By: Keith S. Shikowitz
One of the main issues in every campaign across the country in the 2020 election is what the left calls systemic racism, especially against African Americans. The Democratic candidate for the NY 17th Congressional District claims he has already “demonstrated an ability to organize my community to stand up to systemic racism”. Yet on ONE of, it not THE most important day in African American history in the Village of Haverstraw (called Haverstroo by the Dutch), in which around 100 people of diverse backgrounds and races (Black, White, Hispanic and others) were present including his Republican opponent, Maureen McArdle Schulman, the renaming of Clinton street to HAAC (Haverstraw African American Connection) Way, recognizing a positive African American experience, the discovery of a brick in 2005, from the First Free African American Methodist Church in Rockland County in 1846, on land purchased for $100 by black brick workers, Mondaire Jones was conspicuous by his absence even though it was reported that he might be there.
The event was organized by Virginia (Ginny) Norfleet, the President of the HAAC and the person who found that now famous brick back in 2005. Many other local political and religious dignitaries were present to commemorate this historic event. County Executive Ed Day, Senator James Skoufis, Reverend Everett Newton and Reverend Dr. Raymond Caliman, who gave the opening and closing prayers. The only local Haverstraw elected officials who were present were Village of Haverstraw Mayor Mike Kohut and Village of Haverstraw Trustee Gil Carlevarro and Town Justice John Grant.
There were a number of performers who sang Gospel songs, spirituals and uplifting songs of praise and thanks to God.
The land that was the church is now the home of Norfleet and her family that she had constructed in 2005. “I knocked down the building that was formerly the African American Church. We didn’t know that at the time. We thought it was just an old, dilapidated building.”
In 2016 the HAAC opened the African American Park across the street from her house. Like all of history, this the story that Norfleet started “writing” an ever – evolving story of the African American presence in Haverstraw. “As we continued to do things, we got the William Pomeroy Foundation to give us the money for the state marker there. Then I went to the Mayor and we spoke and decided the street should be named after the African American community not an individual person. We’re honoring our ancestors. Soon we’ll be opening across the street, which will be the first African American museum called The Experience.”
The reason all of this is big in Rockland County is because until 2005 there was not African American history noted here in the Rockland County Area. “All of this continues to evolve and it’s an on-going story. We’re excited because we’re the ones telling the story of our ancestors and the major contributions they made to Rockland County.” Norfleet stated proudly.
This effort has been spearheaded by Norfleet, but the entire community has been involved in every way possible. “Everybody’s great with it. Just look at the street, she waved her arm pointing out and giving credit to all of the people. We have support all over the county. Mayor Mike Kohut has been phenomenal and the DPW has always been with us. Everybody else is catching on. The town has caught on. The county is catching on. So it’s good. As you can see the Rockland Tourism has caught on. They feature us now. As we continue to tell the story, it’s getting bigger and people love the way we tell the story because it’s not with animosity. The whole thing is done with love. That’s what Haverstraw is all about.”
Unfortunately, the story was not touched ever. So now it gives the HAAC the opportunity to tell it and really incorporate the Haverstraw African American experience and contribution into the history, into the fabric which is the way it should have been all along.
Norfleet commented, “No one seems to know why it wasn’t there. But now it’s out and we’re embracing it. It’s true that there are people out there even today who still feel that certain people are better than others because of physical attributes as to why the story we are telling was not out. If you’re talking 1846 that’ was true. But in 1946, 1966, 1986 or 2006 the story should have been out. So, we’re glad. Better late than never. It’s out and they are finally catching on and embracing it. Hopefully people will start to finance things because this has been funded primarily out of my pocket. All of it.”
Norfleet came to the podium early on in the ceremony. She expressed what everyone was feeling and summed up what the day was all about. “I was scheduled to talk later but I just had to say something now. This is not a day that we are going to sit back. We’re not ashamed of who we are. What I want to say to you is, people get excited over their birthdays. People get excited over a touchdown. This is 400 years of history that was hidden. Souls were lost in that bay right there. Thousands of black people died in that water who have never been acknowledged. For God to be faithful enough to leave a remnant. One brick. One person from the mudhole to tell the story of a people, everybody should be jumping up with joy. Everybody.”
Norfleet does not let setbacks even technical ones slow her down. As she came back to the podium for her scheduled speech, she started by saying, “I have to do this off the cuff because I have some music I wanted to play.” She paused as a little laughter came from the audience.
Without missing a beat, she continued, “Death is always tough for all of us and we lost over 40 friends and family to COVID. One of those people was Paul Piperato. We dedicated a brick in the park to him. It says, ‘In loving memory of our forever friend, people are sometime friends, fair weather friends, I want you to understand, I put my forever friend, that’s beyond death. Paul is still in my memory. Mr. Paul Piperato, a powerful example of love for family, friends, and community. Did you hear me? I didn’t say for money and cars and for applause. I said for family, friends and community. That’s in loving memory dedicated from the Human Rights Commission and Haverstraw’s HAAC.”
She listed others who had bricks dedicated to them in the Park. Some were in memorial and others were in honor of. One of the honorees was Lorraine Stancil Lawson. This was a complete surprise for her. She had come up to accept the honoring of the pastor of her church. As she was walking back to her seat Norfleet called her back and read the inscription on the brick in her honor. The shock on Lawson’s face was very visible.
“This was one of the traditional neighborhoods for African Americans in the village going back many decades and many 100 years plus, certainly back to the brickyards. There is a tremendous amount of history that all really evolved around and because of this village. The village didn’t exist until 1854. Because of the brickyards and the history of this area is sort of dependent on the brickyards. This is a further acknowledgement of that history because the African Americans, one of the reasons they came here was to work at the brickyards. They were slaves prior to that as we now know, going back into the 1700’s. We’re proud to be recognizing the history. We’re not proud of the history of slaves in Haverstraw, but we are proud to recognize the history and make it evident for everyone.” Kohut explained.
Kohut, who along with the Village of Haverstraw board, have been a partner with Norfleet and the HAAC, when asked about the day he responded, “Today is the dedication of the historical marker of that site (pointing to Norfleet’s house) where that house stands now as the first Free African American Church in Rockland. When Ginny tore down he original structure and was excavating the site, she found a brick that had a cross on it and upon further investigation, looking into the history of African Americans here in Haverstraw, she realized that they had found proof that this was from the first Free African American Church in Rockland County and maybe beyond that too. That led to the creation of the African American Park and the Juneteenth Celebrations here and the historical marker that is coming in and the renaming of this section of the street as Haverstraw African American Connection Way.”
Kohut began his speech with a little levity. “Thank you all for coming out on this glorious day. It seems like whenever we have an event down here, we get good weather. I want to thank Pastor Caliman and his connection with the Lord Almighty for that.”
Getting down to the business of the day, Kohut praised Norfleet and the HAAC for their effort and passion they put into this organization and getting the rest of the world to know the story of Haverstraw. “The full story. The true story of Haverstraw which includes the story of the African Americans who came here against their will many, many years ago and how that group of African Americans and subsequent African Americans have become part of the fabric of this community.”
Santayana said many years ago that “Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it. Kohut mirrored this sentiment in the following way. “It’s a very important story to tell. They’ve been doing a great job in telling it and that’s what today is all about. This marker behind me is going to demonstrate that. It will put in place forever for that piece of history for good or for bad that Haverstraw has with the African American Community in Haverstraw.” He introduced the next speaker, County Executive Ed Day.
Day expressed the same feelings about the day that everyone else was. “I think it’s great. Our history is very holy and also has a lot of holes. There are a lot of things that were never recognized in our American History. I was a student of American History in high school. I love it. It’s time now to catch up. We’ve been doing that. To find out that we have the first Free African American Church here is fortuitous and is something to celebrate. Something to remember and something to focus on. I’m very proud to be here for the dedication of this street Ginny Norfleet has done a magnificent job with the HAAC. She won’t take credit, but I’ll give her credit. I appointed her to the Human Rights Commission. I recognize talent. I’m very proud of the fact that she took that position when I asked her to. I think the museum is fantastic. Rockland County has joined as a partner with this, with the National Endowment for the Arts also the Holocaust Museum. We’re all working for the grant application that’s in and hopefully we’ll win the grant in April of next year.”
“I’m very, very proud to be here today at a very special moment. I want to acknowledge the HAAC for all their work and as we gather here for a street naming and a historical marker unveiling today. I also want to acknowledge Ginny Norfleet. She’s done amazing work here as you can see. I want to acknowledge everyone from the organization for all their hard work in bringing this together today.”
Day told of his love for American history and how in high school, most people thought his favorite subject was gym because as an ex – cop they don’t think they’re too sharp sometimes. The fact of the matter is that his favorite subject was American History. “I look at American History as being very holy. But American History has a lot of holes in it. That’s something we have to recognize and we have to embrace. Today we are here to acknowledge the first African American Church in Rockland County. It’s part of our history. It’s why we gather her right now. At the end of the day, it’s very important for us to celebrate these things to fill those holes as we go forward in this life because with those holes being filled, we find out that we have a great deal more in common than we ever believed. Once we identify that commonality, we also identify the fact that we are a lot alike. That will do a lot to deal with any hatred that we will encounter. We can join together as one to combat hatred. Only then can we do that successfully.”
He acknowledged Jeremy Schulman in the Economic Development and Tourism office for putting in for a grant to the National Endowment for the Arts. He partnered up with the HAAC and the Holocaust Museum to get a grant for this museum here. “Hopefully we’ll be successful in that. We work very diligently in support of community groups here and this one here I’m extremely proud of. I look forward to a great day in April, sunshine like this to announce the grant. With that, thank you all for being here. Thank you all for being another part of Rockland History and coming together as one.”
Ruth Merkatz grew up here in Haverstraw as Ruth Blatt has her own family attachment to the history of this community. “My father was a general practioner physician. He had emigrated from Germany. As a physician he came to this town because he heard they were looking for a physician. The story my mom told, that when they drove up here on Route 9W and saw the river, it reminded them of their home. This is where they settled and stayed until my father passed away. He took care of everyone in this town. I especially remember as a young girl, going with my dad to care for some of his patients that were down on the river. Many of them lived in homes that had no electricity. It’s something that stayed with me my entire life.”
“I feel this was an important day. With people tearing down statues and trying to erase parts of American history they don’t like because it shows some of the not so good parts of our history, including and especially slavery.”
Merkatz feels it’s important to know all aspects of our history and so much of African American history is not well known and thinks that we have to be very mindful of all aspects of our history and tread carefully.
“Anything we can do to recognize the contributions of various groups of people such as this park today, I think is a very positive way of dealing with our history today as opposed to other aspects that are negative. That’s why I made the trip here because I thought it was a very positive way to spend this beautiful day and recognize an important community group in Haverstraw.”
They say everyone’s a comedian and Reverend Raymond Caliman of the Fairmount Baptist Church in Haverstraw is no exception. “This ceremony is probably been the greatest event I’ve been to in Haverstraw this week.” He stated.
He continued, “It’s an ongoing celebration. It got started a few years back when sister Norfleet was digging in the ground and found a brick. It’s really a great honor to be a part of this celebration because something that seemed so insignificant that was buried for so many years was found and has now become a part of Haverstraw and our history around the world. This used to be called Haverstroo, named from the Dutch. They brought slaves in. They worked the brick yard. This place right over here, pointing to his right by the church across from Norfleet’s house, is part of where the brick yard fell into the river. The museum being built is going to be fantastic because then people can come see it and enjoy it. There’s a lot to see.”
Susan Filgueras, HAAC Historian, began by welcoming everyone to the event. “This is such an exciting day for me. Everybody’s touched on the history so I’m going to skip around a little bit and talk about what it means to be the Historian for the HAAC. It was coming home. I too am a child of the village of Haverstraw. The Village of Haverstraw when we were children, was a very special place. We were all able to chase each other in the streets. The only decision we had to make was who can hit the ball further or run faster we never knew there were differences. There’s a fraternity, a sorority a special magic here in this village. We’ve always been a part of it. She listed the names of a number of families of all races and religions who lived together and whose children were all friends and playing together. When I got to stand in front of the street 15 years ago, and hollered up at her window and said Ginny, open the door. It was like we were back in grade school. She said, what are you doing? I said, I’ve done this and that. Historical society. She said, wait til u see my brick. The way it started, was int 2005.”
What makes this more of a storybook tale is that it all began when Norfleet with the love she had for her mother, came back to the village to build a home for her mother Reverent Estelle Crawford Norfleet and purchased the land the house now sits on. Little did she know that she would find a part of the lost history of the local African American people. And as a result change the lives of everyone in the community.
“Ginny took the house down not knowing there was a church on it. As they poured the foundation and it collapsed, they had to scoop it back out, in those scoops, the brick was found with a hand carved cross. That was the beginning of the journey for the HAAC.” Filgueras said.
According to Filgueras, the North and New York State have a responsibility to open the door on the culture and the people. “I can’t make it better, but we can educate it, acknowledge it, respect it and make sure that it never happens again. That’s our goal. We want to learn and in that, in 1846, here on this corner, borderline to the brickyards, the first African Methodist Episcopal Bethel Church was founded. As the African peoples walked to their jobs in the brickyards, you could hear the music. The songs, the hymns and the spirituals that led them through the day. It gave them the courage to continue on. They passed by their church. Right by the very heart and soul of the community into the brickyards. There was a road behind us that led to Roseville up the beach, Tallybottom. Where they were allowed to live. The brickyard crash happened in 1906. We don’t know who was in the crash because the documentation of the African peoples is not here. A lot of it and you’ll see it on the boards as Dan DeNoyelles mentions in his books, we were not supposed to go south for those workers. We have to find our history. It’s rich. The culture is amazing.”
She added on the history that in one of the articles she read it said, ‘Everybody on Sundays would run home so they could throw open their windows to listen to the music that came out of this little bitty building to hear the spirituals. To hear the word of God.’ “George M. Cohan lived on Broadway. Do you think possibly that George M. Cohan borrowed a few of those melodies?”
The influence and history of Norfleet’s family extends outside of the Haverstraw area. One Culture painter, Mr. Crawford, her grandfather, was a part of the Americana movement. One of the founders. There is one surviving painting called Christmas. It hangs in the Gallery in Manhattan. There is one picture left. “Mr. White sang in the Apollo Theater. Her mom and grandma also sang in the Apollo Theater. The culture. The history. The talent has to be acknowledged. Has to be celebrated. Quite frankly, we want to share. We want you to see how beautiful it is. We’re here today to celebrate the birth, the finding of, the acknowledgement of and the celebration of a very rich, spiritual cultural people. The African Americans of the state of New York that live in Rockland County, that grace the Village of Haverstraw, and you’ll hear a lot more from us.”
Constance Fraizer, HAAC board member and member of the County Civil Rights Commission stated, “This is indeed an auspicious occasion. I know pastor Norfleet and Mike are looking down from heaven. She was the 9th, but she was something else. They never could duplicate that again because there’s only one Virginia Norfleet. A voice from the audience said, “absolutely.” Fraizer responded, all of the comedians in the audience are dismissed. This must be a big event in the history of New York. It must be a bigger event in Haverstraw and a benchmark that should last forever. Anytime you have a marker that clearly indicates what took place and there were African Americans involved, whether it was a church or people came in here and they died. That’s a big deal.”
Fraizer feels that unfortunately, right now NYS is in a bit of a pickle with the curriculum from Kindergarten through grade 12. “Hopefully Virginia and I can get people to see reason. We can go up and talk to the Board of Regents and the new interim commissioner. You can’t have history in America without including African Americans. You can’t have history in America without including Latinos. You can’t have history in America without including everybody. That’s what we’re all about. We’re all inclusive. It’s a package deal. We are more alike than we are unalike.”
As Norfleet’s grandson Lamar pulled the covering off of the historical marker, Fraizer praised Norfleet. “This would never have happened if it weren’t for Virginia Norfleet.”
Fraizer read the marker sign and commented, “If that’s not a reason to celebrate I don’t know what is…” And the volume of applause and cheers was deafening. Next was the street sign. “It’s one thing to call a street a name. But Virginia, from now on when you wake up in the morning from now on you’ll see a new name for Clinton Street and you’ll also see the marker.” Lamar unveiled the street sign to the same volume of applause and cheers.
“Today was an awesome day. Today was a historical day. Today was a day that was filled with memories that will far surpass any of us. I attribute everything that happened here today to Virginia Norfleet, to her planning strategically, to her will, her skill and her caring for this community. Also, the need to make sure that people knew that something happened here!” Fraizer exclaimed.
Fraizer concluded with one final praise of Norfleet and the event. “This is a historical landmark and now she has made it become a reality for all to see. She is spontaneous and has much intellectual prowess. She’s a s leader. When you’re a CEO and a leader, that combination that works for the community without taking a dime from the community, this is all Virginia Norfleet. This isn’t anybody else.”
Lorraine Stancil Lawson, a Gospel singer who performed at the ceremony felt that this day was absolutely incredible. “First of all, the weather, the gathering, the spirit, everybody’s spirit was absolutely phenomenal. It’s been an incredible day. I have only known Ginny for a couple of years, has been unbelievable. She’s a soul to be admired. She is to be honored. She’s to be commended for the work she is doing. And brough this whole situation to light. Until I met her, I didn’t really know about this. To be a part of this day of history has just been an incredible experience. Like she said, it’s just the beginning.”
Reverend Everett Newtown added his take on the event. “The day was historic. It’s long overdue. This should have been long talked about. I don’t think it’s been given the credibility it should have been given. Finally, Virginia with her efforts and strong finally got what should have been told decades ago.”
The museum, The Experience, highlighting the African American experience in Haverstraw, will be the first of its kind in Rockland County. It will showcase a number of the artifacts that Norfleet has found and others that have been given to her for this purpose.