The Harriet Tubman statue came into the Village of Haverstraw like a lion and left like a lamb.
On April 20, 2021, the Harriet Tubman statue came into Haverstraw and began a 7 week stay, (the longest stay in one place for the statue) amidst major fanfare, a number of news agencies there to report her arrival to the community and speeches by various politicians and government officials touting her accomplishments, legacy and the pride they felt in having the statue here.
On June 7, 2021 the same said statue left Haverstraw quietly after three groups of Haverstraw Elementary School students, led by their Principal Benito Herrero, were treated to a presentation about Tubman by Deborah Barnes and of course Ginny Norfleet. After each presentation was done, the students were able to go to the statue and see the stanchions, touch the statue and take pictures with it.
Haverstraw Mayor Mike Kohut and Haverstraw Town Supervisor Howard Phillips spoke to the students about the statue and the importance of education. Only one news agency was present for her exit.
After each of Barnes’ presentations Norfleet came and addressed the students.
“I want to thank you for coming and let you know that I WAS you. I actually went to Haverstraw Elementary, Middle School and North Rockland High schools. My mother went to Haverstraw Elementary School. We’ve lived here for over 120 years in Haverstraw. Haverstraw’s a very, very famous place. I knew some about Haverstraw, but I didn’t know everything. It’s our pleasure to tell you more about it. Remember, when you are walking these streets, you are living history. You don’t just have to read about famous places in books. YOU LIVE IN ONE! You’re the new part of that story.” She told the students.
She then explained to them that one day we’ll all be gone and they’ll be telling the story. “I want to tell you something else. You have some other people here that are making history. We have two guests I want you to meet. One who’s our Mayor. He’s like the president of Haverstraw. Then we’ve got our Town Supervisor who is EL GRANDE president of Haverstraw. Both of these guys also were you. They came through Haverstraw Elementary, Haverstraw Middle and North Rockland High schools. Look at us and we can become your inspiration. We hope that one day you’ll be the storyteller. You’ll be the Mayor. You’ll be the Town Supervisor. Maybe even the president because good things come from Haverstraw. Haverstraw’s famous for a lot of things.”
Norfleet explained some of the 400 year history of Haverstraw. Not only is Haverstraw the brick making capital of the world, but Jazz music was created right here. There were no other towns. There was no Nyack, Stony Point, Valley Cottage, or Thiells. There was only Haverstraw, which the Dutch called Haverstroo and New Amsterdam (Manhattan). THAT’S IT! “You live in one of the best Towns and Villages in the world. Even right now, there’s over 600,000 people watching our little village by way of social media from all over the world. From Brazil, Italy and China they’re watching Haverstraw because of our rich history.”
“You guys are a part of it. This is so historical what’s happening. So, when you’re in your village and people are throwing garbage around our village or people are talking about our village, remember your Haverstraw pride. Because we love you guys so much that we’ve committed our lives to making your lives better. That’s why we’re here working because we want to make sure that you know how we feel about Haverstraw and try to help teach you to feel the same way. So if you see garbage on the ground, make sure you pick it up.”
Norfleet went on to enlighten the students about the uniqueness of Haverstraw. She stated that Haverstraw’s most famous for the people. That it’s a community that loves people. “Look amongst us. It’s all different colors. It’s all different religions. We get to show the world how to really love. We love our police officers, our leaders, our ministers and our churches. We get to show the world what love really is. Not what you see on TV when people say defund our police officers. We don’t do that here in Haverstraw. As a matter of fact, the police here helped me build these playgrounds. That’s how much they cared about you. The police are our friends. Remember that. They’re here to protect us and we’re here to help them to protect us. It’s not what you see on TV.”
She concluded her presentation telling the students that in Haverstraw we understand Black Lives Matter but in Haverstraw we also understand that ALL LIVES MATTER. “We thank God that we have leaders that believe in what we say. The mayor that I’m going to bring up, he’s like my brother. When I came to him with this story, he could have said, get out of here, we don’t care anything about your people. You know what he said? Where’s the shovel. I’m going to jump in and help you. He helped me get that playground equipment so you can enjoy it. He helped me build this (referring to the African American Park) You’ll meet Howie. Howie helps do everything. We do celebrations to celebrate all people, Black, White, Latino, we don’t care. We love people. Michael, will you come up and greet them. Howie, you’ll be next. We’ll give you the closing remarks. This is the coolest mayor you’re ever going to see. Right here.”
Kohut came to the front of the group and addressed them. “Thanks for coming over from Haverstraw Elementary School. As Ginny said I went to it when it was Haverstraw Middle School and then North Rockland High School after that. Ginny gave you great background about Haverstraw. Everything she said is true. Looking through the group here, everybody here is welcome. No matter where you come from, you’re welcome in the Village. That’s why when you go through downtown Haverstraw, you’ll see restaurants that are Ecuadorian, Italian, Mexican, Caribbean, and from everywhere. We’re a melting pot. We’ve always been a melting pot.”
“Because of the many hundreds of millions of bricks a year that were made here, Haverstraw needed labor and the different immigrant groups that came brought that labor. The Italians came, the Germans came, the Slovaks came, the African Americans came and they all settled in Haverstraw. That’s why we’re still a melting pot because all those different groups came and settled in Haverstraw.”
“I am very happy that you are here to learn about our history and how important it is. I’m deeply glad that you are here, to meet you for one and hoping that when you guys see me out on the street, you wave and say hi, remember me? I met you down at the park on Clinton Street. Enjoy the rest of your time here with us and always come back to Haverstraw because we’re happy to have you.” Kohut waved and returned to his seat.
Supervisor Phillips finished the addresses to the students. “How are you guys doing today?” To the laughter of the students he asked, “Wasn’t that nice of Mrs. Norfleet to get you out of school today?” Continuing he added, “What do you guys think? So you’ve heard about the history of Haverstraw and how rich we are. We’re probably the oldest named town in all of the United States.”
Changing the subject, “Who likes fireworks? Who likes Haverstraw fireworks? This is what I want you to think during our finale Friday night July 2. I want you to think of a Civil War artillery battle because that’s what it would have sounded like at the Civil War. We have a medal of honor recipient Richard Smith from the Civil War. But also, the first African American William Harvey Carney came from the Civil War.” He told the story of the 54th and the SC fort.
Phillips looked at the statue of Tubman and asked the students, “Where does her courage come from? It comes from a faith. It comes from a belief. It comes from knowing that all life is precious. That every single life is a gift from God. Harriet Tubman knew that. She knew that her African Americans were just as equal and important as anyone else. Just as all of you are. So, today when you look at that statue and you look at that determination on her face as she’s facing the wind, this sculptor did it beautifully. She facing, she’s challenging everybody. She’s out there going against unbelievable odds because she knew inside how important it was. Keep that with you.”
Before group got to take pics with the statue, Principal Benito Herrero spoke to them.
“Thank you very much instructor. I don’t know your name, but we really thank you. (he was told her name). Ms. Barnes, thank you so much. Our school is grateful to you. Thank you, Mr. Phillips for speaking to us with those teachings and other stories and Mayor Kohut, thank you for welcoming us to this beautiful park, this beautiful venue and teaching us so much. I actually, personally learned a good number of things this morning. I’m glad I came and (looking at Norfleet) many thanks to you of course for everything you do to keep the rich history of everybody alive and I really liked what you said that all lives matter. That’s my favorite expression. I thank you so much for keeping that spirit alive.”
After all the student groups had left and the statue was being loaded up on the truck, Norfleet took a breath and agreed to an interview.
Let’s start with Harriet leaving today. She came in with a lot of fanfare. How do you feel about her leaving? What’s your emotion?
“Mixed. Very mixed. Over the 7 – week period of having Harriet here and the three – month period of planning for Harriet to come here, it’s been grueling. It’s a lot of work to make something like this happen and for the Village of Haverstraw to have this and for my team. We have been out here everyday hosting thousands of visitors and we have over 600,000 people watching us worldwide by social media, thanks to the AME Zion Church faith. The Bishop and Susan Johnson who is the head of the Harriet Tubman newsletter, put us into their international newspaper. Thus, she has an international spotlight as well as national.”
They have had visitors from New Zealand, Puerto Rico, the islands and all over the USA. This is so important to the AME Zion church which is the African Methodist Episcopal Zion faith because Harriet Tubman was a member of that religious group. I am also a Zionette which is because I was born into the Zion faith. The house that resides at 39 Clinton Street was the first AME Zion church in all of Rockland County, the second in NYS and the third in the world to be build. So, it’s very significant to the AME Zion to recognize this and that’s why they celebrated it too.” Norfleet explained.
In her opinion, she’s not going out like a lamb. She’s going out with double dip. Not only will we be transporting her out with the same police escort that would be for dignitaries but last night we had a celebration of Gospel and there were a few hundred people here. Various singers, recording artists and groups performed. We had the Holocaust Museum here to celebrate with us and we honored them also. It was a culmination of all people. All of Mankind coming together to celebrate Harriet’s going and giving her the blessing of all people and hopefully Cape May NJ will receive her and enjoy her as much as we have that her presence has brought to Rockland.”
There were events going every week of the statue’s stay. The culminating event last night (6/6/21) was the sunset service. Of everything I wanted people to remember about Harriet Tubman is that she was a woman of faith first. The first thing that she did was acknowledge the God that brought her over. They referred to her as Moses because even though she couldn’t read or write, she heard the Bible. People likened her to Moses of the Bible. One of the songs that Harriet would sing to let the slaves know she was coming to run was Go Down Moses.
“It was beautiful to have the Jewish people and the Rabbis here because it was on their story that Harriet built her story. The two stories are very similar. Enslaved people and the God of the enslaved people walking them to their freedom. One of my personal highlights when you go into the Holocaust Museum which we opened last week with a ribbon cutting. Right after you come through the Holocaust Museum, there is an area that pays homage to the African American story. We call that better together. These are two groups that have suffered beyond what any human being can imagine that people could live through. Yet both these groups thrived. They still contribute back to this society and the world.” Norfleet said proudly.
According to Norfleet, if you take Jewish people and Black people out of the world, you don’t have much of a world. They are the inventors, builders and the brains behind all these civilizations and organizations that go. “If you put the two of them together and you talk about inventions, I think most of the inventions are created between those two groups. We wanted to pay tribute to our Jewish brothers and sisters. They did the same by coming. We had quite an audience here yesterday of mixed people. I wanted to thank Pearl River Library, Tappan Zee Library because they had me on their community conversations and it allowed us to go into communities that would not normally host an African American person to speak about culture. It’s just been phenomenal. Ed Day, the legislature, and a big shout out to Jay Hood and the rest of the legislature.”
What it’s proving Keith, is like with all things and even with you being here for all the events and the love that we have between all of us over time, it has grown to be something that’s almost as contagious as Corona. The love that’s being shown in Rockland County between the groups, your family is my family, my family is Andrew’s family and just watching it all happen and unfold is a beautiful thing. Rockland County is leading the way to show the world we are better together. We can get along and TOGETHER we’ll grow our county to be the beacon of hope for all the other counties in the world.”
Norfleet says that in all of this, you have to pay homage to the people who wrote the story and it’s a beautiful thing. She points to Bobby Drexler a childhood friend, who is the head of Village of Haverstraw DPW who was helping to move the statue. “Look at all these people. They are Haverstraw people. We all grew up together. This is not a Ginny Norfleet story. This is not a black story. This is a Haverstraw and an American story. This is what America was supposed to be. We were supposed to be a melting pot. Where we melted so well even though it was a different flavor but we melted well. What we became was a mixed salad where everybody stood apart. Haverstraw once again leads the way. I brag on Haverstraw all the time. I am Haverstraw proud because we are truly the mixing bowl. We have Jewish brothers, Jewish cousins and Latinos and Irish and German. You name it, we’ve got it. That’s the beauty of Haverstraw.”