An African American historical tour of Westchester
From holding one of the country’s largest Colonial-era plantations to providing the homes of jazz and blues legends like Ella Fitzgerald and W.C. Handy, Westchester has played an important, though often overlooked, role in African American history. Yet beyond the luminaries, everyday communities of African Americans have been growing in Westchester since before there even was a United States. Here’s a look at some of the most notable enclaves.
Philipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow and the Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers, early 18th century.
Both sites were once part of the vast (52,000 acres) estate owned by the powerful Anglo-Dutch Philipse family in the century before the American Revolution. At their slave-holding height, the Philipses kept more than 50 slaves, giving them the dubious distinction of having the largest number of slaves in Westchester at a time when the New York area had the second most slaves of any city in the colonies. Slaves provided the labor for the milling operations, including farming and shipping, that formed the major economic activity of the region.
“The Hills,” at the juncture of Harrison, North Castle, and White Plains; late-18th century and 19th century.
Around the time of the Revolution, free African Americans established a community here. It included a church, a school, and the Stony Hills Cemetery, 6.5-acres given as reparations from area Quakers after they began freeing their slaves in 1767. Many residents of the Hills, so named because of the terrain, were literate and left records of their lives, detailing the world of free African Americans in lower New York in the period. You can still visit Stony Hill Cemetery—with its approximately 200 graves—today.
Foster Memorial African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Tarrytown, mid-19th century.
The Tarrytown AME church was founded by Amanda and Henry Foster and others as part of the burgeoning AME Zion movement, and the congregation functioned as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Henry Ward Beecher House in Peekskill, mid-19th Century.
The fiery abolitionist minister (and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) lived for a time in Peekskill. Taking advantage of the home’s proximity to the Hudson, he made it another Underground Railroad stop, just like his Brooklyn Heights Plymouth Church, the “Grand Central Terminal” of the freedom route. As a result, a free community sprung up in Peekskill consisting of those who chose not to continue fleeing north.
The Nepperhan/Runyon Heights neighborhood in Yonkers, 20th century.
One of the few areas that represented middle-class status for African Americans throughout the 20th century, the Nepperhan neighborhood originally consisted of a mixed Italian American/African American population, many of whom were railroad workers living near the new train station. Blacks came to dominate the demographics in the ’20s and ’30s, and the neighborhood became an important organizing point for religious groups, social clubs, and area sports teams. It also had jazz venues (where greats like Ella Fitzgerald, a Yonkers native, sang and played) and was even occasionally the site of civil rights actions. In 1928, for instance, a lawsuit by Nepperhan residents desegregated Roosevelt High School on the east side of Yonkers, 26 years before the Brown decision.
New Rochelle, 20th and 21st centuries.
New Rochelle (and next-door Mount Vernon) continues to host a variety of important African American enclaves. With the city’s African American population exceeding 19 percent—far above the county average of 14 percent—New Rochelle had already become a well-established center of African American social life and nightlife by the 1940s. A cursory gloss of famous residents of the two cities past and present brings up names like Willie Mays, Branford Marsalis, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, Laurence Fishburne, P. Diddy, Denzel Washington, Malcolm X, Sidney Poitier, Della Reese, and Phylicia Rashad.
Pictured Above: Philipse Manor Hall