sketch is based on a photo that currently hangs in the emergency room lobby of Nyack Hospital. The lobby as well as a scholarship and a Peace Rose Garden were named in her honor when she retired.

With her typical combination of candor and comic timing, Pratt remarked at the dedication ceremony, “What I appreciate most about this recognition is that it is not about the late Frances Ethel Powell Pratt. I can actually read the plaque and smell the roses!”

In 1981, Pratt was elected President of the local branch of the NAACP. On Thursday night, April 19, Pratt will host the organization’s annual fundraising gala at the Pearl River Hilton.  While all eyes will be focused on this year’s keynote speaker, Pastor Stephen A. Green, Pastor of Heard AME Zion Church in Roselle, NJ, people will find it difficult to turn away from Pratt, who always appears in a hat more spectacular than the one she wore the previous year.

NSL87_Hat CollectionPratt credits her husband Marshall, who passed away in 2002, for her memorable hats. “My husband designed all my hats.  He was a talented artist and would always design my hats and coordinate my outfits.” Pratt’s collection of 250 chapeaus were on display at RCC in 2005 for a fundraising event for the NAACP.

One of Pratt’s greatest legacies might be the annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. program that has taken place at Pilgrim Baptist Church for the last 31 years. The interfaith, racially diverse event is consistently a standing room only affair.

Nyack Record Shop Project

The Nyack branch of the NAACP joined with the Hopper House and the Nyack, Rockland and African American Historical Societies to collect oral histories of the African American community. Once recorded and transcribed, these stories will be permanently available at the Nyack Library.

Our project was inspired by Carrie Mae Weems, an African American photographer who is one of the most celebrated artists in the nation. Weems interviewd the black community in Beacon, NY in a record shop in 2003 for an exhibit that is currently on display at the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center through Feb. 25.

You can give an oral history by visiting Kiam Records between Tuesday and Saturday.

Hours:
Tues, Wed, Thurs: noon – 7.
Friday and Sat. 10a – 10p.

“Frances Pratt is one of the most decent, thoughtful people I have ever known. Her fight for the rights of all and her clarity and fairness in pursuing those rights is astounding,” said Nyack Mayor Jen Laird-White.

Pratt’s organizing style is as subtle as her fashion sense is striking. Most people who organize large public events always include themselves on the program, but that is not Pratt’s predilection. But even as she reserves the limelight for others, for many, Pratt’s aphorisms are as memorable as her accessories. When Pratt sets the agenda, her guests get the last word.  Today, however, this Nyack Sketch Log will end with a few classic Prattisms:

If you see a turtle on a fence, you know he didn’t get there by himself. None of us got to where we are without help from someone else.

Your pennies you got to watch, the dollars take care of themselves.

You ain’t never seen a U-Haul following a hearse.

Public remarks should be like a lady’s dress…short enough to be attractive and long enough to cover the subject.

Special thanks to Doria Hillsman for the hat photo and Dr. Lori Martin and Paul Adler for sharing some Prattisms.  

Hat collecton photo credit: Lloyd Stansbury 

France Pratt photo credit: Paul Adler

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: NAACP President Frances Pratt” © 2017 Bill Batson. In Dec. 2014, Batson published “Nyack Sketch Log, An Artist and Writer Explores The History of A Hudson River Village.” Copies of the book can be purchased at billbatsonarts.com.


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Nyack Sketch Log: A New Way to Commemorate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

by Bill Batson

When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was killed 50 years ago this April, the assassin was not just trying to silence a man, but a people.  A people who believe in freedom, and who will not rest until it’s achieved. A people who are proud of their ancestry, despite being called inferior and indolent by the dominant culture in America and Europe. But ultimately, it will not be the infamous act of a murderer with a fire arm that might  silence the voice of the generation who endured and overthrew the tradition of Jim Crow racial discrimination in America. We could be the culprit –  if we fail to record the life story of our elders before they depart.

Would you ever throw out your cell phone without down loading all the memory: phone numbers and photos, password and personal information? That’s what we do when we let our elders go to sleep without down loading their memories.

In some communities, Martin Luther King Jr’s national holiday is commemorated through public service. Starting on January 15, 2018, the Nyack Record Shop Project is hoping that our collective story-telling summit will elevate the practice of recording the personal history of our elders to the status of an essential and routine civic undertaking here in Nyack and other places. I am serving as the director of the project.

We are inspired to preserve the memories of our elders by the work of Carrie Mae Weems.  Weems’ work is currently on exhibit at the Edward Hopper House Museum and Study Center at 82 North Broadway in Nyack through February 25. She is the first recipient of the The Hopper Citation, a legislative award that was authored by New York State Assembly member Ellen Jaffee.

Weems collected oral histories in a record shop in Beacon that informed her large scale photographs. In Nyack, we will spend several days conducting interviews at Kiam Records as homage to her. The use of a store front window on Main Street is a powerful symbol that the stories of a community that were once marginalized are now taking center stage.

The African American community is being asked to consider telling their stories, or reaching out to family members, and neighbors, co-workers, who have lived a life of struggle and substance that deserves to be preserved. Let them know about our project. 

Father Owen Thompson of Grace Church in the pulpit during Pilgrim’s King Day service in 2016. Nyack NAACP President Dr. Frances Pratt, who organizes the annual event, in the seat of honor.

Participants are invited to give oral histories at Grace Church at the corner Franklin Street and First Avenue on January 15, at 4pm.  Many of the organizers and participants will be attending the Interfaith Commemorative Martin Luther King Service first at Pilgrim Baptist Church at 80 North Franklin at 2p.  Grace Church is directly across the street.

If you can not attend the session on the 15th, oral histories interviews will be conducted at Kiam Record Shop at 95 Main Street from Tuesday thru Saturday.  The hours from Tuesday – Thursday are noon – 7p.  On Friday and Saturday some one will be there from 10am – 10pm.  A typical oral history will take 30 minutes.

To register visit edwardhopperhouse.org

Working to make the historic records representative of our village’s demographics will insure that when future scholars write the history of Nyack, the black community will be one of the main character. Every January 15, let’s make mass oral history collection a new way to commemorate Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Oral histories will be transcribed and archived by the Historical Society of the Nyacks and made available to the public.

 The Nyack Record Shop Project is an initiative of the Edward Hopper House and the Historical Society of the Nyacks, supported by the Historical Society of Rockland County, the Nyack Center, Kiam Records, Rand Realty, Alex Cabraie of Planet Wings, Clare and Bill Sheridan and South Mountain Studio.

This week’s sketch is a drawing of a sculpture entitled Non-Violence by Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd that is on display on the grounds of the United Nations in New York. Reuterswärd made this piece afterJohn Lennon was murdered by a gun.

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: A New Way to Commemorate Rev. Martin Luther King” © 2018 Bill Batson. 


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Nyack Sketch Log: Warts and All

NSL_Warts and Allby Bill Batson

In 1884, Nyack, NY was a bustling river community and the commercial heart of Rockland County. This sketch is from a widely circulated map made by L. R. Burleigh. The bird’s-eye view rendering depicts a jumble of homes, businesses and churches. When you take a closer look at this historical document you’ll discover that our 19th century republic on the Hudson was not as indivisible as the promise made in our pledge of allegiance.

The 1884 map has a legend that designated 42 places of interest including ten churches. Eight of the churches are identified by denomination; the last two are listed by sect and by race. When I noticed this detail for the first time, it took my breath away.  St. Philip’s African Methodist Episcopal Church, which stands today on the corner of North Mill and Burd Street, was listed in the legend as “Zion’s M.E. Church (Colored).”  The church now known as Pilgrim Baptist and located at the corner of High Avenue and Franklin Street was identified as “Second Baptist Church (Colored).”

Twenty Five years ago, I travelled to rural Georgia to help a legal team exonerate a death row inmate named Curfew Davis. Needing the exact street address of a Baptist Church where we were expected for a meeting, I called information. When I asked the operator for the listing, in a deadpan drawl, she surprised me with her own question: she wanted to know which Baptist Church. I said I didn’t

Bitter background of sweet bag

Tote bag modeled by Bonnie Timm

My drawing of the L.R. Burleigh map adorns one of my first pieces of Nyack mechanize. Every time I see the tote bag, I experience a kind of cognitive dissonance. I loved this map, was pleased with my drawing of it, and the tote it inspired, but I can’t shake the ice-water-in-my-veins-feeling I got when I saw that the map’s legend constrained the religious choices of the people of Nyack in 1884 by race. Sometimes I see a sweet drawing. Sometimes I see the old Jim Crow.

know. She asked again and I got her drift. Even though it was 1990, the ghost of Jim Crow ran through the phone and down my spine. When I replied, “the black one,” she gave me the phone number.

I felt the same chill when I noticed the legend of the 1884 map. Was the distinction “colored” made as a boast; a proud assertion that the village accommodated two black churches?  Was it a warning to prevent someone from walking into a congregation of clashing complexion: or something more ominous?

I was more saddened than shocked when I confronted the legacy of segregation in the South in the 1990’s.  I knew that the removal of overt signs of discrimination, like those posted on water fountains and bathrooms in the 1960’s hadn’t ended racism, but it was sobering to consider that members of the same religious denomination still required separate houses of worship for each race.

When I observed a Jim Crow distinction on a map of Nyack, it was the geography that stunned me. I adopted the hubris of many Northerners, believing that the sins of human bondage were relegated to the South. Nyack should feel proud of our role in the 1800’s Underground Railroad network that helped slaves escape to the North. But if we believe that our landscape is not stained by slavery and segregation, we would be wrong.

As you uncover the more sordid aspects of a particularly contentious period of history, it is easy to think of the people of that era as characters in a period movie. But when the events took place where you live and the characters that navigated the social turbulence were your ancestors, each new detail is like a faint body blow.

My great-grandfather, George T. Avery, was a spokesperson for the black community and a member of Zion’s M.E. church at the time this map was drawn. From our vantage point today, the notation “colored” is an awkward relic of past discrimination. For the members of these two churches, the fact that the distinction was made in such a public fashion was of enormous social and material consequence.

My great grandfather, George T. Avery

A more noble aspect of our democracy is that we keep these ugly details of our evolution in our documents. We do not pretend that the abhorrent customs of American apartheid never existed. We resist the temptation to destroy the evidence of our troubled past.

You do not need to read far into the Constitution to be reminded that when apportioning congressional seats, black people were counted as three fifths of a person. It would be a profound injustice if some well-meaning printer sanitized copies of the Constitution, or the map of 1884 and removed these examples of racial discord. We honor the progress our society has made, the burdens of people like my great-grandfather and the members of St. Philip’s and Pilgrim, when we publish the unvarnished map of 1884, warts and all.

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives in Nyack, NY. “Nyack Sketch Log: Warts and All” © 2018 Bill Batson. 


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