Cynthia Hesdra might not be as famous as Harriet Tubman, but the part she played in helping slaves attain freedom is no less important than that of her well-known counterpart.
Hesdra was once held as a slave, but after securing her freedom, she ran a laundry business and owned property in both Nyack and Greenwich Village. At her death in 1879, she had amassed a net worth of $100,000 — roughly $2.3 million in modern money. But arguably more impressive is the evidence suggesting she used her Nyack buildings as Underground Railroad locations. “The challenge in chronicling this period is that there was a great deal of effort to hide records,” says Bill Batson, chair of the Nyack Commemoration Committee. Hence, not much concrete proof exists.
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Still, enough evidence links Hesdra with the clandestine escape route: She owned the properties when Underground Railroad activity was at its peak, in the 1850s. She associated with known abolitionist John Towt, who helped establish the St. Phillips A.M.E. Zion Church; this church was considered by many as the Underground Railroad headquarters and counted Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth as members. Contemporary reports describe her as a conductor, and she is listed as such in the scholarly work The Underground Railroad: An Encyclopedia of People, Places, and Operations.
The Village of Nyack honored Hesdra in 2010 by renaming a portion of Piermont Avenue for her. But when an Underground Railroad museum was condemned for structural problems in 2013, the Commemoration Committee formed with the goal of finding a new way to pay homage to Hesdra and other local anti-slavery work. They applied and were selected by the Toni Morrison Society to participate in the Bench by the Road project. The initiative, begun by the Pulitzer-prize winning author of Beloved, installs benches to mark important places in African history. “The project creates connections between various points of the African Diaspora and all the people who were dislocated by slavery,” says Batson. “This Nyack bench connects the local history to the global narrative.”
The Nyack bench is the 15th in the series (other locations include spots in Massachusetts, Georgia, and Martinique) and will be installed on May 18 in Memorial Park. A presentation detailing the lives of Cynthia Hesdra and Toni Morrison, as well as local African-American history, precedes a procession, the bench unveiling, and performances by the Nyack High School chamber orchestra, chorus, and jazz band. “It is easy to think of 21st-century Nyack as remote from the period when slavery was practiced in America. But if you follow the Hudson River to the north, you trace a route toward Canada and freedom, a journey that Cynthia Hesdra helped facilitate for escaping slaves [with property located] 400 yards from our bench,” Batson says. “This bench reminds us that when communities are faced with extraordinary difficulties, when they come together can do extraordinary things.”
If you go…
Bench by the Road Dedication Featuring Toni Morrison
When: Monday, May 18, 2:30-5 p.m.
Where: Nyack Center, 58 Depew Ave., Nyack (ceremony); Memorial Park, Piermont Ave., Nyack (dedication)