Nyack, May 18 — A crowd of several hundred citizens, students, historians and fans of Beloved author Toni Morrison are expected to visit the Nyack Center and Memorial Park today to dedicate a Bench By The Road to the 19th century entrepreneur and Underground Railroad conductor Cynthia Hesdra. If you can’t attend the dedication at the upper level of Memorial Park @VisitNyack plans to live stream the event on Twitter.
Nobel laureate and Pulitzer Prize winning author Toni Morrison will speak at today’s dedication in Nyack’s Memorial Park on the painful period of history when African slavery was a global industry. Morrison, who has also been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, will join civic leaders, local residents and Nyack Public School students for the dedication. The public is invited to the Nyack Center at 2:30p (doors open at 2:00p), following which, a procession of attendees will walk to Memorial Park when the bench will be unveiled. Nyack will join 14 other cities around the world where the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by the Road project has erected a public commemoration to acknowledge the African diaspora.
Cynthia Hesdra was born a slave in Tappan, New York in 1808 to John and Jane Moore. Cynthia’s father, one of the wealthiest men of his time, owned and operated a mill in Sparkill. He also constructed mill wheels that were said to have produced blankets for soldiers fighting in the Civil War.
She eventually met and married a man by Edward Hesdra, the son of a white Virginia planter and a free black woman from Haiti. After their marriage, the couple purchased Cynthia’s freedom. The two settled on Amity Street in New York City. Cynthia operated a successful laundry business in New York City and she owned several properties there.
Eventually, she took her trade to Nyack, NY, where she also accumulated property and operated a business. Among the many properties owned by Cynthia and Edward, was a house located near the intersection of Route 9W and Main Street in Nyack that was part of the Historic Underground Railroad. The Hesdras were rumored to have been in charge of the station between Jersey City, NJ and Newburgh, NY. The house was destroyed during the period of Urban Renewal in the 1970s.
When Cynthia Hesdra died on February 9, 1879, she was reportedly worth $100,000, the equivalent of 3 million in contemporary dollars. In 2010, Piermont Ave. between Hudson and Depew was renamed Cynthia Hesdra Way.
The day’s activities include historical perspectives and performances by Nyack actor and composer Sam Waymon, the Nyack High School Chamber Orchestra and Chorale and the Nyack College Chorale. Because a crowd of several hundred are expected, parking in Memorial Park will be closed to the public and the Orangetown Police Department will be directing traffic away from Piermont Ave during this afternoon’s activities. Free parking will be available in the Artopee municipal lot on Main Street, a few short blocks from the Nyack Center and Memorial Park.
The Bench By The Road project reinterprets the ordinary park bench as a place to ponder public history. The initiative was inspired by a 1989 quote from Morrison regarding her novel Beloved. “There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves,” Morrison said. “There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi.”
VisitNyack.org will use the Meerkat app to live stream Ms. Morrison’s remarks shortly after 4p on Twitter. A link will be posted as soon as the broadcast starts — follow VisitNyack on Twitter now to get a alert for that link when it becomes available later today.
- Nyack Sketch Log Welcomes Toni Morrison, 4/28/15
- Scholar Puts Local History on Global Map, 2/10/15
- Toni Morrison’s Bench By The Road, 11/18/14
- African American Entrepreneurs in the Nyacks 1800-Present, 3/4/14
- The Underground Railroad, 5/15/12