By: Keith S. Shikowitz
Forty – five years ago President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month, calling upon the public to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Since then, we have celebrated Black History Month by honoring African Americans who have made a difference in their communities, the nation and/or the world and remembering the people who dedicated their lives to the purist of equality and freedom.
Feb. 22, 2021 saw the Village of Haverstraw begin an annual tradition of acknowledging Black History Month by honoring members of it’s own community, starting with Virginia (Ginny) Norfleet. Northfleet’s nomination was originally proposed by Village Trustee Gil Carlevarro.
“This is the first of hopefully many presentations we will be making, not just for black history month,” said Village of Haverstraw Mayor Mike Kohut, who hosted the ceremony. “I take no credit for this. It was our newest Trustee Gil Carlevarro, who suggested this and was the impetus behind this. I’ll say quite honestly, Ginny Norfleet being the first recipient, not only is appropriate because of all that she has done, specifically with regards to African American History. But for everything she has done for the village of Haverstraw since our time together for sure.”
Kohut told the assembly that he and Northfleet have worked together “terrifically well” over the past 13 years of his Mayoralty, on community projects such as the playground on Jefferson Street and the creation of the African American Park. “If I asked her for help, she was there for me, she is there for me and if she asked me for help I tried to be there for her”
Kohut went on to recount the story of how Norfleet began working with the village. She originally reached out to the Haverstraw government while building the house she lives in now on Clinton Street: during the digging of the foundation, she discovered a brick that was shaped like a cross. “That led her on her journey of discovery that the building that was torn down was the first free African American Church, not only in Haverstraw but in all Rockland County.”
Intrigued by her discovery Northfleet worked with Susan Filgueras, who was unable to attend the ceremony, to conduct geological and census research on the village. They discovered that Haverstraw had had a considerable slave population before New York abolished slavery in 1827. Those men and women were responsible for establishing and maintaining the brickyards that become the economic engine of Haverstraw.
“When we look at the racial strife that has occurred in this country over the past year plus, people say, Why doesn’t that happen in Haverstraw? Ginny and I have had this discussion and she has told this story many times. It’s because we’ve lived together for all those years. Not always as equals, but always in the community together. Growing up together. Going to the same schools together. Knowing the same people. Hanging out and going to the same parties. We don’t have the typical problems that many other communities in this country and in this county often face when it comes to race relations,” said Kohut.
Norfleet is taking her “show on the road” by enlightening the next generations of Haverstraw and Rockland residents about the history of the African Americans in the village. She plans to speak at local high-schools, starting with North Rockland.
County Executive Ed Day was also on hand to thank and congratulate the community activist. “Ginny you have done so many great things in this community, you are going to be getting awards until doomsday,” quipped Day. “Not that you seek them or want them, but you’re going to be getting them. I just want to really acknowledge you publicly once again for all that you do in carrying out a new mission for you to unearth African American History and make sure that people truly understand that it is American History.