In 2005, Virginia Norfleet found an unusual brick, topped with a cross.
She had knocked down an old house on Clinton Street in the Village of Haverstraw and was building a new one. She found the brick in the rubble. Curiosity sent her to 19th century records, where she found an 1846 business directory that listed the site as the home of the first church for free African Americans in Rockland County.
The brick she found was the church’s cornerstone.
So began her journey, reclaiming local African American history that stretched back to the establishment of the village of Haverstraw. The Dutch founded the village in 1616; it was their second settlement along the Hudson River, after New Amsterdam, in what is now lower Manhattan. Her effort has resulted in Ms. Norfleet joining an alliance with Rockland Holocaust Museum & Center for Tolerance and Education, which now hosts a mini-exhibit on American slavery in Rockland County.
That alliance was forged when Rockland County Executive Ed Day suggested that Ms. Norfleet, who had founded Haverstraw African American Connection, work on a joint grant proposal with Andrea Winograd, the Holocaust museum’s executive director. The grant proposal did not come through, but the two forged a tight friendship. That friendship, between a Black woman and a Jewish woman, both of whom are passionate about their people’s history, was evident in a joint Zoom interview with the Jewish Standard. The friendship has resulted in their collaboration on the Holocaust museum’s small exhibit about slavery and in Ms. Winograd’s sharing her expertise as a museum professional with Ms. Norfleet, who hopes to launch an African American museum later this year.
And their friendship is the basis for the ongoing dialogue program they run called “Better Together.” (See box.)
Ms. Norfleet was no newcomer to Haverstraw.
“We’re generations here,” she said. “About 120 years on my mother’s side; on my father’s side even more.” She knew that Haverstraw had been known, at least locally, as the brick capital of the world. The mud gathered along the banks of the Hudson was fashioned into the bricks that built late 19th-century New York. When she was young, she eagerly listened to the stories her elders told “between watching Met games.”
But not until the fortuitous discovery of that old church cornerstone did she start digging deeper into local history, learning things that are foundational to thinking about both America and Rockland County —and were not taught to her in school.
Such as the fact that the first U.S. census, taken in 1790, documented that 238 slaves lived in Haverstraw, which then encompassed the present towns of Clarkstown, Ramapo, and Stony Point. Slavery would not be outlawed in New York State until 1799, though “not really,” Ms. Norfleet said. “It was only partial emancipation. I could be freed as the mother, but if my child was born under slavery, they had to be an indentured servant for 25 or 28 years.”
Or the slave owner “could hand them over to his cousin in Bergen County,” she said; New Jersey lagged behind New York in its gradual emancipation, which began in 1804, with a lingering group of slaves being fully freed only in 1865, with the adoption of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution.
Ms. Norfleet’s research has led her to trace the roots of Rockland’s prominent pre-Revolution families.
“We looked at the Daughters of the American Revolution, and started going through the wills of their great-grandfathers,” she said. Most of them were slaveholders. At one point, “New York was the second largest slaving state in the nation, only behind South Carolina.”
Digging in archives is only one piece of Ms. Norfleet’s devotion to local history. She led the efforts that resulted in the opening of the Haverstraw African American Memorial Park, and she organized Rockland’s first Juneteenth commemoration in 2016.
At that commemoration, “a young man came up to me with a set of shackles he found in a building basement in Haverstraw. He was going to sell them on eBay, but he gave them to me for the museum instead.”
They are now on display at the Holocaust museum.
Haverstraw’s African American history is not all grim.
There is the African Methodist Episcopal Church whose cornerstone Ms. Norfleet discovered; it was established in 1846 by Black brick workers.
There was the community of African Americans who worked in the brickyards. “At one point 60 percent of the brickyard employees were African American,” Ms. Norfleet said.
And for a while in the 20th century, “Haverstraw was considered a little Harlem. My mother would tell us stories about all the people she knew. It seemed impossible.” Yet it was true. Billy Holiday actually did record one of her records there, fleeing the racial hostility of Manhattan’s recording studios.
“Jazz was birthed here in the brickyards of Haverstraw,” Ms. Norfleet said, citing an account that credited the songs of the brickyard workers as the source of the musical genre. (Most accounts attribute jazz’s origins to New Orleans.)
For Ms. Winograd, it’s appropriate that the Holocaust museum exhibit artifacts of Rockland’s history of slavery. (The exhibit will continue after the new African American museum opens.)
“We have the Holocaust, this blight on humanity, and there’s this other blight, slavery, and we get to show both of these,” Ms. Winograd said. “Sometimes we talk about the parallels and the differences. There was a beautiful program on a recent Sunday when a rabbi” -— Rabbi Benjy Silverman, of Chabad of the Rivertowns in Dobbs Ferry -— “came to teach his students about slavery. A Hackensack middle school in New Jersey is coming for Black History month to hear from Ginnie.” (That’s Ms. Norfleet.)
“At the exit of the museum, there’s a quote from Pierre Sauvage, a documentary filmmaker and child survivor of the Holocaust: ‘If we remember solely the Holocaust and don’t rely on our spiritual resources, we are guaranteed to have a society devoid of humanity.’ We remember the Holocaust but we remember these other blights too, because we can’t remember only one.”
With Better Together, Ms. Winograd and Ms. Norfleet have expanded their personal connection to renew bonds between their two communities.
“There was this bond between Africans Americans and Jews in the civil rights era,” Ms. Winograd said. “Then there was a break in that beautiful kinship. How do we bridge that?”
At the center of Better Together are monthly programs, now taking place on Zoom. “They’re dialogue,” Ms. Winograd said. “Just talking and uniting. What morphs out of that is relationships.”
“This is the only group that deals with real issues,” Ms. Norfleet said. “America went from being a melting pot to a mixed salad where everything stands alone. Rockland and Bergen have a large Jewish population that may not deal with so many African Americans. African American groups do not reach out to Jewish communities. I’m correcting some of the misunderstandings between the two communities. When you come to Better Together you have the opportunity to hear both sides.
“There are things that people just assume,” she continued. “If someone says something offensive to me, I know it’s not intentional, so let’s take the time to explain to you why what you said is offensive to me. It’s an open dialogue. Most of the time people don’t know any better — that’s just what they heard.”
The relationships formed by Better Together leads to action. In December, members of the group gave out bags with food and soap and socks “to people who are homeless and less fortunate,” Ms. Winograd said. “We partnered with a Jamaican community that accumulated over 3,000 pairs of socks.”
“Last year, we were able to serve over 200,00 people in the county by giving masks and toilet paper,” Ms. Norfleet said. “There were some Holocaust survivors who were in need of laptops to communicate with their families and synagogues during the pandemic. We were able to provide them with laptops.
“What a great honor it was to help people who had endured such pain, and to say not only are you not forgotten, but we esteem you for what you’ve done for society. We brought some of them together with older people in the African American community.”
Ms. Norfleet is a pastor’s daughter, and she draws a direct connection between Judaism and African American freedom fighters.
“If there wasn’t any Judaism, you wouldn’t have our iconic people like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King,” she said. “Harriet Tubman would have never had known there was even a possibility to be free. She couldn’t read or write. She solely heard about this man named Moses, who had a God who could deliver people from slavery.
“The story of the Jews and the African Americans is perseverance. We’re still here. We may be the most hated, but somehow we still learned to give and to help where other people may grow bitter.”
What: Monthly meeting of Rockland’s Better Together Black-Jewish dialogue
When: Tuesday, February 15, 12:30 p.m.
Where: On Zoom. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to get the link and be added to the mailing list