A new exhibit at the Historical Society of the Nyacks honors local African-American entrepreneurs. “African American Entrepreneurs 1800-Present” was curated by Bill Batson.
Cynthia Hesdra, who was born in Tappan in 1808, went from slave to free woman to wealthy entrepreneur, building a commercial laundry business and amassing quite a bit of local real estate.
Professor and Nyack native Dr. Lori L. Martin led a successful 2010 effort to rename Piermont Avenue between Hudson and Depew “Cynthia Hesdra Way” and also wrote a book on Hesdra in 2011 titled “The Ex-Slave’s Fortune.”
Hesdra is the unofficial star of a new exhibit at the Historical Society of the Nyacks honoring local African-American entrepreneurs. “African American Entrepreneurs 1800-Present” was curated by Bill Batson, an artist, writer, and activist. Batson’s own family roots in Nyack go back to 1890.
His personal involvement in the project began with his late aunt, Frances A. Batson, owner of Batson Spot Secretarial Service, branch secretary for the NAACP, and the first African-American deputy clerk of the Village of Nyack. Her business’ ledger from 1959-1965 is on display as part of the exhibit.
Several key themes emerged as Batson was assembling the exhibit. One was theability of those featured to create successful commercial enterprises in the face of discrimination.
Another is the urgent and ongoing need for public participation in historical preservation. “Family histories, church histories, histories of businesses: those things can give us a lot of information that is valuable, and a lot of it is missing,” says Batson.
“The whole exhibit is really Stage One; we’re trying to create a documentation project,” explains Stacy Sewell, a history professor at St. Thomas Aquinas College in nearby Sparkill. Sewell is a participant in the ongoing project, as are the students in a class she’s teaching on documenting local history. The exhibit includes a sheet encouraging visitors to add the names of entrepreneurs or businesses not featured.
One of Hesdra’s many real estate holdings in Nyack later became home to the Zola Africentric Gallery, an art gallery, bookstore, gift shop and gathering place founded by attorneys and identical twins Alice and Alicia Crowe in 1990.
From the early 1960s until 1982, Chic & Charlie’s Tavern was a key gathering place for Nyack’s African-American community, despite being displaced from Cedar Street to South Franklin as part of the Urban Renewal Program. Brothers Charles and James “Chic” Glassowned the place, which hosted a Robert F. Kennedy campaign stop in 1964.
Also profiled in the exhibit are Sir Hildred Humphries, an accomplished saxophonist in the jazz and big band scenes; Dr. Willie Bryant, a dentist and local civic leaderwho chaired last year’s Junteenth celebration committee (an annual day to commemorate the end of slavery in the United States); Hezekiah Easter Sr., owner of Easter’s Wood Yard; tailor WalterBlount Sr.; surgeon Dr. Fletcher Johnson; and art and antiques dealer Karim Deen,who provided the African art and sculptures that can be seen throughout the exhibit.
Then there’s Sam Waymon, a musician who has recorded for various record labels, performed with acclaimed artists, and composed several film scores, including 1973′s “Ganja & Hess,” a cult classic filmed in Nyack; Spike Lee’s upcoming “Da Sweet Blood of Jesus” is rumored to be a remake of the film. In addition to his own work, Waymon is also committed to preserving the legacy of his sister, legendary jazz songstress Nina Simone.
Batson says another theme that emerged while putting together the exhibit was the displacement of those whose homes and businesses were demolished as part of Nyack’s Urban Renewal Project in the 1960s and ’70s. “I think there is an important opportunity here to heal that scar that occurred in Nyack,” he says. “We hope that this project advances the process of reconciliation through inclusive research and through mutual respect of shared history. Until a truly representative collection of the material of all the people in Nyack is gathered, it’s difficult to understand how this diverse, creative, compassionate community came together.”
If You Go
What: “African American Entrepreneurs 1800-Present”
Where: The Historical Society of the Nyacks Museum, The DePew House, 50 Piermont Ave., Nyack, 845-418-4430, www.nyackhistory.org
When: Now through July 5. Free. Museum hours are from 1 to 4 p.m. every Saturday. The exhibit may be seen at other times by appointment.