By Arthur H. Gunther III
NYACK, N.Y. — This village a bit north of New York City and west of the Hudson River has long been recognized as part of the famous “Underground Railroad,” the network of secret trails, safe houses and courageous people across color who helped slaves escape in the 1800s. Now, thanks in part to activist Bill Batson, who is also an artist/writer, what has been known locally will both be recognized with a sitting place and given national publicity.
Bill, rightfully proud of his long-integrated community with such a rich heritage of families living and working together, has helped bring author Toni Morrison to Nyack as guest speaker for the dedication of a bench in Memorial Park.
The sitting place, one for reflection against a beautiful river view, is the 15th latest “Bench by the Road,” a project of the Tony Morrison Society. In 1989, the Nobel-winning author who has a home in neighboring Grand View, described what she saw as the insufficient placement of enslaved Africans and their descendants in our nation’s history. She would write “Beloved,” her famous novel, to detail and bring life to that history.
Specifically in Nyack, the facts show that the village played a vital role in the Underground Railroad through the efforts of conductor/safe house operator Cynthia D. Hesdra (1808-1879).
Morrison had told The World magazine that “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. … And because such a place doesn’t exist … the book had to.”
So began the benches by the road, thanks to the author, donors and volunteers like Bill Batson, who has been working on the Nyack project since 2010. The initial bench was placed in South Carolina, at Sullivan’s Island in 2008, where slaves first set foot in the western world. Other benches are found in sites historical to slaves and their freedom journey.
In Nyack, where the latest sitting place will be dedicated Monday, May 18, with ceremonies beginning downtown at 2:30 p.m. and speaking by Morrison later in the park, the reference to Hesdra will be furthered and made deeper. A state historical marker on Main Street has long noted the Underground Railroad and the Hesdra Family, and The Historical Society of the Nyacks as well as the Historical Society of Rockland County and the local newspaper, The Journal News, have made detailed reference to Nyack and the Underground Railroad for at least five decades.
Yet the “bench by the road” may prove to be the most significant emotional recognition. As Batson was quoted in a newspaper story, “In my mind, Cynthia Hesdra was a superhero. … (she became) a successful person who used her wealth to save other people’s lives, that’s the stuff of Marvel Comics. She’s an Avenger … This makes her history tangible, something you can touch.”
(The Nyack Public Library is offering an exhibit on Hesdra, the bench project and the Underground Railroad, and The Historical Society of the Nyacks is showing “An Underground Railroad Monument Comes to Nyack: Inspired by Toni Morrison, Honoring Cynthia Hesdra.”
The writer is a retired newspaperman who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org This essay may be reproduced.