Always Present, Never Seen

Jacob Lawrence Panel 1

The first of a series of 60 paintings by Jacob Lawrence created in 1941, when he was 23, as part of his landmark Migration Series. “During the World War there was a great migration North by Southern Negroes.” (The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.)

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The fourth part of our Black history of the Highlands

On April 29, 1995, inside Springfield Baptist Church, Johnnie Mae Sampson mined her past as a gift to the future.

Then a 61-year-old employee of the Dutchess County Community Action Agency, Sampson was one of 14 Black residents of Beacon being interviewed by members of the Dutchess County Historical Society’s Black History Project Committee.

She had come to New York 45 years earlier, in 1950, from segregated Asheville, North Carolina, when her father’s job as a nurse’s assistant was transferred to the Castle Point VA Medical Center in Wappingers Falls.

His odyssey would be his family’s, including that of his teenage daughter. Before leaving, Johnnie Mae read about the Hudson River. “When I rode across the river on a ferryboat, I dropped a nickel in it,” said Sampson, who died in 2012, during her interview. “I said, ‘I’m finally getting to see the Hudson River.’ ”

The ripple she created was part of a larger wave.

Sampson’s family joined an unprecedented exodus of an estimated 6 million Blacks from the segregated South — where they faced racial violence and limited economic, educational and social opportunities — to cities in the North, Midwest and West between the 1910s and the 1970s.

About 1.5 million came to New York state. In Beacon, the city’s Black population more than doubled between 1940 and 1950, and rose another 50 percent by 1960. Men, women and families from North and South Carolina, Virginia and other Southern states squeezed into Beacon’s West End, a section of Ward 2 between Bank Square and the city’s waterfront industries.

For Connie Perdreau, whose parents left South Carolina and eventually bought a house on Beekman Street with a view of the Hudson River from its balcony, the West End was a nurturing place.

Connie Perdreau

Connie Whitener (later Perdreau) in 1957, with her cousins Coyed Herndon (left) and Jerry Covin (right) and a neighborhood friend, Woody Douglas. Perdreau’s parents left South Carolina and eventually bought a house on Beekman Street.

“Even at a young age, I thought to myself, ‘We’re looking at the same riverscape as the Roosevelts and the Vanderbilts,’” she said in an interview. “We have the most valuable property in Beacon.”

Searching

Black people left the South because, despite its own problems with discrimination, New York and other Northern states promised better-paying jobs and better housing, and opportunities to attend better schools, live with fewer social restrictions and vote without barriers or threats — especially for a generation born decades after the Civil War and the end of Reconstruction.

Young Blacks in the first wave, from roughly 1910 to 1940, “could see the contradictions in their world,” noted Isabel Wilkerson in her chronicle of the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, which won a Pulitzer Prize. “Sixty, 70, 80 years after Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, they still had to step off the sidewalk when a white person approached, were banished to jobs nobody else wanted no matter their skills or ambition, couldn’t vote, but could be hanged on suspicion of the pettiest infraction.”

It was not just farm and factory laborers who left. Also making the journey from cities such as New Orleans, Montgomery, Birmingham, Savannah and Charleston were skilled Black mechanics and other trained workers, businessmen, ministers and physicians, according to a U.S. Department of Labor report on migration during 1916-17.

The movement alarmed the South. A leader of the Arkansas Republican Party complained in 1923 that Blacks were leaving the cotton fields half-cultivated, “selling what few goods they can and heading north.” He suggested the Coolidge administration appoint a commission of five respected Black men to convince people to stay in the South, “the natural home of the colored man and his family.”

Their pleas would have been wasted. The Department of Labor noted that those who heard the message from religious or political leaders to stay put “were likely to suspect that such men are in the employ of white people.”

The second great wave, during the 20 years following the end of World War II, drew 3 million Black people from the South. Alvin Bell, the longtime owner of a barbershop on Main Street in Beacon, was one of them, arriving in 1959 from Virginia, where he had toiled on a tobacco farm.

Alvin Bell

Alvin Bell (Photo by Nancy LeVine)

He didn’t work “from sunup to sundown,” he noted. That was a misnomer. “Before the sun comes up, you’re in the field, and when the sun goes down, you’re in the field.”

New York was attractive because it was the country’s leading manufacturing state between 1840 and 1960, notes Jennifer Lemak, chief curator of history at the New York State Museum. At the beginning of the Great Migration, African Americans could earn between $2 and $5 a day; as sharecroppers, they could expect 50 cents to $2 a day, she said.

Most of the Black people who came to the state settled in New York City, but Albany, Buffalo and Rochester also drew their share.

Dorothy Medley, then 18, left Asheville, North Carolina, on Aug. 1, 1956, to stay with an aunt who lived in New York City so she could attend Apex Beauty School. Overwhelmed by the city’s size, she returned to Asheville, but that only convinced her to leave again.

Dorothy Medley

Dorothy Medley (Photo by Nancy LeVine)

So, she called a friend from Asheville who had moved to Beacon to live with a sister and brother-in-law who were working at Castle Point. Medley disembarked from a train in Beacon and began walking up the hill.

“When I hit Ferry Street, I saw houses, I saw kids playing, I saw people sitting in their yards,” she said. “I was so impressed.”

A transformation

By the time Medley arrived in Beacon, Blacks had replaced many of the European immigrants who once lived in the West End and owned businesses there.

As early as 1930, census records show a smattering of Blacks born in the South living in Ward 2, whose remaining houses were owned or rented by a large contingent of people from Italy, mixed with Germans, Irish and Russian Jews.

For example, on Beekman Street, Evelyn and Angelo Puccini, the Italian owner of a shoe store, lived next door to Anna and John Rayston, a Black laborer from West Virginia. On River Street, Ela and James Shelton, a Black railroad laborer from Virginia, lived on the same stretch of homes as Jenny and Michael Litano, a railroad laborer from Italy.

Twenty years later, many of the single-family homes, apartment buildings and rooming houses that had been occupied by whites in 1930 had Black owners and tenants.

The house at 12 River St. in Beacon was no longer rented, as in 1930, by Louis Gerentine, a brickyard laborer from Italy, and his wife, Lucy. By 1950, it was owned by the Mississippi-born Miles Oliver and his wife, the Alabama-born Catherine Oliver.

In 1959, the Olivers’ daughter, Gussie Mae, and son-in-law, Arthur Elmore, moved into the home after being forced to leave Bishop, West Virginia, when the mine there closed. The Elmores arrived with their children, including an adolescent named Sharlene. “They had a gazebo on the property, they had all kinds of fruit trees and a big barn,” recalls Sharlene Stout, now 73.

Sharlene Stout

Sharlene Stout (Photo by Nancy LeVine)

Blacks also lived in Brockway, a community about 2 miles north of Beacon that was named for the family-owned brickyard that employed many of its residents.

Henry Noble MacCracken, in his 1958 history of Dutchess County, noted that many of the Black laborers working at Brockway and Dutchess Junction’s brickyards had been brought from the South to replace striking white brickyard workers; by 1932, the yards were bankrupt. Paul Williamson’s father found work in the brickyards there when the family moved from Clarksville, Virginia, in 1921. The family raised their own food, including chickens, said Williamson, who was one of the Black residents of Beacon interviewed in 1995 for the oral history project.

“I helped my father with the gardens and we’d have to cut wood in the fall of the year to survive in the wintertime,” said Williamson, who died in 2016.

Anthony Lassiter also grew up in Brockway, where his grandparents moved after leaving Lancaster, Pennsylvania. His mother, Vera Lassiter, was born there.

Lassiter, 75, remembers a small community of two-story row houses that also housed Castle Point employees and their families. Like other children in the community, he attended a one-room school where the students in the same grade occupied the same row of desks. The community also had a church, Beulah Baptist.

Beulah Baptist Church

The Beulah Baptist Church in Brockway, around 1930

It was also a “little tough,” said Lassiter. Houses did not have indoor plumbing and families had to get potable water from a community pump, he says. But the community was also close-knit, said Lassiter, who was 13 when his family moved to 9 Academy St. — with indoor plumbing. “When we got into our new house, I took a shower — it had to be an hour,” he recalls.

From the brickyards to IBM

With her hands, Vera Lassiter earned that house with a shower.

Decades before her parents arrived in Brockway, brickyards along the Hudson River, mills powered by Fishkill Creek and manufacturers of household and commercial goods had been creating a demand for labor — first in Matteawan and Fishkill Landing, and then in Beacon, the city created in 1913 when the two villages merged.

The brickyards, which began operating in the 1830s, were one of the first industries to integrate, said Lemak at the New York State Museum. In addition, quotas that limited immigration from Europe opened up northern manufacturing jobs for Black Americans in the 1920s, ’30s and ’40s, she noted.

A Glimpse of Black Life in Beacon, 1941

Vera Lassiter began working at the New York Rubber Co., whose products ranged from rubber balls to belting. During World War II, the company had contracts to make life vests, pontoons and life rafts for the federal government.

Sharlene Stout’s father worked at Chemprene, which manufactured coated fabrics and rubber belts. Her mother was employed by Tuck Tape. Dorothy Medley’s career included making electric blankets at Bobrich before holding jobs at the Dorel Hat Factory and Best Made Garments in Beacon, and Sonotone in Cold Spring.

Castle Point opened in 1924, and it drew Johnnie Mae Sampson’s father and other Blacks from the South. Many of the families who arrived to work at the hospital lived on-site. Paul Williamson’s father was eventually hired as a nurse’s aide, and Connie Perdreau’s father, Henry Whitener, landed a job there as a cook when he arrived from South Carolina.

Migrants

WORKING UP NORTH — A group of migrant workers from Florida were photographed roadside in 1940 while heading to New Jersey to pick potatoes. Levi Horton, who grew up in Beacon in the 1930s and 1940s, recalled trucks filled with Black workers who traveled each summer from Florida to Fishkill to work in the bean fields. “That was an established way of life here in the Hudson Valley,” he told the Poughkeepsie Journal in 1997. “They were treated as second-class citizens. We, as young Blacks, figured that was a way of life and so be it. I wish I had the strength to do some of the protesting that came along with Martin Luther King.” Horton died in 2009. (Photo by Jack Delano/Library of Congress)

The hospital’s employees were considered to be the “upper class,” according to Manet Fowler, an anthropologist who visited Beacon in April 1941 to interview Black residents about racial attitudes and their views on the growing conflict in Europe. The employees “live in nicer houses in town, if they do not occupy the attractive quarters furnished on the hospital grounds, and many are now buying.”

Other opportunities came from IBM. In 1953, its president, Thomas Watson Jr., told managers that they were to hire based on “personality, talent and background” regardless of the applicant’s “race, color or creed.”

Williamson became one of the first Blacks at IBM when he was hired at $60 a week in quality control. He spent 28 years with the company, he said in his 1995 interview, which, like the others cited here, was recorded on cassette tapes that were digitized and transcribed last year by the Dutchess County Historical Society.

beacon black population chartVera Lassiter retired from the company, as did Anthony Lassiter. He joined IBM two months after returning, in 1969, from a tour of Vietnam. Stout’s mother also moved to the company, in the mid-1960s. “Just about everybody ended up working at IBM,” she says.

Others worked for themselves. Perdreau’s parents, Arthur and Mazzie Whitener, operated a restaurant called Little Manhattan for a short time, she said. Medley, who dreamed of being a beautician, returned to Apex when her husband suggested she use their tax refund for tuition. After graduating in 1968, she owned her own shop before retiring in 1997.

Other Blacks, such as Alvin Bell, opened barber shops, bars and convenience stores, or took advantage of their talents. Lillian Goodlette, who lived on Ferry Street, listed her occupation as music teacher on the 1950 census.

Integration

Along with better pay, Blacks migrating from the South found freedom in Beacon from legal segregation. Medley, newly arrived in Beacon, says she boarded a bus and walked by habit to the back, and was confused when she could not find the segregated seating on her first trip to see a movie at the Beacon Theatre.

“I could not find the stairs to go to the balcony, so I eased into a back seat just waiting for the usher to tell me I had to move,” she said. “Nothing ever happened.”

Beacon’s Black Pioneers

Blacks also attended integrated schools. Racial and economic diversity defined South Avenue School in the early 1960s, said Perdreau, with the children of blue-collar workers sharing classrooms with students whose parents were white-collar professionals.

Lassiter said he experienced culture shock when Brockway’s one-room schoolhouse closed and he and the community’s other students were transferred to the much larger schools in Beacon.

Anthony Lassiter

Anthony Lassiter (Photo by Nancy LeVine)

Before graduating from Beacon High School in 1966, he played baseball, football and wrestled.

One year, he was named the football team’s quarterback, a position he believes one other Black had played before him at the school. In the mid-1960s, a Black quarterback was still unusual at an integrated school.

“We played Poughkeepsie High School in Poughkeepsie and I could hear the folks on the sidelines yelling, ‘Hey, Beacon’s got a Black quarterback!’ ” he recalled.

Away from school, Blacks “laughed [and] played games together on the playground” with whites and visited their homes, said Geraldine Flood, a Beacon native whose parents came from South Carolina, during her interview for the oral history project.

Percentage South chartBut Flood, who was born in 1938 and died in 2019, also could not remember any Black teachers in the district.

Despite the absence of Jim Crow, New York state and the Highlands were not without prejudice — the Ku Klux Klan had a presence in Beacon and Philipstown that peaked in the 1920s — and segregation took other forms.

European immigrants tended to establish themselves in a particular area, such as Beacon’s West End, and then use higher-paying jobs and bank loans to move out, said Lemak. But Blacks who couldn’t advance or get the same loans had limited mobility. “They were stuck, hemmed in, usually in the oldest sections of town,” she said.

In Beacon, well into the 1960s, Blacks were largely kept out of the East End, according to Sandy Moneymaker. Her husband, the Rev. Thomas Moneymaker, became priest-in-charge at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in 1965, not long after it integrated and a year before a cross was burned in the parking lot. “If you were Black, you could not buy a house east of Route 9D,” she said.

Many jobs were off-limits to Black residents, said Lemak, particularly those requiring interaction with the public, such as working in banks or department store clothing sales.

Manet Fowler, while interviewing people in Beacon in 1941 for her research, said Blacks complained that employers reserved the most menial jobs for them, and that the labor unions also discriminated.

Blacks hired as laborers for the construction of New York City’s Delaware Aqueduct from 1939 to 1945 said that “though it was raining constantly, and the work itself was ‘damp,’ the Negro workers were not given rubber boots and rain clothing, as the white workers” were, according to Fowler.

Paul Williamson

Paul Williamson

Paul Williamson, who enlisted in the U.S. Air Force during World War II, said he encountered racism days before shipping out, when he stopped in a bar in Beacon to have drinks with two white friends.

The bartender said: “We don’t want your kind in here,” said Williamson. The police were called when he complained; he was issued a ticket that was thrown out by a judge the next day.

Casual racism was such in Beacon and in the country that, over decades, even local churches organized minstrel shows as fundraisers, in which performers wore blackface.

The First Presbyterian Church hosted one in 1948 and the city’s firefighters organized another in 1957 at Beacon High School. The Elks Club in Beacon held them, as did the Knights of Columbus in Cold Spring; the Cold Spring Recorder declared a 1921 performance to be the “blackest, funniest, most gorgeous of the brotherhood of burnt cork.”

By the early 1960s, according to the late Beacon historian Robert Murphy, the advent of the Civil Rights Movement had made minstrel shows unacceptable.

That movement, fomented in the South, reverberated in Beacon, where Blacks began demanding access to jobs previously denied them, launched campaigns for the City Council and school board and demanded fair treatment as urban renewal began removing the Black neighborhood in the West End.

This series is funded by a grant from the William G. Pomeroy Foundation and contributions to our Special Projects Fund (highlandscurrent.org/donate).

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Illustration info: Jacob Lawrence, The Migration Series, Panel no. 1: During World War I there was a great migration north by southern African Americans. Between 1940 and 1941. Casein tempera on hardboard, 12 x 18 in., The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C. (phillipscollection.org). Acquired 1942. See all 60 panels at moma.org.

7 thoughts on “Always Present, Never Seen

  1. Wonderful article covering the history of Beacon’s African American population in the 20th century. My parents, Henry and Mazie Whitener, arrived from South Carolina in 1936, and made Beacon their permanent home. We loved this community despite any discrimination we encountered because our family prospered here. Kudos to Leonard Sparks for a job well done!

  2. I really appreciate your series on Black history in Beacon. It’s one of the best things I have read in the paper to date. Thank you!

  3. Kudos for your Black history of the Highlands. We applaud The Current and have encouraged our administration and the local history community to dive into the series.

    On behalf of the Historian’s Office, congratulations and thank you for this important series.

    Cassidy is the Putnam County Historian.

  4. I thoroughly enjoyed the first three parts of this article. But Part 4 seems to be a non-sequitur or, maybe, should be titled “Beacon Post the Great Migration.” Always present, never seen” seems to suggest that the Black presence after the death of James F. Brown in 1870 still remains unseen.

    What happened to those five black households off Rombout Avenue who owned homes and voted in Beacon? Beacon’s first black church, St. James AME, founded in 1844, did it operate contiguously? Where did the early parishioners go? The kids who went to Beacon’s segregated school, what happened to them? Even the first BHS graduate in 1924 — where and who is he? The Black cemetery annex purchased by Brown is the burial site for a handful of Black civil war veterans. What? Where is this second Black cemetery in Beacon mentioned in the article located? I don’t think either are in the New York registry of African American cemeteries.

    This is Part 4 stuff to me. Blacks in Beacon weren’t always packed into the West End. What happened to the Black presence after the death of Brown, who is not buried in a Black cemetery but St. Luke’s?

  5. My wife, Sharon, and I love history, especially when it’s nearby, as you have captured. My personal story is the reverse of some of what you reported about Black people who migrated from the segregated South to the integrated North. In 1970, when I was 8 years old, my white family from New York City moved to Louisiana to assist a small congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

    I was in shock over the contrast, especially the segregation. My first year there in public school was the first year it integrated. I couldn’t even understand what that meant, having come from PS 179 in Manhattan, where there was no distinction be-tween any student’s color in class. Our best family friends in the city were an interracial couple.

    Needless to say, the local whites did not like seeing a family come in that “liked” Black people. We were the target of the Ku Klux Klan, who left burning crosses in our yard and horrifically killed our pets. These were not good childhood memories.

    Your series brought back those memories — not all of them bad because of hundreds of lifelong friends made.

    My wife and I feel, as Jehovah’s Witnesses, that we are part of one of the least-prejudiced, fairest organizations we could ever be a part of. We have traveled the world, been received and stayed in homes of families of many colors and cultures, whom we had never met before. We have been treated as family by all, even in lands where it is against the law to practice our faith.

    Your articles have done a good job of helping people have their eyes opened to history. Hopefully, eyes were opened about the present, as well.

    • Gregory Duhan’s letter started out as an interesting anecdote to your excellent coverage on Black history in the Highlands. What I don’t understand is why the last two paragraphs were not edited out. The proclamation that his religion is “one of the least-prejudiced, fairest organizations” is not only irrelevant to the topic, it’s factually incorrect. Jehovah’s Witnesses have a long-documented history of preying on African Americans, which anyone can Google if interested. Many of my friends have been victims of abuse, attempted suicide, disfellowshipped and disowned from their families for being LGBTQ or even speaking to someone outside of their religion. Duhan’s family are not white heroes. While the events he witnessed as a child sound horrific, his story should not have been allowed to conclude with religious propaganda.

  6. I just want to commend you on the article “Always Present, Never Seen.” My great-aunt, Johnnie Mae Sampson, was a pillar in our community, along with my godmother, Dorothy Medley, Alvin Bell and Sharlene Stout. I grew up around all of them, and the knowledge I have absorbed has been amazing. The article shed a lot of light on our family and on what our family has endured through the years. Again, I just wanted to say, thank you.

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