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Nyack Sketch Log: A Bench By The Underground Railroad

About 400 people were on hand for the dedication of the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench By The Road in Nyack’s Memorial Park on May 18. Ms. Morrison spoke, the Nyack High School Chamber Orchestra and Jazz band played and Sam Waymon, the choral groups from Nyack College and Nyack High School sang.

Although there have been 14 other Bench By The Road projects erected to commemorate the African diaspora, Ms. Morrison — who lives nearby in Grandview on Hudson — said that the Nyack Bench has special meaning. The bench in Memorial Park honors the 19th century former slave Cynthia Hesdra who became a successful Nyack entrepreneur and abolitionist.

Nyack Center, Nyack Bench dedication. Photo Credit © 2015 Dave Zornow

Nyack High School Choral performing in the Nyack Center


“We are bursting with pride to be a chosen spot for a Bench By The Road, a place of our own to reflect, to ponder, to remember… the bad, our good and everything in between.  We are full of joy, because we are lucky enough to share this place we call home with the extraordinary Cynthia Hesdra in who’s name this bench is being placed…and that we live in a place where Dr. Lori Martin grew up, became a scholar and actually discovered the amazing woman we honor today.  Without Lori Martin, we would know next to nothing of Cynthia Hesdra. And without Toni Morrison we would not be standing here about to create a simple place of reflection, a place where each and every one of us can and MUST sit and, can and MUST, as Ms. Morrison describes it, ‘summon the presence of or recollect of the absence of slaves.’ So proud.  And so grateful.  To be able to honor those who fought so hard for freedom, those who found it and those who never did.  Right here on our Hudson River Bank. — Nyack Mayor Jen Laird White

Photo Credit: ©2015 Elijah Reichlin-Melnick

“In December 2013, a make shift monument to the Underground Railroad created by the late Joseph Mitlof began to collapse. There was strong public sentiment that had attached to the humble structure. A group of concerned citizen met at Mayor Jen Laird White’ home and a commitment to create a substantial Monument that would endure.

“In August our committee learned of the Toni Morrison Society’s bench by the road project and guided by the scholarship of Dr. Lori Martin, we applied and were accepted. Thanks to Ms. Morrison, and the Toni Morrison Society that created the Bench by the Road project in 2006 there are 15 places to honor the Africa ndiaspora and dozens more to come. And thanks to many of you in this room, Nyack is home to a bench by the road. — Bill Batson, Chairman of the Nyack Commemoration Committee

Nyack High School Jazz Band

Nyack High School Jazz Band

Photo Credits: Susan McTigue/Jennifer Rothchild, Elijah Reichlin-Melnick, Dave Zornow

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Bench By The Road Remarks from Dr. Lori Martin

Nyack native, author and educator Dr. Lori Martin helped erect the street sign that honors the memory of Cynthia Hesdra. When Martin published The Ex-Slave’s Fortune: The Story of Cynthia Hesdra in 2008, she saved an important figure in local history from obscurity. Here are Dr. Martin’s remarks at The Nyack Center prior to the dedication of the Bench By The Road on May 18, 2015

I want to begin by placing the Cynthia Hesdra story within a larger context.  You all are undoubtedly familiar with the phrase, Black Lives Matter.  The phrase has come to represent a contemporary movement to raise awareness about the unequal treatment blacks experience when compared with other groups.   The high profile killings of unarmed black men and women across the country, among other factors, provide evidence to support the claims.  The struggle to address the need to recognize the humanity and dignity of all people,regardless of the social groups to which they belong, has its roots in the very foundation of this nation.  In many ways,Cynthia Hesdra was at the crossroads of the struggle for civil rights, for human rights, and for social justice.

Cynthia Hesdra was born in Tappan, New York during the very year that the U.S. banned the importation of slaves.  In 1808 John and Jane Moore welcomed the birth of their daughter, a woman who would leave her footprints through the annuals of Nyack’s storied history.  John Moore, a man of Native American and African ancestry, was a successful businessman who operated mills in the Sparkill area.  He was business partners with some of Nyack’s most well-known landowners, including Peter DePew.  John and Jane Moore’s daughter would later marry, Edward Hesdra, the son of a Virginia planter and a free Haitian woman.  During their marriage, Cynthia’s freedom was purchased.  The couple lived on Amity Street in New York City. Cynthia operated a successful laundry business and she purchased and paid for several properties.  The couple later took up residency in Nyack, where Cynthia Hesdra also ran a successful business and owned properties.  One of the properties was a station on the Underground Railroad.

The Underground Railroad was a secret network of people who were willing to pay the ultimate price to help individuals in bondage determined to live their lives as a total person.  Nyack was the station between Jersey City, New Jersey, and Newburgh, New York. Nyack was pro-slavery, as were many places in New York and throughout the Rockland County.  The names of slaveholders in Rockland County are recorded in census documents.  For instance in the 1800 census it is noted that Stephen Thompson owned 11 slaves and that John Smith owned 5 slaves. Peter Demarest is said to have owned 4 slaves, while Isaac Blauvelt, John Tallman and Garret Tallman owned one slave each.  This is of course not an exhaustive list of slaveholders rather evidence of the existence of slavery in the county and a window into the number of slaves that each slaveholder was likely to own. By 1820, there were 58 female slaves in the county and 66 male slaves.

The Ex-Slave’s Fortune:
The Story of Cynthia Hesdra

Were it not for the battle over Cynthia Hesdra’s fortune, her commitment to ensuring that the nation live up to its founding creed and professed core values, may have never been brought to light.

Cynthia Hesdra departed this life in 1879 as one of the wealthiest people in the county. With no evidence of a will, her relatives batted over her fortune in a case that drew a lot of media attention. Cynthia Hesdra’s husband eventually produced a will, which left everything to him and included a request that Cynthia Hesdra’s gravesite be well kept. Cynthia Hesdra’s relatives questioned the validity of the will in court. Testimony from several witnesses revealed inconsistencies in Edward Hesdra’s many versions about where he found the will. Cynthia Hesdra’s relatives even produced expert witnesses who testified that one person likely drafted and signed the will. Cynthia Hesdra’s family members identified Peter Stephens as the culprit.

Peter Stephens served the people of Rockland County in a number of capacities between the mid- to late 1800s including as Police Justice in the Village of Upper Nyack, an officer representing Rockland in the New York Agricultural Society, as an incorporator of a fire department in Nyack, and also as Deputy Coroner.

The case involving Cynthia Hesdra’s fortune was precedent setting. It was the first time that a new state law was used which allowed for the comparison of known signatures and signatures that were in question. Ultimately, the judge was not as concerned with Edward Hesdra’s many tales about the will, nor was he persuaded by the testimony of the handwriting experts, as they were paid by Cynthia Hesdra’s family and would say anything to please them, according to the judge. Most importantly, the judge refused to believe that a man of Peter Stephens’ standing in the community would have anything to do with the type of elaborate scheme that Cynthia Hesdra’s family described. The ex-slave’s fortune was awarded to her husband. Years later after the death of Edward Hesdra, there was another battle over the fortune, with much of the assets going to lawyers, a few charities, and to the state. — Dr. Lori Martin

Cynthia Hesdra was a phenomenal woman. She moved from being an asset to an owner. There is much that we know about her life and other things that we can only infer.  This is due in large part to the fact that Cynthia was, as Carl Nordstom observed, rich even by white standards, but no special notice was ever taken of her accomplishments. Thanks to the hard work and commitment of so many individuals and organizations, including:the Bench Committee, Friends of the Nyack Library, Rockland County Ministerial Alliance, the Nyack Village Board, the Nyack and Spring Valley branches of the NAACP, the Historical Society of the Nyacks, the Nyack Public School district, Alice and Alicia Crowe, Mary White, and Kim Cross, the dedication of the Nyack Bench today will change this historical oversight.

I am thankful to have had the opportunity to use my skills and continued quest for discovery to bring Cynthia Hesdra’s story to light.  Her name may not be on the historical marker located on the corner of Main Street and 9W, her name is now listed among Rockland County’s Civil and Human Rights champions.  Her name adorns the very street she once walked, and students throughout the district know her struggles, trials, and triumphs.

I don’t have to tell you all that Nyack is a special place.  Long time residents and even recent migrants already know this all too well. At the end of this week more people will know what makes Nyack special.  In addition to the dedication of the Nyack Bench today, the Food Network, watched by millions, will highlight the re-opening of a local diner located just a few blocks from here.  Some of you have seen the promos for the special series where one of the hosts says, “we’re restoring the soul of these communities, by restoring local diners.”

I am a big fan of the Food Network, as I am sure many of you are too, but I submit to you that the heart and soul of any community, especially this community, can not be found in a diner; rather, the heart and soul of a community is found in the people and their willingness to work collaboratively to do not what is easy, but what is right.

We are forever indebted to Toni Morrison and the Toni Morrison Society for their commitment to ensuring that we as citizens of a global community and as inhabitants of this village, state, and nation, never ever forget to remember.

Dr. Lori Martin is an Associate Professor of Sociology and African & African American Studies at Louisiana State University


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