by Bill Batson
Dr. Lori Martin helped erect this street sign that honors the memory of Cynthia Hesdra. When she published The Ex-Slave’s Fortune: The Story of Cynthia Hesdra in 2008, Martin saved an important figure in local history from obscurity. Martin’s work is a testimonial to the awesome riches inherent in knowledge. Through her teaching, a growing bibliography and some exciting upcoming public events, Dr. Martin wants to share the wealth.
Martin, a proud product of Nyack’s public schools, believes “we all have a responsibility to be historical detectives, whether it is for our own families or our communities.” This intrepid and inquisitive spirit led her to uncover the story of Cynthia Hesdra.
At the time of the quadricentennial of Henry Hudson’s voyage up the Hudson River, Martin was asked to draft a report on the economic contribution of blacks during the last 400 years by Dr. Susan G. & Dr. Edmund W. Gordon. Her findings were to be presented to a group of middle school students at Rockland Community College.
“Most of the research that I do involves pouring through census data; it doesn’t involve getting into the lives of real people. But once I stared doing the research for this project, I kept coming across the Hesdra name. I became curious about the mentions of Edward Hesdra and that Cynthia was curiously absent,” she described.
The fact that Edward overshadowed Cynthia was inexplicable to Martin, because according to her trained eye, it was Cynthia that amassed all the wealth that the Hesdra family accumulated.
Cynthia Hesdara was born on March 6, 1808 in Tappan. Her father, John Moore owned mills along the Hudson. At some point in her life, through a chain of events that is unclear, Cynthia was enslaved. She manage to not only win her freedom but she went on to operate businesses in Nyack and New York City and to own properties in New York and New Jersey.
“What was striking about Cynthia was her ability, and the ability of many other people of African ancestry, to move from being assets to asset owners,” Martin observed.
When Cynthia Hesdra died on February 9, 1879, she was reportedly worth $100,000, the equivalent of 3 million in contemporary dollars. Allegations of fraud and forgery in the dispensation of her will against her husband Edward led to the first application of a law that compared known and disputed signatures in New York.
The Hesdra home stood at the corner of 9W and Route 59. The house was destroyed by order of the Urban Renewal Agency of Nyack in 1977, despite the objections of the Historical Society of the Nyacks. A historic marker on the spot mentions only Edward.
In order to set the record straight, Martin approached the village in 2010 to temporarily rename Piermont Ave. between Hudson and Depew for Cynthia Hesdra. Nyack’s Trustees agreed. Nyack Center Director Kim Cross, who was in attendance at the Board meeting, was so moved by Martin’s scholarship and Hesdra’s accomplishment and marginalization that she asked the Village Board to make the designation permanent, a recommendation accepted by the trustees.
Martin’s next project will even further deepen and expand our knowledge of the unsung contributions of African American men and women to the village of Nyack.
On June 16th, Martin is organizing the Laurence H. Holland Fun Run and Walking Tour in conjunction with the Juneteenth Celebration in Memorial Park (Juneteenth memorializes the date when African American residents in Texas finally became aware of the Emancipation Proclamation that was signed on January 1,1863.)
The 1.6-mile fun run (or walk, depending on your ability or ambition) starts and ends at the Nyack Center. The route will bring participants past historical sites of the African American experience, including; Pilgrim Baptist Church, The site of the Hesdra House, Nyack Brook, (an important navigational landmark in the Underground Railroad), Hollingsworth Temple and St. Philip’s AME Zion Chruch. There will be maps for those who want to take a self-guided tour. A Juneteenth celebration in memorial park will follow the literal academic exercise.
This unique and vigorous event honors the late Laurence H. Holland. Holland was President for the Nyack branch of the NAACP, one of the few black chemists at Lederle Labs and an active philanthropist. “Through all of his affiliations he showed a love for young people and an appreciation for history.” Martin said.
Martin is an assistant professor of Africana Studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. But apparently the classroom cannot contain her productivity. She recently published, Black Asset Poverty and the Enduring Racial Divide. In the book Martin writes “despite the election of the nation’s first black president, civil rights gains, and advances in education, the gap between whites and blacks in wealth building is widening and the racial divide is enduring.”
Those that follow Dr. Martin on Facebook are accustomed to seeing her arrival at Planet Fitness announced as early as 5:00a. Her energy transforms the stiff persona of the ivory tower cloistered historian into a relevant and vibrant public servant. And her passion for story telling is literally re-mapping our village. If you can keep up, I recommend that you attend a lecture, read her books and join her for a run past historic points of interest in Nyack. You will be wiser, and fitter, from the experience.
Visit the Laurence H. Holland Fun Run and Walk Facebook page for more information or to register.
Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Scholar Puts Local History on the Map” © 2013 Bill Batson.