Virginia ‘Ginny’ Norfleet is more than just a prominent Haverstraw resident. She is the mortar that holds together one of the oldest slave holding communities in the Hudson Valley. She connects neighbors of all backgrounds, and with her infectious smile, heals wounds of racism. Her passion, dedication and love for Haverstraw has helped unearth a hidden history here: Enslaved people of Africa were forced into labor in this Hudson Valley village during the seventeenth and eighteenth century. Ginny has dug deep to uncover the untold stories of these black brickyard workers, as slaves and free blacks. Her organization, the Haverstraw African American Connection (HAAC) built a memorial park to honor and respect those whose voices were silenced, whose history vanished from Haverstraw. This is just the beginning of Ginny’s journey to bring forth the deep, rich history that Haverstraw is hiding beneath its rich clay banks.
Thank you for being here today! Can you tell us a little about yourself? Have you always lived in Haverstraw?
Ginny: Yes, I was born here and my mother was born here. We lived in a neighborhood of Haverstraw called the Mudhole (West Street and Maple Avenue). My family has been here for over 100 years, and I currently live in Haverstraw. I, along with the members of the Haverstraw African American Connection created the African American Memorial Park in Haverstraw on Clinton Street and the Bull Line Blaff (Bluff) above Bowline Point, which is also at the site of the Great 1906 Haverstraw Landslide.
What is the purpose of Haverstraw African American Connection?
Ginny: The mission of HAAC is to research, recover, preserve and teach the rich culture and contributions of African Americans, with an emphasis on African American people from Haverstraw, N.Y.
What do you hope to accomplish through the HAAC?
Ginny: Through public outreach and dialogue, exhibits and other community initiatives, we want to promote knowledge, acceptance and appreciation of our past, and honor it, engage the present and improve it, and create our future by accomplishing our community’s dreams.
I like that a lot! What is the Juneteenth celebration?
Ginny: Juneteenth is a celebration of when the last slave in the United States of America was freed in Texas (in 1865). When this happened, African American communities all over the country rejoiced.
Wow, this is such an important part of history that some might not know about. This year marks the 152nd celebration of Juneteenth, which is now a state holiday in Galveston, Texas.
Ginny: It’s a huge celebration, even to this day, all over the country. We have our own Juneteenth celebration right here in Haverstraw.
What does HAAC do to celebrate Juneteenth in Haverstraw, N.Y.?
Ginny: We plan to do different things every year. Last year we had a gospel event and a march and parade. In the parade, we exhibited all the negative words associated with being African American and being enslaved people; words we’ve heard all of our lives, and that our forefathers have heard all of their lives. We created a box, symbolic to the emancipation, and put all these hate words into this box, and buried them. It was symbolic of how we now exhibit a new strength, we’ve overcome all that would have held us back, and we have been a very victorious and successful people despite it all.
It was very well received the first year, and we had a huge turnout.
For our first annual Juneteenth event, last year, we received 9 proclamations from senators and legislators. We were also recognized by President Barack Obama’s office. Brenda Ross recently penned a book called Bibsy about life in Haverstraw in the 1940s and 1950s, taking place in a neighborhood called the Beach. We had a book event at the Haverstraw Brick Museum and attendance was filled beyond capacity.
First Annual Juneteenth celebration in Haverstraw, N.Y.
This year we have another celebration coming up on June 16th and 17th, 2017. Also, the Village Board of Trustees and Mayor has allowed us to raise the African American flag at Village Hall for 30 days. We will raise the flag on Friday, June 16th at 6:00pm. Dancing Under the Stars is the same evening. Dancing Under the Stars is a fantastic multicultural event where everyone in Haverstraw of all walks of life comes out for a summer dance party under the stars. On Saturday, June 17 from 3:00 p.m. until 7:00 p.m. on Clinton Street, we have our second annual Juneteenth celebration.
How exciting! Those are a lot of amazing events coming up soon.
Ginny: It takes a lot of work, but if you ever want to see a community that functions out of love and respect for each other, Haverstraw is it. Local leaders such as the Town Supervisor Howard Phillips, Village Mayor Michael Kohut, and police Chief Charlie Miller help coordinate the event and do a phenomenal job to produce a beautiful celebration.
Wow, we are all looking forward to celebrating Juneteenth this year! Let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about the Memorial Park you built. Why did you create this park here in Haverstraw?
Ginny: It all started with a brick I found.
Ginny: I was living in Georgia at the time, and the person living in this house contacted me to sell it, and I wanted to build my mother a house by the water, so I bought the property, and knocked down the house in 2005. I had no idea the house was actually Haverstraw’s only African Church. If I had known I wouldn’t have touched it, but no one knew what it really was. That brick was the left cornerstone, but you couldn’t see it, and it was buried underground.
One day, one of my workers was directing a concrete truck to fill the foundation. It was just the two of us in that moment. I turned around to look at the street, and when I looked back he was gone. Something felt off, so I looked in the hole, and this worker had fallen in and he was being covered with concrete. So we used the excavator bucket to scoop him up out of the hole and saved him. The brick was in the bucket.
Wow that’s incredible! Glad the worker was okay. So what was so special about this brick in the bucket?
Ginny: Well, we noticed this brick had a cross formed in it. My mother was a minister for AME Zion Church, the oldest African American church in Rockland County that still exists, so she knew this brick was significant. We decided to keep it.
Ginny: After researching this location on historic maps, we found that this property was listed as an African church. We were all shocked. When my mother passed away in 2007, I had some time to investigate the brick and other historic maps.
We found that this African church was the first in Rockland County, and it also housed slaves before abolition in New York. We now know for certain there were free and enslaved African Americans here in Haverstraw, N.Y.
So this brick helped us reveal the existence of slavery in Haverstraw?
Growing up, we were always taught that free African Americans came to Haverstraw to work in the brickyards. No one knew that there were slaves here.
Through research, HAAC discovered that slaves arrived with the Dutch in 1616. They worked to excavate the clay to make the bricks that would be used to build Manhattan. Further study we found that New York was the second largest slaveholding state, second to South Carolina at the time.
So to think that in the State of New York, you had only two major African population centers: New Amsterdam, which is now Manhattan, and Haverstroo, which is now Haverstraw. These were the only two places that showed up on this Dutch Map (that the town of Haverstraw was gifted a copy of) that showed major slave populations and subsequent populations of free blacks dating to the late 1600s. It’s incredible history.
What kind of research did you conduct? Did anyone help you?
Ginny: I had half the story. I had the brick, I had the map. I had the verbal stories. In traditional African American culture, you pass your lineage by word; oral histories. During times of slavery you didn’t have a pen and paper to write it down, and you still have that tradition today. You couldn’t write as a slave.
So I reached out to Susan Filgueras, the historian of Haverstraw African American Connection, and Linda Epps, the co-chair of our organization, and the three of us spent days googling, researching and trying to learn more about this brick. Susan contacted the federal government and was able to get a copy of the census.
In the first census ever taken in America, it lists that Haverstraw had 238 slaves. This was at least a third of the population in Haverstraw.
I also interviewed older people and families in Haverstraw’s black community. I asked people to bring me any artifacts or documents from their family, and people came forward. People gave things like old voting cards and church registries.
I think that we are not a community that you can ignore anymore because we are so unique in this county.
How did you feel after you found out about this hidden history?
Ginny: I was shocked!
I lived a lifetime with a mother who was born and raised here, and to find that there were enslaved people here that contributed to this town and this state, and their voices are silent.
There were days where I was sitting with family and elders in the community, and you hear stories being passed around. Of all the stories that I know, I never heard that there were slaves in Haverstraw, or that Blacks even made that much of a contribution.
And then as the brickyards closed, and families moved on, the population of African Americans is now very small in Haverstraw. So whose going to tell their story? People don’t even know the story.
So I went to Mayor Mike Kohut, and we did something about it.
Together we coordinated with the police, Playgrounds USA, Home Depot and many members of the community, including Haverstraw’s DPW, in order to build three beautiful parks on Clinton St.
What a powerful response from the community!
Ginny: Yes, it was amazing. The Haverstraw community was so supportive.
I don’t think that there’s another village in Rockland County that can get together, regardless of race, status or position, on one accord, and do something that will benefit people not only today, but in the future. And that’s the beauty of Haverstraw.
But what was amazing was that the brick was speaking for itself, and it’s still speaking.
What do you mean by that?
Ginny: This is the beginning of the story. We begin to uncover things, for example, I found out my grandfather was a folk artist, and his work was in an art exhibit that travelled the globe. We discovered from the written word of George Cohan, the father of Broadway, and Willie “the lion” Smith that they first heard jazz from the brickyards of Haverstraw.
So after we had the brick, did research, and got the mayor and the community involved, I got together about 25 friends and community members, and we decided we have to tell this story. The people in Haverstraw are not tied together by blood, but by love and heart ties. We formed the HAAC, and we not only tell the story, but we live the story.
Last year we were able to do the first Juneteenth celebration. To be on the ground where your forefathers were enslaved, to overlook the waters where the boats were coming in to a new land to be mistreated. To stand here and to be free and pay homage to them. Every day when I go into the park it’s emotional, and it fuels you to want to do more.
Before this interview you showed me around the Park, and I noticed that there is a sculpture installed in the Park from the Haverstraw River Arts Festival. Can you tell us a little more about that?
Ginny: Last year when I attended River Arts, there was this phenomenal piece right at the edge of the water, that was called the Ghost of the Brick Maker by John Murray. Knowing that 60% of the brick workers were African American, I knew this sculpture piece was meaningful and spoke on many levels. I went to the Mayor and said I would love to have that piece in the park. We weren’t sure if we could make it happen, and then last year towards the winter, Doris Laughton-Smith called and told me the piece was at the Garner Arts Center. She spoke with the artist and we all agreed that this was the perfect home for it. John did some research but didn’t know much about Rockland County. When he did research on the area, he found out about the brick yards and wanted to make a piece for the workers. It was a match.
The Park found the piece then the piece found the Park, it was indeed a match. Do you think the arts are important in general?
Ginny: Yes, ALL the arts are important. Art is not just sculptures and drawings but also music, spoken word, performing arts. It’s a sense of release and freedom, and also a lost thing as well. I think with technology, children today have lost the arts. So part of what we do at HAAC, is that we bring kids here and have them draw and paint. We try to get them involved with the arts at the Haverstraw Youth Center. HAAC and the Haverstraw Youth Center intertwine with various events. For example kids will participate in black history events, parades, park clean-ups and Christmas caroling.
It shows kids that it’s cool to be cool. You don’t have to step on people to get ahead, you can just be a good citizen and have just as much fun and success, if not more. The arts can give you that freedom, allow you to be your own individual and help contribute to the bigger picture, the community.
We would love to learn more about you Ginny. What is your favorite thing to do here in Haverstraw?
Ginny: I like to bring the community together to have parties and host events. I have a party every other week. I love traditions and culture. Getting together with friends and family and we play games like Scrabble, Spade and Bid Whist.
What do you think Haverstraw needs to do to share this history?
Ginny: This is the beginning. I would really love for there to be a place to house all of these artifacts that I have found, and allow people to come see, touch and feel these objects. At this point we have so many artifacts and documents, such as bricks, slave shackles, paperwork showing transfers of people being brought from the South. There are so many things that Haverstraw can offer to people. People in New York are not aware of the role that New York played in slavery. History is history, but you have to tell the whole history. Slavery was a horrific thing, but I think the beauty, if any, is that we survived it. And the people who survived it were able to give their kids the passion and love to say we went through it, and we are still standing, and you still can contribute.
The park stays clean, community members volunteer to clean, kids pick up their garbage. There’s no color barrier here in the Connection. I’ve had a lot of people from NYC come up on the ferry, learn about the brickyards.
There is kind of a revitalization of Haverstraw, with new shops possibly coming in, new community members. Where do you see Haverstraw in the next 5 years? Where do you see this town going?
Ginny: I think Haverstraw is heading back to the town of the old. I was born and raised here, and I think this is the perfect place to live. It was multicultural, everyone respected each other, there was a bustling community and local shops. So it’s not where Haverstraw is going, I think it’s where Haverstraw was.
I think if you ever come here, and you’ll see the love and passion of Haverstraw, and the authentic Haverstraw. I think that we are not a community that you can ignore anymore because we are so unique in this county. Because we are the only village that thrives with everybody coming together. It’s not just one group, not just the politicians, not just police. They all do a great job individually, but when we all stand together, we accomplish so much, and we do that on a regular basis. I think that’s what people are going to see when they come here. It’s a great place to raise your kids. This is the only neighborhood in the area where we have an active neighborhood watch; it’s extremely safe. We took back the neighborhood and created a safe environment for children to play in the park. We haven’t had one incident here in years. I have people coming from all over Rockland county and they are in awe. This is uniquely Haverstraw because where else can you call the mayor, the chief of police, the D.A., the head of the Youth Center and say “hey we need to something,” and they say “let’s do it,” not you do it, but let’s do it.
Do you have anything you’d like to say to the Haverstraw community?
Ginny: I couldn’t ask for a better team in this community. We support the leaders in Haverstraw. Anyone that has any stories, artifacts or contributions that can help us further our history here would be more than welcome.
Thank you so much Ginny for participating in this interview! Hearing your story and learning more about the history of Haverstraw has been a worthwhile experience. We’ll be back for more in the future!
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