Thurgood Marshall’s Valley Legacy

Thurgood Marshall Painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau

Travelers whizzing along Route 17 — perhaps on their way to or from hikes in Harriman or Sterling Forest State parks — may have noticed that a portion of the road in Rockland County is now named the Thurgood Marshall Memorial Highway. Certainly, America’s first African American Supreme Court justice is worthy of the honor, but why this particular stretch of pavement?

The answer: It runs through a community where he played a prominent role in ending a longstanding injustice. (It also turns out the road helped settle the issue.)

Then a lawyer with the NAACP, Marshall came to Hillburn in 1943 to represent parents of African American children seeking to end school segregation. While all white and several dozen African American students attended the modern Main School, the majority of African American youth and no whites were taught at the substandard Brook School, which lacked indoor plumbing as well as a library and adequate playground facilities. The district maintained that children were assigned to the schools solely based on geography. Marshall contended that the boundary line had been drawn to establish segregation, which New York had abolished in schools in 1938.

Marshall drafted a petition to the state Commissioner of Education requesting an end to Hillburn’s segregation. Before receiving news of his decision, in September 1943, Brook School parents tried to enroll their children in the Main School (which was large enough to accommodate all of the district’s students). When the district refused, they boycotted by pulling their children out of classes — and were each fined $10 for truancy. However, the district did agree to abide by the state commissioner’s verdict. Received on October 12, it stated:

Former Main School in Hillburn, NY
Former Main School in Hillburn, NY (Photo: Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0))

“It appears that the effect of the present line drawn by the board of education between the Brook School zone and the Main School zone is to maintain the Brook School entirely for Negro children. A slight revision of this dividing line, through the utilization of State Highway 17 as a boundary line for the full length of the district, would remove the issue of segregation…”

The Brook children entered their new school on October 18. In many ways, it was a hollow victory — most white parents immediately pulled their children out of Main and sent them to nearby private schools. But as one local historian writes, “Slowly the white children returned. There also began an almost immediate healing that has continued to the present as young and old alike found that it was possible to live, work and play together.”

A decade later, following Thurgood Marshall’s forceful arguments, the U.S. Supreme Court rendered a unanimous verdict in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka —declaring that racial segregation in America’s public schools was unconstitutional.

Along with the renamed section of Route 17, a plaque outside the Main School, today the administrative building for the Suffern Central School District, describes Marshall’s local and national legacy in the Civil Rights movement.

In his stirring speech accepting the prestigious Liberty Award on July 4, 1992, Marshall noted the limits of the law to end inequality:

Thurgood Marshall painting by Betsy Graves Reyneau (Photo: ProjectNational Portrait Gallery/Public domain)

“The legal system can force open doors and sometimes even knock down walls. But it cannot build bridges. That job belongs to you and me. Afro and White, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, our fates are bound together. We can run from each other but we cannot escape each other. We will only attain freedom if we learn to appreciate what is different and muster the courage to discover what is fundamentally the same. America’s diversity offers so much richness and opportunity. Take a chance, won’t you? Knock down the fences that divide. Tear apart the walls that imprison. Reach out, freedom lies just on the other side. We should have liberty for all.”

Celebrating Champions of Farming & Food Justice

Learn more about farmers and activists fighting for food justice, as well as other grassroots environmentalists in our People Who Make a Difference virtual gallery tour.

Everybody deserves to eat healthy, nutritious food. Unfortunately, not everyone in our society has access to healthy food options, and studies show people in poverty and people of color are more affected by food insecurity and diet-related illnesses.

Many areas across the country are considered “food deserts,” or places without easy access to fresh, healthy food. These areas lack grocery stores that sell fresh fruits, vegetables and meat. Instead, they typically offer processed, high sugar and high fat foods.

One way to increase the accessibility of fresh food is to grow it locally. Small farms, urban farms and even backyard gardens are just a few ways to provide food desert areas with fresh food and to fight the injustices that exist in our food system.

Farming is hard work, and it is often difficult to become and maintain a life as a farmer, especially in suburban and urban areas. We are facing a potential shortage of new and young farmers to grow our food in the United States. We need to find ways to encourage more young people to get into farming and implement better ways to support our farmers and farm workers who are the backbone of our food system.

A just food system can also good for the environment. Locally produced food helps fight climate change and sustainable, organic farming practices can reduce emissions and help safeguard our air and water quality.

Ron Finley: The “Gangsta Gardener”

In 2010, Ron Finley decided to dig up a curbside piece of land next to his house in South Central Los Angeles to plant fruits and vegetables. That action launched him into his career as the “Gangsta Gardener.”

Ron grew up in South Central Los Angeles, an area plagued with a lack of fresh produce and healthy food options. He began encouraging South Central residents to plant small gardens on the “parkways” between the sidewalk and curb, just like he had done. After facing backlash from the city of Los Angeles for gardening in these spaces, Ron and fellow activists petitioned and eventually the “Residential Parkway Landscaping Guidelines” were changed to end fines for vegetables gardens on strips of city-owned land. 

Since then, Ron has used his platform to promote urban gardening in communities of color. He founded The Ron Finley Project, an organization dedicated to training young people and their communities in gardening and sustainability. 

“Gardening is gangsta. Drugs, robbing — that’s not gangsta,” says Ron. “Building community — that’s gangsta. I’m changing the vernacular.”

Ron and his team are continuing to work toward eliminating food deserts by teaching communities how to grow and take agency over their own food. 

Karen Washington: Farmer and Food Justice Activist

Karen Washington has worked for decades to create and protect urban farms and provide New York City communities with fresh produce. 

In 2010, Karen co-founded Black Urban Growers (BUGS), an organization dedicated to supporting urban and rural growers of color. BUGS is a resource for communities to learn more about their food, where it comes from and who’s growing it. Through education, advocacy and support, BUGS raises awareness around food and farming issues, promotes Black leadership in farming, and invites communities to take agency over their own food.

BUGS has organized a host of community events, including an annual Black Farmers and Urban Growers Conference to bring Black growers, activists, chefs and educators together. 

“To grow your own food gives you power and dignity,” she says. “You know exactly what you’re eating because you grew it. It’s good, it’s nourishing and you did this for yourself, your family and your community.”

Karen formerly worked as a community gardener and board member of the New York Botanical Gardens, creating and protecting community gardens throughout the Bronx. She is also a board member and former president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition. 

In 2012, Karen Washington was voted one of 100 most influential African Americans by Ebony Magazine. She also received the James Beard Leadership Award in 2014. 

Karen is currently co-owner of Rise & Root Farm in Chester, New York.

Leah Penniman: Farmer and Food Sovereignty Activist

Leah Penniman is co-founder, co-director and farm manager of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, New York. 

Soul Fire, founded in 2011, is a BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color)-centered community farm working to end racism and injustice in the farming and food systems, giving Black and Brown people agency over their food. Soul Fire hosts training programs for Black and Latinx famers, a CSA farm share program and several other trainings and programs for activists, youth, and communities. 

As a teenager, Leah began farming with The Food Project in Boston, MA.  She went on to work with a host of farming organizations in the United States and around the world. 

In 2018, Leah wrote Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Decolonizing Land, Food, and Agriculture. The book discusses the lack of diversity in farm management and ownership and provides a how-to guide for aspiring growers of African heritage. 

Leah Penniman and Soul Fire Farm are working to help communities of color deepen their connections to the land and heal from personal and inherited trauma. 

Lindsey Lusher Shute: Advocate for Young Farmers

Lindsey Lusher Shute is a co-founder and former executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, which represents, mobilizes and engages young farmers to ensure their future success. 

Lindsey developed her love for farming at an early age on her grandfather’s land in Ohio. 

In 2017, she testified before the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, speaking on risk management tools and trends of the 2018 Farm Bill. She was recognized as a “Champion of Change” by President Barack Obama for her work in agriculture and received the Glynwood “Harvest Award” in 2013. 

She also hosts the Young Farmers Podcast, where she discusses food and farm policy through a farmer-centric lens. 

Lindsey owns and operates Hearty Roots Farm in Columbia County, along with her husband, Benjamin. 

Celebrating Champions of Green Spaces

This week we are celebrating people who work to connect people with green spaces. Learn more about them and other grassroots environmentalists in our People Who Make a Difference virtual gallery tour.

Whether it’s a 1,000-acre nature preserve or a small park in a vacant city lot, public parks and green spaces serve a vital role in our world, as the current COVID-19 pandemic and social distancing guidelines are highlighting.  

Green spaces help protect human health and well-being. They provide us with a place to recreate, offer educational opportunities, and also provide spaces for us to go to feel rejuvenated.

Studies have shown that spending time in nature can help reduce stress and fight fatigue. For children, spending time in nature increases confidence, responsibility, and can help students focus on their schoolwork.

Protecting green spaces isn’t just important for humans, however. Green spaces provide precious habitat for wildlife, preserve water quality, and can help combat climate change.

Today, networks of land trusts, outdoor educators and state and federal organizations—as well as the activists featured below—are focused on making sure we all have access to green spaces no matter where we live.

Shelton Johnson: National Park Service Ranger

When he was five years old, Shelton Johnson and his family took a vacation to the Bavarian Alps in Germany. Johnson would later attribute this vacation as a great influence on his love for mountains, the sky and the outdoors. His father’s military service had brought the family to Germany, and would later move them to London and eventually back stateside to Detroit, Michigan.

At age 25, Johnson joined the Peace Corps and taught English in the village of Kakata, Liberia. He developed an appreciation for the dense green forests surrounding his village in every direction.

These days, Shelton Johnson is one of the most well-known rangers in National Park Service. He has served over 28 years as a ranger, 22 of those years at Yosemite National Park. Johnson has become an advocate for connecting people of color, particularly African Americans, to the outdoors and to our National Parks.

He is perhaps most well-known for his for his knowledge of Buffalo Soldiers and their history in Yosemite. Through literature, performance and interpretive programs, Johnson is able to teach young people of color about Buffalo Soldier history, and show them the invaluable role that people like them have played in our nation’s environmental history.

I can’t not think of the other kids, just like me — in Detroit, Oakland, Watts, Anacostia — today. How do I get them here? How do I let them know about the Buffalo Soldier history, to let them know that we, too, have a place here? How do I make that bridge, and make it shorter and stronger? Every time I go to work and put the uniform on, I think about them.” —Shelton Johnson

Brother Yusuf Burgess: Community Activist

Brother Yusuf Burgess (1950-2014) was a youth leader dedicated to giving kids in urban areas, particularly in Albany, the opportunity to experience and learn about the natural world. Burgess worked tirelessly to make the Adirondacks more accessible to young people of color and give kids the outdoor opportunities that had so greatly impacted his own life.

Growing up in Brooklyn’s Marcy Projects, Burgess spent much of his free time in Prospect Park, collecting acorns and tadpoles.

“I often reflect back to my early childhood in Prospect Park, when my world was fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement,” wrote Burgess. “I know now that there was an innate part of me that was drawn to nature.”

Later in life, after serving in Vietnam and subsequently spending time in state prison, Burgess’ counselor assigned kayaking as a form of therapy to help Burgess reconnect with civilian life. He would later found an organization to help former inmates readjust to society.

At the time of his death, Burgess served as coordinator for the DEC’s Capital District Campership Diversity Program. He had previously worked for Green Tech Charter High School and the Albany Boys and Girls Club.

Burgess also started Youth Ed-Venture and Nature Network, an Albany-based movement to reconnect all children, families and communities to the outdoors.

“Many of today’s children are growing up in busy cities without nearby parks or ‘special places’ to experience the beautiful and awe-inspiring,” wrote Burgess. “They stand to lose a very important part of what it is to be human.”

Learn more about these youth climate activists and other change makers in our People Who Make a Difference collaborative poster project that celebrates inspiring grassroots environmentalists who may not have always been recognized—including people of color, women, youth, Native Americans and members of other indigenous groups. Take a virtual gallery tour of posters honoring these extraordinary people created by graphic design students from Dutchess Community College.

Celebrating Champions of Clean Water

This week we are celebrating activists who have worked to safeguard clean water for all. Learn more about them and other grassroots environmentalists in our People Who Make a Difference virtual gallery tour.

Clean water — or the lack thereof — has been on the country’s mind in recent years. With stories of lead contaminated water in areas like Flint, Michigan, and the PFOS contamination right here in the Hudson Valley, the importance of clean, healthy water for all is more apparent than ever.

Contaminated water can have a serious impact on public health, aiding in the spread of infectious disease, limiting or prohibiting recreation, and threatening our deeply rooted connections to the earth.

It can also threaten precious habitats and wildlife. In the Hudson Valley, our sturgeon, stripers, eels, and countless other species rely on the Hudson River and its estuaries for survival.

On both a local and global level, activists are fighting hard to ensure that everyone has equal access to clean water.

Meet Aaron Mair: President of the Sierra Club

A New York native, Aaron Mair has spent much of his life advocating for environmental justice and civil rights. In 2015, Mair was elected president of the Sierra Club, making him the first African American person to hold that office.

Much of Aaron’s environmental advocacy relates to the cleanup of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in the Hudson River. In 2000, he received an EPA Environmental Quality Award for his efforts in cleaning the Hudson.

Aaron Mair continues to use his voice to speak up for environmental protection and civil rights, speaking and participating in demonstrations around the country.

Meet Wangari Maathai: Founder of Greenbelt Movement

A renowned activist and educator, Wangari Maathai was a trailblazer in the fight for environmental conservation and women’s rights. Maathai founded the Greenbelt Movement, an environmental organization that empowers women to conserve and improve the livelihood of their communities. The Greenbelt Movement uses tree planting as an entry point to promote clean water, combat deforestation, and support communities.

Maathai has also helped pave the way for African women in higher education. In 1971, she became the first Eastern African woman to earn a PhD. She was also the first woman to become an associate professor at the University of Nairobi. In 2004, Maathai became the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which she was awarded for her dedication to conservation and human rights.

Meet Tokata Iron Eyes: Environmental and Indigenous Rights Activist

Since the age of 9, Tokata Iron Eyes has been an outspoken voice in the fight for Indigenous peoples’ rights. A member of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, Tokata helped organize youth in her tribe to fight against the proposed Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016.

The pipeline was projected to run underneath the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, which posed a serious threat to the nearby region’s drinking and irrigation water. Construction of the pipeline also threatened to disturb sacred burial grounds and other important Sioux cultural sites.

Indigenous peoples, including Tokata and other young people, mobilized to stop the construction of the pipeline and protect their right to clean water and land. Now 16, Tokata uses her platform to continue fighting for Indigenous people’s rights, women’s rights, and clean water for all.

Meet Berta Cáceres: Environmental and Indigenous Rights Activist

Berta Cáceres was a Honduran environmental, political, and Indigenous rights activist from the Indigenous Lenca people. As a student activist, Cáceres founded the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) in 1993. COPINH fought for Indigenous, LGBT, and women’s rights.

In 2006, Lenca people noticed an influx of construction equipment on their land, and asked COPINH for help. Cáceres uncovered the proposed construction of four hydroelectric dams on the Gualcarque River.

The dam threateted to cut hundreds of Lenca people off from their supply of water, food, and other resources, violating their right to sustainably manage their own land. Cáceres mobilized Lenca people to create a grassroots movement and successfully halt construction of the dams.

These activists have made great strides toward protecting the environment and fighting for Indigenous Peoples’ rights. They inspire us to make a difference and ensure that future generations have access to clean water.

Learn more about these youth climate activists and other change makers in our People Who Make a Difference collaborative poster project that celebrates inspiring grassroots environmentalists who may not have always been recognized—including people of color, women, youth, Native Americans and members of other indigenous groups. Take a virtual gallery tour of posters honoring these extraordinary people created by graphic design students from Dutchess Community College.

Living Black History

Pine Street African Burial Site (Photo by Kristopher Johnson)

Something to ponder during Black History Month: Prior to the abolition of slavery in New York in 1827, it was the largest slave-owning state north of the Mason Dixon line. The first 11 enslaved people arrived in New Amsterdam (now Manhattan) to build roads and other infrastructure. By 1750, their number had swelled to 11,000 — 14% of the colony’s population. As many as 10,000 of them worked on farms in the Hudson Valley.

Surviving records indicate that the earliest female enslaved person may have been Mayken, who petitioned the Dutch government for her freedom in 1663. An account of her emancipation reads: “Mayken, an old and sickly black woman, to be granted her freedom, she having served as a slave since the year 1628.” At first, she was only granted partial freedom: She still was required to clean the house of Director General Pieter Stuyvesant. However, a few months later she was granted full freedom.

Information like this makes it all the more important to protect local sites related to enslavement, such as the Pine Street African Burial Ground in Kingston, which Scenic Hudson partnered with the Kingston Land Trust and Harambee to acquire last year. It is one of the largest known resting places of enslaved African Americans, containing dozens, if not hundreds, of graves.

The first official mention of this cemetery’s organization dates to 1750, but it is surmised that burials could have occurred there much earlier. (Records indicate the existence of enslaved people in Kingston by 1667.) In the 17th and 18th centuries, enslaved persons were denied church burial and usually were interred, as at the Pine Street Burial Ground, outside city limits. It is very possible that Kingston officials chose this site for the cemetery because it was already in use by African Americans.

Protecting the Pine Street African Burial Ground was the first step in creating a “mini-museum” tracing the substantial contributions the men and women interred there made to Kingston’s early development. As Rev. Evelyn Clarke said at the celebration marking the land’s protection last year, “Rise up and live in us, and we will not fail to honor you.”

Tubman in Troy

A little-known incident that took place in Troy illustrates the fearlessness of Harriet Tubman, the renowned abolitionist and rescuer of enslaved people.

With the November 2019 release of the movie Harriet, we remember the courageous action she took in 1860 in Troy, New York.

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African Transplanting

Nfamara Badjie working in his rice farm (photo by John Munson, courtesy of Cornell University)

Farmer Nfamara Badjie is trying something that hasn’t been done in the Hudson Valley in more than 180 years — growing rice. While Henry Warner failed in his attempt to establish rice paddies in Constitution Marsh in the 1830s, Badjie is succeeding — he harvested 1,000 pounds of rice from his paddies in Ulster County last fall, an amount he hopes to exceed this year.

Nfamara Badjie working in his rice farm (photo by John Munson, courtesy of Cornell University)
Nfamara Badjie working in his rice farm (photo by John Munson, courtesy of Cornell University)

Badjie provides a great example of making do with what you have. When he purchased his six-acre farm in 2013, he soon realized it was too muddy for growing conventional crops. A native of Gambia who grew up working in rice fields, Badjie quickly realized that crop was the way to go. The only problem was choosing a variety of this warmth-loving plant that would survive in the Northeast’s colder climate. After a couple of years of trial and error, coupled with guidance from experts at Cornell University, he hit upon two rice types and a system for planting them that works.

Badjie’s rice has been a hit with the public and restaurants that clamor for his homegrown grains, which taste nuttier than store-bought varieties. It may also offer a hopeful sign for other local farmers seeking to diversify their crops in the face of increased rainfall from a changing climate.

For more about Badjie’s inspiring story, check out this article.