Nyack, May 18 — A crowd of several hundred citizens, students, historians and fans of beloved author Toni Morrison came to visit Memorial Park in Nyack, NY today to dedicate a Bench By The Road to the 19th century entrepreneur and Underground Railroad conductor Cynthia Hesdra.
Pultitzer Prize winning American novelist, editor and professor Toni Morrison is one of the most celebrated authors of the 20th century and the first African American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. She is seen here speaking in Nyack, NY at the dedication ceremony for the installation of Nyack’s own, Bench By The Road.
Bench By The Road Project: tonimorrisonsociety.org/bench.html
From Hudson Valley Magazine [http://tinyurl.com/mm3vucm]:
"Cynthia Hesdra might not be as famous as Harriet Tubman, but the part she played in helping slaves attain freedom is no less important than that of her well-known counterpart.
Hesdra was once held as a slave, but after securing her freedom, she ran a laundry business and owned property in both Nyack and Greenwich Village. At her death in 1879, she had amassed a net worth of $100,000 — roughly $2.3 million in modern money. But arguably more impressive is the evidence suggesting she used her Nyack buildings as Underground Railroad locations. “The challenge in chronicling this period is that there was a great deal of effort to hide records,” says Bill Batson, chair of the Nyack Commemoration Committee. Hence, not much concrete proof exists.
Still, enough evidence links Hesdra with the clandestine escape route: She owned the properties when Underground Railroad activity was at its peak, in the 1850s. She associated with known abolitionist John Towt, who helped establish the St. Phillips A.M.E. Zion Church; this church was considered by many as the Underground Railroad headquarters and counted Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth as members. Contemporary reports describe her as a conductor, and she is listed as such in the scholarly work The Underground Railroad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations."
From the Journal News [http://tinyurl.com/mljhzjq]:
The Toni Morrison Society's "Bench by the Road" project was inspired by comments the writer, who still has a home in Grand View, but now teaches at Princeton, made in a 1989 interview in which she bemoaned the lack of recognition for the history of enslaved Africans. Her novel "Beloved" would serve to mark that history, she said.
"There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves," Morrison told The World magazine. "There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There's no 300-foot tower, there's no small bench by the road. ... And because such a place doesn't exist ... the book had to."
The first bench was placed on Sullivan's Island, S.C., in 2008, where a vast number of slaves, torn from their homeland, first set foot in the western world. Other benches are set in places of significance, from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, which begat the Freedom Riders, to Lincoln, Massachusetts, in the Walden woods made famous by Henry David Thoreau, where the needs of escaped slaves were tended to.
On Monday Nyack joins their ranks.
It's where Hesdra, who was born in Tappan but was enslaved for a time, moved and grew to considerable wealth on land within view of the bench that now honors her.
"My hope when I sit on this bench is that, sitting next to me, will be a Nyack public schools student, and that we'll start talking about her legacy," said [Bill] Batson, chair of the Nyack Commemoration Committee. "We picked this date, a Monday, because we wanted the students of Nyack to be the main beneficiaries of this monument and this project. We thought having it on a school day would embed this history in the schools."
Batson and fellow committee members have been busy, speaking about the memorial and Hesdra, whose name has adorned the street on the park's western edge since 2010.
The Underground Railroad conductor, who helped former slaves escape to the North, will be the topic of a talk Monday at Nyack High School by Lori Martin, a graduate and author of "The Ex-Slave's Fortune: The Story of Cynthia D. Hesdra."
To Batson, the honor is fitting for Hesdra, who was born in 1808 and died in 1879.
"In my mind, Cynthia Hesdra was a superhero. What she did, to be born as a person with no rights by virtue of her gender and her race, to survive enslavement and become a successful person who used her wealth to save other people's lives, that's the stuff of Marvel Comics. She's an Avenger."
The bench brings her back, in a way, he said. "This makes her history tangible, something you can touch."