Always Present, Never Seen

Dutchess officers

Members of the Dutchess County Sheriff’s Department tactical squad patrol Main Street in Beacon on Nov. 19, 1974, following racial unrest. (Photo by James Deckner/Poughkeepsie Journal)

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The fifth part of our Black history of the Highlands

In fall 1974, with urban renewal having erased many of its West End buildings and Main Street decades away from a renaissance, Beacon officials and community leaders faced another problem.

For several days in late November, beginning with a football game between Beacon and Kingston, Black and white teens and young men had been clashing with their fists and with blackjacks, clubs and other weapons.

The conflict peaked on Nov. 19, when police arrested more than two dozen people on charges that included weapons possession, disorderly conduct and public drunkenness. Windows on Main Street were smashed and some of the combatants were injured seriously enough to require trips to Highland Hospital.

Mayor Robert Cahill ordered a curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m., for anyone 18 and younger not accompanied by a parent. Two hastily organized community meetings took place and schools closed for a day. When they reopened, parents and clergy patrolled the hallways of Beacon High School.

Police Chief Robert Epps — who had been the city’s first Black officer when he was hired in 1953 — said “no one seems to know” the reason for the conflicts. “We’ve asked the kids involved and they don’t even seem to know,” he said.

“Interracial dating between white girls and Black boys is part of it,” said Cahill. “But maybe the more serious problem is that nobody, the Blacks or whites involved, is listening. Where can you go if you can’t talk?”

The conflict capped a years-long period during which race had been a topic of conversation — when Blacks who left Southern states for Beacon to work in the city’s factories and at the Castle Point V.A. hospital in the 1940s and ’50s began demanding, in the 1960s and ’70s, representation in civic life and on city and county workforces.

But the unrest also became a catalyst for unity, spurring a multiracial coalition of community leaders to organize in 1977 the inaugural Spirit of Beacon Day, now in its 45th year. Dorothy Medley, a native of Asheville, North Carolina, who moved to Beacon in 1957, said that Nan Whittingham, then director of Beacon’s Neighborhood Service Organization, asked her and others to help organize a parade.

The event allowed residents to “see that we could live together and it was enough room for us all,” said Medley. “It wasn’t all about the Blacks; it wasn’t all about the whites; it wasn’t all about the Puerto Ricans. Beacon was big enough that we all could come together as a community and strive together.”

Campaigns for change

In 1933, the Rev. Francis Storey, pastor of the Star of Bethlehem Church in Beacon, announced a campaign to raise $250 — about $5,600 today — to aid the defense of the Scottsboro boys, nine Black teenagers and young men charged with raping two white women in Alabama. Eight had been convicted and sentenced to death, outraging both Blacks and whites and spurring a campaign to free them.

Two decades later, clergy and members from Beacon churches such as Star of Bethlehem, Springfield Baptist, St. James AME Zion and St. Andrew’s took the lead in demanding equal rights for Black residents. Men and women from their congregations also founded civic groups, such as Les Soeurs Amiables and the Southern Dutchess Coalition.

Pastors would attend City Council meetings and report to their congregations, said Medley, who joined Star of Bethlehem when she moved to Beacon. She later started attending council meetings herself.

“We were able to voice our opinion, but at that time, we didn’t have any representation,” she said.

mazie whitener

Mazie Whitener in 1936

Mazie Whitener, who had come to Beacon from South Carolina in 1936 with her husband, Henry, also became active. She joined a bus trip organized by St. James AME Zion to the 1963 March on Washington and she was among a group of residents that lobbied the Beacon and Newburgh school districts to hire their first Black teachers.

Blacks also fought for political representation, launching drives to register voters, especially in Ward 2, where most of them lived. Patricia Lewis, a future school board candidate then representing an organization called the Beacon Central Committee, told the Poughkeepsie Voters’ League in October 1963 that Beacon had more Blacks registered in Ward 2 than there had been three years earlier in the entire city.

“I realized we were being asked to fight for our country, and those bullets in Korea were not labeled Black and white. I came back in ’52 and Maryland and the South was still segregated. Washington, D.C., was one of the worst places. I had to eat at separate lunch counters. Then I realized that something was wrong here. Here I’ve been asked to fight for my country, but I’m not as good a citizen as the white man. That’s when I really started to wake up and start wanting something better for myself.”

~Levi Horton of Beacon, in the Poughkeepsie Journal in 1997, on how his attitudes toward segregation changed. Horton died in 2009.

Seeking jobs

When Mazie Whitener arrived in Beacon in 1936, she expected to find a job as a teacher. A college graduate, she had taught at one of the more than 450 schools built in South Carolina for Black students between the late 19th century through the early 1930s. The schools were named for Julius Rosenwald, the Sears, Roebuck & Co. president who helped fund their construction.

In Beacon, Whitener found the schools were integrated but had no Black teachers or administrators. She instead found work as a domestic for families and at the Holland Hotel.

Whitener had encountered one of the ironies of the Jim Crow South: Segregation created jobs for Black educators.

Thomas White was hired as a Beacon teacher in 1954, the year the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racial segregation laws. Lois Hughes was hired to teach at South Avenue Elementary in 1962. By 1985, Les Soeurs Amiables was honoring Hughes, White and 12 other Blacks who taught in the district.

Living in Putnam

There has never been a large population of Black people in Putnam County — the most recent census counted 3,820 African Americans (3.9 percent of the population), including 255 in Philipstown (2.6 percent).

Harold Gary

Harold Gary

In 1995 — when there were about 900 Black people in the county, or 1 percent of the population — a reporter for the Journal News interviewed three residents about their experiences. Meyrl Southlea was a retired teacher who had lived in Mahopac for 33 years; Harold Gary was the county commissioner of highways and facilities who had lived in Mahopac for 45 years; and James Nixon, an architect, had lived in Brewster for 15 years. Below are some of their observations. Southlea died in 2004 and Gary in 2020. Nixon continues his practice and is president of the Southeast Museum.

Buying a home

Gary: “Back in the 1950s, when I first came to Putnam County, one of the favorite sayings of real estate agents — and they could say it with authority, they didn’t need to be looking over their shoulders — was, ‘I don’t think you’ll be happy here.’ And I’ve heard that so many times. So that’s the reason the population of Blacks never increased in Putnam County. I don’t think a real estate agent would dare say to you today, ‘I don’t think you’ll be happy here.’ The laws have changed more than the people have changed.”

Southlea: “In the early 1960s, when I arrived, if you were Black, no real estate agent would show you anything that wasn’t swamp or rock. At that time, we had no Human Rights Commission and there were no restraints at all.”

Racism

Gary: “When you’re Black as long as I have been Black, [a racial epithet or cross burning, such as one that took place in Mahopac in 1994] doesn’t bother you. Because you know it’s there. You know it’s always out there. We’re not going to change it in our time. Does it disturb you? Of course it does. Every incident that reflects upon race irritates me. How you deal with it is a different thing.”

Southlea: “What you want — you want the law observed. At our first meeting [of the Mahopac Anti-Bias Coalition], one of our candidates stood up and said: ‘I don’t know how you change the hearts of people.’ I’m not interested in their hearts being changed. I want them to obey the law. No one has ever said anything [racist] to me. But I know that when I applied to teach here, it took them a long time to make up their minds.”

Gary: “[The racial climate] has changed [since he moved to Putnam]. The attitudes have become more acceptable. There has not been a total reversal. But you have to understand something else: It’s what people want to make of it when they come here. Regardless of whether you’re Black or white, your attitude and the way you become a citizen of the community determines how you’re going to be treated, although it may be more harsh if your attitude is negative if you’re Black.”

Southlea: “I was accepted. I never really ran into anything, except when I went out on a sabbatical in 1969. When I came back, there had been a building boom — I mean, development all over. That year I would say out of 27 children [in her class], 24 had not been in kindergarten in this county. And when those parents brought their children into school, they would walk right past my classroom, look in and keep going. Then they could come back and look in and keep going. Because they had been told there were no Black people in Putnam County. So, it was quite obvious that it was a surprise [to them]. But it was nothing overt, really.”

Nixon: “I never felt any real lack of acceptance when I came here in 1980. I feel generally accepted. I have clients in Putnam. I have more clients in Westchester, but that’s because Westchester is bigger. The one thing I am still aware of is that, to some people at least, James Nixon and Harold Gary are the ‘exceptions,’ so to speak. They may not be thinking that consciously, in exactly those words. But they are. That’s when they say, ‘Well, you’re different.’ ”

In 1951, five Dutchess County residents passed the civil service examination given to police officer applicants. One was Robert Epps, a resident of Beekman Street in Beacon’s West End. He would go on to become the city’s first Black officer and, in 1979, its acting police chief.

Blacks interested in becoming firefighters in Beacon also faced barriers. Candidates had to submit a handwritten application with signatures from three current members of the department. At a hearing in 1966 before the state’s advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, Beacon officials testified that the Public Works Department did have one Black employee.

In 1963, Beacon’s City Council approved the creation of a Human Relations Commission. It named Stafford Hanna, a purchasing agent for IBM, as chair. Other members included William Strolis, manager of the state employment office in Beacon; Dr. Leonard Supple; the Rev. Thomas Fenlon from St. John’s Church; and the Rev. Henry Hobby of St. James AME Zion Church.

“By this action, we know that you are interested in equal rights for the Negro,” said Patricia Lewis, president of the West End Council, a neighborhood organization.

A ‘house divided’

Although a 1961 state law barred racial discrimination in apartment houses with at least three units and new homes in developments of at least 10 units, to the residents of Beacon’s West End, housing on the East End remained off-limits.

“A lot of my customers would talk about it — that they had a hard time trying to move over on the East side,” said Medley, who owned a beauty salon.

In 1967, Mayor Charles Wolf agreed to study an anti-discrimination law proposed by Hildrom Fisher, president of the Beacon-Fishkill chapter of the NAACP, and supported by two prominent pastors: the Rev. Garfield Farley of Star of Bethlehem and the Rev. Henry King of St. James AME Zion. The law was intended to make it illegal for real-estate agents and brokers in Beacon to refuse to show property listings to potential buyers or renters. Violators could have been fined up to $1,000 or jailed for up to one year.

After the City Council rejected the ordinance, Fisher walked out of the chambers. The city attorney, Anthony Pagones, said a state law already prohibited housing discrimination.

The Day They Turned Away Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson

Jackie Robinson, who in 1947 became the first Black player in Major League Baseball, was a serious golfer. In 1966, a decade after he retired, he and a Black banker expressed interest in buying the Putnam Country Club in Mahopac for $1.4 million.

When the owners immediately took the club off the market, the NAACP filed a complaint with the state’s Commission for Human Rights. It dismissed the action, as well as an appeal, citing a “lack of jurisdiction.”

Back on the market, the course sold for $1.1 million to Ed Levrey, who owned the Harrison Country Club, and Lou Lubitz of Umberto’s Restaurant in New York City. It went through other owners — and nearly became a housing development — before being purchased by Putnam County in 2004.

No law prevented urban renewal, which became a form of housing discrimination in the name of reducing “blight.” The federally funded initiative erased much of Beacon’s West End, where most Black residents lived, and, by 1966, had turned the city into a “house divided,” Wolf said at the time.

That division reached a climax in March of that year when Wolf announced that he was bringing Beacon’s nascent urban renewal plans “to a grinding halt” until they could be “re-evaluated.”

The plan’s first phase had called for demolishing a swath of the West End that had been resettled by Blacks migrating from the South, and relocating residents to new housing, including a yet-to-be-built 175-unit development that would be named Forrestal Heights. The relocation director for the Beacon Urban Renewal Agency said at a hearing in April 1966 that 188 of 252 structures in the Phase One area were occupied by residents who were not white, and that 178 of those were to be demolished.

“There will be no acquisition of land, no demolition of properties, no awarding of contracts, nor any other executory acts for several months,” said Wolf.

The Rev. Thomas Moneymaker, who was white, had moved to Beacon a year earlier when he was named priest-in-charge at St. Andrew’s, a progressive Episcopal church considered the first in Beacon to integrate. Moneymaker, who died in 1998, “spent a lot of time at City Hall trying to get urban renewal to be reasonable,” said Sandy Moneymaker, his widow.

“It wasn’t difficult. It was just awkward.”

~Paula Davidson, then 20, speaking to the Journal News in the early 1990s about her experience as one of the few Black students at Brewster High School, in Putnam County

He protested a proposal to build a sunken four-lane highway and relocate St. Andrew’s from Wolcott Avenue to the ground floor of an apartment building at Bank Square, she said.

“Beacon would not be where it is today if urban renewal had their wishes,” said Sandy Moneymaker.

On March 2, 1966, the Rev. Mattie Cooper, the founder of Springfield Baptist, brought urban renewal officials and residents together for a meeting at the church. It came months before the city’s Urban Renewal Agency was to begin construction on Forrestal Heights.

Mattie Cooper

The Rev. Mattie Cooper

At the meeting, someone described the complex as a “ghetto project for the city’s Negroes” and Thomas Moneymaker said Beacon was “easily the most bigoted city I’ve lived in. It easily could become another Selma, Alabama.”

Weeks later, on March 22, a sexton for St. Andrew’s discovered a burned cross and a note threatening Moneymaker in the church’s parking lot. The note was addressed to “Rev. Money-trouble-maker” and read: “Church will burn next. Then you. We influence White Plains Diocese in New York City.”

“The FBI came in and asked questions; they went away and nothing happened,” recalled Sandy Moneymaker.

The City Council voted to move forward in 1966 with urban renewal, absent the sunken highway, and the battles over the program shifted to demanding that Blacks be given a share of the jobs created by development and that the homeowners and renters whose properties were demolished receive fair subsidies to buy homes or rent apartments.

A complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development in 1973 alleged that 100 families being relocated because of urban renewal were owed $400,000 in benefits, including 85 who had never been told they were eligible for rental assistance. Beacon’s Urban Renewal Agency denied the charges and blamed changes by the federal government for a delay in issuing payments.

olivia-dorsey

Genealogist Olivia Dorsey (Photo by Nitashia Johnson)

Beacon Roots

Olivia Dorsey, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina, started researching her family tree early — at age 11. She discovered that her great-great-grandmother, Annie Lewis, came to Beacon from Georgia; Annie’s daughter, Susie Mae Warren (1915-1998), followed in 1931. Dorsey’s great-grandfather, Steave Green (1900-1959), had arrived in Beacon from Florida two years earlier, found a job at the Dennings Point and later Brockway brickyards and joined the Springfield Baptist Church. He met Susie after he moved to a boarding house where she lived with her mother.

Now 30, Dorsey, an admitted “tech nerd,” in 2019 created a website called Digital Black History (digitalblackhistory.com) to assist genealogists and historians. She has a sticker on her laptop that reads: “I am my ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

“There is a perseverance and resilience from my ancestors to say that slavery doesn’t define us and what we do,” she told The New York Times in March. “All these terrible things have happened, but we’re still going to persevere, we’re still going to succeed, even though we’re starting further back than other people.”

Genealogy for Black Americans has its particular challenges, such as a lack of documentation for enslaved ancestors. At the same time, some white genealogists are disappointed to discover detailed records that establish they are descended from slave owners. That has inspired groups such as Coming to the Table (comingtothetable.org), which was founded in 2006 and has a New York City chapter, in which descendants of enslavers and the enslaved come together for “truth-telling, building relationships, healing” and to fight modern inequities.

One person who benefitted was Sharlene Stout. She never thought she would live on Beacon’s East End, but urban renewal “scattered the Black folk all over the place,” she recalled in an interview.

She and her husband were renting, for $95 a month, a five-room apartment inside a house on Ferry Street designated for demolition. They were offered $100 for each room as compensation to be used for a new apartment, or $4,000 in matching funds to buy a house, she said.

There were rumors that a local white real estate agent was trying to steer dislocated Blacks away from the East End, but a Black agent suggested the couple buy a house now “because you ain’t going to be able to afford it years later,” said Stout.  So, she and her husband borrowed $2,000 that, along with the matching funds, allowed them to buy a home on Rector Street for $26,600.

“He was absolutely right,” Stout said of the advice.

A new spirit

There were other small victories.

In 1975, the Dutchess County Legislature approved an affirmative-action plan that called for hiring in proportion to the county’s gender and racial makeup. Just two of the 33 legislators voted against the plan, including Glenn Warren, a Republican from Fishkill who argued that the county already had a “a high percentage” of women and minority employees and that “maybe the white male should be opposed to this.” On the other side of the debate, Patricia Lewis, a Beacon activist, suggested the plan be set aside because it lacked a process for enforcement.

Beacon’s Black Pioneers

In 2001, Eleanor Thompson became the first Black person to win a seat on Beacon’s City Council. Flora Jones, who came to Beacon from Alabama in 1937 as a child, said Thompson’s win was also a victory for the city’s Democrats, after a “long battle to include people of color” on the council. (Jones died in February on her 85th birthday.)

Nearly three decades have passed since the 1974 clashes between Black and white young people in Beacon. Three years after that turmoil, in October 1977, a parade traveled east on Main Street from Cross to Eliza Street. It was the centerpiece of that first Spirit of Beacon Day, which included badminton, a concert, kite-flying, a skateboarding contest and tennis.

A multiracial coalition of Beacon residents believed in the event’s potential to unify the city, and the turnout vindicated that belief. It showed that “if we all come together, we’ll be together and we all can work together,” said Dorothy Medley.

“That was just the best thing that could have happened to Beacon,” she said.

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

4 thoughts on “Always Present, Never Seen

  1. What an amazing and beautifully reported article. Thank you so much for digging back through the past to present a fuller, richer history of Beacon.

  2. To reiterate John Lennon’s dream: “Imagine all the people livin’ life in peace” and “Imagine all the people sharing all the world.” “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us and the world will be as one.” I hope someday you’ll join us.

  3. I would like to thank The Highlands Current for producing Black history in the Highlands. The reporters used a variety of resources to cull centuries of information into a fascinating overview. The podcasts were an added bonus, providing further depth and breadth. Recently, the Beacon Historical Society was gifted a large collection of books about Black history from former member Flora Jones. If you are interested in learning more about local or national history, please visit us at 61 Leonard St. or at beaconhistorical.org.

    Lapis is president of the Beacon Historical Society.

  4. When I came across this article, it sent chills through me. My aunt was Johnnie Mae Sampson, and to see her name in print gave me a lot of joy. She did a lot for the community, plus all the other people in the article were family friends and truly great people.

    Beacon was just as you described it, and I can remember many things you wrote, through stories or seeing it firsthand. I remember the riots; I had brothers and sisters who were in high school at that time and were involved. I think I might have been 8 or 9 years old and can remember the chaos on Main Street. We lived at 10 South Brett St. and could see everything from our porch.

    Ms. Medley is completely correct: The Spirit of Beacon Day was something that calmed down tensions in our city, and it was a fun time for all. I am so grateful you wrote this so that the younger generations in Beacon can see their families had a part in what Beacon has become today.