The recorded presence of African Americans in Rockland County began at the same time that Europeans arrived in the region. African slaves and free blacks were a part of the Dutch community that settled here in 1687. According to census records from 1723, nearly one fifth of the 1,244 inhabitants of the county were African slaves.
With the abolition of slavery in New York State in 1827 and the founding of predominantly black Baptist and Methodist churches in Nyack in 1859 and 1875, a period of social and economic stability for Nyack’s black community ensued. A black middle class flourished in Nyack after the Civil War that owned businesses and properties and continued to do so for a century.
Black families named Avery, Batson, Cooke, Easter, Fountain, Hesdra, Holland, Pratt, Sisco and many others have made significant economic and civic contributions to their communities and the public at large.
When Cynthia Hesdra died on February 9, 1879, she was reportedly worth $100,000 – the equivalent of $2.3 million in contemporary dollars. As an African American female entrepreneur and reputed Underground Railroad conductor, Hesdra was a blazer on multiple trails. Today, she is remembered in Nyack by one of the Toni Morrison Society’s “Bench by the Road” in Memorial Park located near a property once owned by Hesdra.
The high water mark in the recognition of black people in Nyack may have been when Hezekiah Easter, Jr. became the first African American elected to public office in Rockland County when he won a seat on the Village of Nyack Board of Trustees in 1965.