More than fifty years after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, the president of the Northern Dutchess NAACP chapter continues the fight for social justice.
Call her “Miss Elouise,” if you don’t mind, for she is still a Southern lady even if she has lived in the Hudson Valley for 35 years. And don’t ask her age, for ladies don’t reveal such things. The retired social worker likes to sit in the dining room of her Poughkeepsie apartment, backlit by a sunny window. A widow, she lives alone. Her rolling walker stands in front of her, a black flip phone on the seat. Miss Elouise doesn’t get around as well as she used to, but when that phone rings and her help is needed, she goes.
She usually wears hats when she leaves her apartment, another Southern thing, and is partial to a black one with a broad brim. In this way she plays against type: In the movies the bad guys wear black hats, but Elouise Maxey is definitely one of the good guys, known up and down the Hudson Valley as a staunch champion for civil and human rights.
Fred Clarke, a family lawyer and a vice president at the Northern Dutchess NAACP chapter, says Maxey is “everywhere…. She might use a walker to get around, but she walks more than most people. She’s at every event, involved in every major issue. She doesn’t miss a beat, with a flip phone in one hand, her purse in the other.”
If that flip phone rings it might be a politician, the county sheriff, someone who needs clothing or food. It might be someone like Troy Swain.
Swain called in the spring of 2016. He explained his situation: He worked for the Town of Wappinger Highway Department, and as the only African American on staff, his four years there had not been easy. His coworkers threw the “n” word around like confetti. One day they passed a house with one of those black lawn jockeys holding a lantern. Someone said, “Hey, look at that little nigger” — with Swain sitting right there. A soft-spoken man in his mid 40s, Swain kept his head down because he had a wife and two daughters to support, and it was a good job.
In February, the newly elected highway superintendent, Vincent Bettina, promoted Swain to deputy because he was the most qualified, having worked for the New York State Department of Transportation. After that, things got worse, says Swain. He was passed over for overtime and a promised pay increase. He was called “a trouble-making nigger” and subjected to comments like, “If I turn off the light, the only thing you can see is Troy’s teeth.” The bullying sent him to therapy.
“He had an aura around him. At 15 years old I knew I was in the presence of somebody great. I was mesmerized.”
Now he’d heard the Town Board wanted to eliminate his job entirely — the same board that had given him a commendation for helping an injured water meter reader months before. He planned to defend himself at the Town Board meeting on April 11. Could Maxey come to support him?
Miss Elouise said, “Yes, I’ll come.”
On April 11, 2016, wearing her big black hat, Maxey and a few friends from the NAACP showed up at the Town Hall in Wappinger. In video of the meeting, she sits in the front row. She introduces herself and says, in her honeyed Southern voice, “Mr. Swain brought this to my attention. It is serious. We take it very seriously. I am also concerned with Mr. Swain’s safety. He’s afraid; he looks over his shoulder. The workplace has become a very hostile environment for him.” When a board member interrupts, she has none of it. “We will be monitoring this situation very closely. The ‘n’ word is unacceptable. This is Wappinger 2016, not Alabama 1920.”
Maxey knows a thing or two about the old South. Born in Savannah and raised in Atlanta, she remembers when the schools were desegregated in 1961, how the white girls wanted to touch her hair and a white boy tormented her by the lockers. Her parents, Charles Besse, a brick mason, and his wife Georgiana, a nurse, were “very big into civil rights. We were NAACP people.” They attended services at Ebenezer Baptist, the church started by the father of Martin Luther King, Jr. She even served the civil rights leader at the soda fountain at Yates and Milton Drugstore on Auburn Avenue, where she held a summer job: “He loved the BLT and the vanilla milkshakes!”
In the summer of 1963, the Besse family joined the March on Washington, and stood transfixed as King gave his legendary “I have a dream” speech. “It was like he had an aura around him,” recalls Maxey. “At 15 years old I knew I was in the presence of somebody great. I was mesmerized.”
Two years later, King called for civil rights activists to undertake a 54-mile march from Selma, AL, to the state capital of Montgomery to protest suppression of the black vote. On Sunday, March 7, 600 people answered his call, including Charles and Georgiana Besse and their daughter Elouise.
To leave Selma, the marchers had to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge, named for a Confederate general and Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan. “The police were waiting for us on the other side,” she remembers, her voice rising. “And then they let the dogs loose. The dogs were attacking and biting people. We were all beat up pretty bad. I got bit on my legs and rear end. I had to have rabies shots; it was very painful. I still have a fear of dogs; I know that smell and it sets me off, like PTSD. I couldn’t march anymore after that, it was so horrific.” But that trauma, and King’s assassination three years later, “didn’t stop my resolve to help make the world a better place in any other way I could.”
Her favorite of King’s speeches is “The Drum Major Instinct.” Yes, the same one used to sell Dodge Ram trucks in that Super Bowl commercial. Maxey didn’t mind: “It gets the message across.” She heard King give the speech on February 4, 1968, standing with an overflow crowd outside Ebenezer Baptist, listening on a loudspeaker. Its essential message of humble service stays with her: “To help mankind, that’s wonderful. But do it from your heart. Do it because it needs to be done, not to give you notoriety. Do it because it is just and right. I do the things I do because they need to be done. It’s morally right.”
On Maxey’s advice, Troy Swain filed a workplace violence incident report with the New York State Division of Human Rights, but things got worse. The Town took away the truck Swain needed to do his job. He was accused of “stealing time,” going home on his lunch break to mow the lawn or shovel snow for his wife, who has a chronic illness. When Bettina refused to fire him, the Town Board did so, on June 14, 2016, while Swain was home recovering from an appendectomy. The Town even refused to pay his unemployment benefits, though a court rescinded that edict.
Walking the Walk Troy Swain on one of the roads he used to maintain as a member of the Town of Wappinger Highway Department.
A Beacon native, Swain got another job with that city’s highway department, and while he’s grateful, it pays less and is farther away from home. He is suing the Town of Wappinger for violating his civil and equal protection rights. He can’t sleep. He can’t believe this has happened to him. “It’s hard to find peace,” he says. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Maxey calls Swain’s firing “racially motivated.” An attorney for the Town of Wappinger did not reply to a request for comment.
If the struggle for equal rights is “a journey,” as Maxey puts it, we seem to be walking in circles. Race relations in the Hudson Valley have been worse, she says, but they’re not great, either. “It won’t get any better if we don’t make it better. It will get worse if we don’t work at it.” In 2016, Maxey and County Legislator Barbara Jeter-Jackson lobbied County Executive Marc Molinaro to reinstate the position of Human Rights Commissioner, which was defunded 15 years ago. These offices serve as a liaison between the New York State Human Rights Commission and those who feel their rights have been violated, whether they be people of color, disabled, LGBTQ, Muslim, or Jewish.
According to Jody Miller, Dutchess County’s Human Rights and Equal Employment Opportunity Officer, Maxey is a trusted voice in this ever-more diverse region: “People call her from the community and bring situations to her.” Last year, Miller and Maxey joined forces with the Northern Dutchess Interfaith Council to host a series of community forums called “100 Cups of Coffee.” In open mic sessions, county residents voiced concerns about rights issues in their communities, from police community relations to the deportation of Hispanic immigrants. “We started the gatherings for people to talk to each other,” explains Maxey. “Being able to vent your feelings in a comfortable, safe way helps a lot to defuse a situation.”
So do cornbread and collard greens. A gifted cook, Maxey uses food to bridge divides. In the 1990s, not long after she took the helm of the Northern Dutchess NAACP chapter, she had a meeting with Dutchess County Sheriff Butch Anderson. “Now, I had bad vibes about sheriffs,” she admits. Anderson recalls it this way: “She said, ‘I’m not sure I like you.’ I said, ‘Well, give me a chance. The door is always open.’” To make amends, Maxey baked him one of her signature red velvet cakes. Today, Maxey and Sheriff Anderson are allies on several fronts. “I’m proud to be alongside her,” says Anderson. “She is an honorable and caring woman. And her chicken wings are the absolute best.”
“My mom always said good food brings people together,” says Terry Tyler, the youngest of her four daughters. “She’s been involved in human rights and civil rights for as long as I can remember. Some people don’t have the strength to speak up for themselves. That’s where my mom comes in.”
Cathleen Zeno is a mother of five of Irish-Greek descent, with blonde hair and blue eyes. She has agreed to meet at a popular eatery in the picture-book hamlet of Pine Plains, along with her daughter Cassandra, Cassey for short, at 16 the youngest of Cathleen’s five children. Cassey still lives here during the week with her father, who is Puerto Rican. Cassey spends the weekends with her mom in Kingston. She attends the same high school where her older brother Anthony was racially bullied from the winter of 2005 to the summer of 2008, when he graduated with a special degree so he wouldn’t have to spend any more time there. The stress contributed to the breakdown of the Zenos’ marriage. Anthony, now 29 and a father himself, did not come today because he doesn’t like discussing those traumatic years. “He’s damaged,” says Cathleen. “We’re all damaged.”
Cathleen and her ex-husband are nurses. In January of 2005, they moved from Long Island to rural Pine Plains where they’d found their dream house, a fixer-upper on several acres at a price they could afford. Anthony hadn’t wanted to move, but the hills and the green, open space changed his mind. Cathleen remembers him telling her, “This is our home.” The parents got full-time jobs at local hospitals, and the kids went into the Pine Plains public schools.
“Race relations in the Hudson Valley have been worse, she says, but they’re not great either. It won’t get any better if we don’t make it better. It will get worse if we don’t work at it.”
The Pine Plains Central School District draws its 550 students from nine rural, mostly white communities. Despite being well over 6 feet tall and 250 pounds, Anthony — whom court documents call “dark skinned and biracial” — became a target. “My first shock was when he got hit in the face with a basketball,” Cathleen recalls. “He was in the gym — and excuse my language when I say this — and he was told, ‘Niggers don’t belong in Pine Plains. Go back to where you came from.’ Anthony came home and told me; he was in shock, too. I thought, this is so surreal, this is not happening. This is not acceptable.” She went to speak with the principal. “His response was, ‘What were you thinking, coming to a small country town?’ I said I wanted to talk to the kids’ parents. He said, ‘The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.’”
Anthony made it through the rest of the semester despite almost daily confrontations in the school hallways, bathrooms, cafeteria, and on the bus. He was taunted with racist epithets, pushed into his locker, a necklace ripped off his neck. Cathleen hoped the situation would calm down over the summer, but that September, when school resumed, “it started right up, the same group of kids. By that September, the first death threat happened.” In the cafeteria he was called a “nigger” and threatened with a chair. Anthony made the football team, and one day he opened his locker to find someone had urinated on his gear.
Cathleen Zeno is an outgoing woman with a formidable voice, but school officials didn’t seem to be listening. Desperate for help, she contacted the executive director of the Dutchess County Human Rights Commission, who put her in touch with Maxey. When they visited the school, the principal told them, “We don’t need you coming in here and telling us how to keep children safe.” Maxey replied, “Well, apparently you do, because you’re not doing a very good job of it. It is your responsibility to keep them safe.”
The school district was offered various options: a “shadow “ to keep an eye on Anthony at school, free educational sessions by the NAACP. They declined. The bullying escalated, including a MySpace page that put a bounty on Anthony’s head. In the most frightening incident, Anthony was throwing a football in his front yard with a friend when two white students pulled up in a van. Cathleen remembers, “One kid opened the door, and Anthony heard the cocking of a gun. Thank God we had a dog who scared them off.” She filed a police report; the next morning, the van was spotted in the high school parking lot and the school went on lockdown.
“That was my breaking point, but Anthony’s strong point,” says Cathleen. “I couldn’t take it anymore. I said, ‘I want to move.’ Anthony said, ‘You’ve fought too hard, you can’t do this now. We’re not going to get pushed out of our home.’” Describing the events still makes her cry. “People say, ‘Oh look at you, blonde hair, blue eyes, white, you don’t know anything about racism.’ No I don’t, but I do know living with the fear of one of my children getting killed because of the color of his skin.”
Years later, Maxey still gets mad when talking about the Zeno case. “Anthony was tall but he was very sensitive, too, and frightened. He said, ‘Miss Elouise, why are they doing this to me?’ I said, ‘Ignorance. Racism is a learned behavior, it’s something that’s taught to them.’ I said, ‘I am going to stop this, I promise you.’”
“People say ‘…you don’t know anything about racism.’ No I don’t, but I do know living with the fear of one of my children getting killed because of the color of his skin.”
Finally, Maxey introduced the Zenos to Bergstein & Ullrich, a local law firm specializing in civil rights cases. On March 8, 2010, Anthony Zeno v. Pine Plains Central School District went to trial in White Plains. Maxey testified to the toll it took on Anthony. An all-white jury found the district liable for violating Anthony’s civil rights and awarded him $1.25 million in damages, though the District Court reduced that amount to $1 million. The judgment has become a staple of international legal case law for “liability for tolerating a culture of racial discrimination.”
According to Tara Grieb, the current principal at Stissing Mountain Junior/Senior High School, the 2012 Dignity for All Students Act “gave all schools way more teeth with regards to issues of bullying and harassment.” Today, the school encourages “diversity and an acceptance of others” with speakers, assemblies, and clubs, and is starting to use “peer mediation as a tool to defuse problems.”
Activating the next generation to carry on civil rights work is a Maxey priority, and her legacy. Cathleen Zeno has become an anti-bullying advocate, and Cassey helped start EPIC: Engaging People In Change. Based in Millbrook’s Grace Church, EPIC is a place where young people in this area can discuss social justice and how to implement it in their towns. “I love the work I do there,” says Cassey, who has marched for immigrant rights in Boston and women’s rights in Washington, D.C. and spoken at an ACLU conference. “I did my school project about structured racism in Chicago, red-lining, Jim Crow laws.” Watching Maxey’s passion for social justice “ignited” Cassey’s own activism. Cathleen Zeno wipes her tears and nods her head. “Elouise is a powerhouse. She’s the reason I didn’t give up or give in. She’s the reason we got justice.”