Odell Winfield is a man who values history and the written word. He has spent much of his lifetime passing on his appreciation to others: first in a long career at Excelsior College in Albany, where he worked with adult students to get them through college until his retirement in 1998; and now, in “retirement,” as a volunteer. He has established two libraries focused on the roots of African history and culture in America and the Hudson Valley.
In 2001, the Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library in Poughkeepsie was created under his leadership. Now, a second library modeled after the first has just opened in Kingston’s Rondout District. A community Open House will be held in late January, but young people and their parents are invited to visit the A. J. Williams-Myers African Roots Community Center Library now. The bookshelves are stocked, and volunteers have signed up to read to young kids. Planning is underway for a storytelling and puppets event at the library – similar to a program offered last year at the Rondout Neighborhood Youth Center – in collaboration with an artist from Bard College.
Winfield hopes to offer afterschool programming to area schools, particularly the nearby JFK School, and he is reaching out to local daycare centers and childcare providers to suggest that they bring their wards to the library for programs designed for children under five years of age. “Those that live in the neighborhood might want to walk to the library,” he says. And he’s talking with all area churches – not just black churches – to develop programs focused on the history of churches in the area.
“People have asked me why the library is named ‘African Roots’ if it’s for everybody,” Winfield says. “The roots of the people who came here, the human race, came out of Africa. The majority of people here [in Kingston] are of European descent, and the majority of library materials are of European descent; but others have made contributions, too. We want everyone to see our contributions.”
Winfield will offer field trips for young people to give them an opportunity to visit community gardens and farms, and to experience local history more directly. He’s working with the Seed Song Farm & Center, located off Ulster Avenue near the Salvation Army, to “give kids a sense of what a farm is, and so they can become educated about natural and homegrown food. We’ll study things at the library and then take a trip to the farm, which is on the bus line.”
At the Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library, he started a “Time Travel Camp” where kids could visit the Samuel Morse House, the canals over by Rosendale and High Falls, and then would go back to the library to discuss life in the 1800s. “Here, kids will learn about who lived in the area, where the workers lived, and about the fishing, shipping and bluestone industries in the Rondout.”
Community Book Reads will feature Native American authors from throughout the area. There are many areas in the region, including Eagle’s Nest and Ponckhockie, where Native Americans, African Americans and European Americans coexisted, married and had thriving communities.
Winfield first heard the new library’s namesake, Dr. A. J. Williams-Myers, lecture at the Albany Institute of History and Art in the early ’80s at an anti-apartheid group meeting. “A. J. was an expert on Africa, and he kept us abreast of the movement there. I did a lot of work with him back then, when he was working out of the New York State Education Department as the director of the African American Institute at SUNY in Albany. I’ve always admired him, and have been using him as a resource for a number of years,” says Winfield. “His giving was unprecedented: If I called him, he was there. No question. When I was starting the library in Poughkeepsie, he was the first person I called, and he did so much work with us, helping to build the collection there. He came and did programs for the kids on slavery and would bring items with him, like shackles, so they understood how slavery was in the early days, what it was about. In naming the Kingston library for him, I want to make sure everyone knows A. J. and want to keep his name here, because he is so much a part of everything.”
Dr. Williams-Myers is professor emeritus of Black Studies at SUNY-New Paltz, and holds a PhD in African History from UCLA. In addition to his former post at the African American Institute, he is a member of the New York State Freedom Trail Commission and was historian for the African Burial Ground Interpretative Center in New York City. He has authored a number of books and been published extensively in national and international journals.
While researching for his doctoral degree, Williams-Myers traveled to Mozambique and Malawi, revisiting the latter country where he had served in the Peace Corps in the mid-1960s. “We had our first child there – she was a Peace Corps baby – and when she was a year-and-a-half, we came back to the United States,” Williams-Myers recalls. Other early career highlights included a post in the US Virgin Islands, where he taught church school and high school, as well as serving as head of a dormitory and the Athletic Department for a year; working with gangs in Spanish Harlem; and teaching African History at Carleton College in Minnesota, prior to completing his doctoral work at UCLA.
Dr. Williams-Myers began teaching at SUNY-New Paltz in 1978, but traces his roots to the Hudson Valley back to 1952, when he came to a camp in Port Ewen. “I was 12 years old at the time, and learned Sojourner Truth had been enslaved there. My connection to the valley began with Sojourner Truth, and you could argue that she was my guardian angel from way back in 1952.”
Calling himself an “Africist” by training, he says that he began to do research on the African presence in the Hudson Valley around the time that he took a teaching position at SUNY-New Paltz in 1978. Europeans took Africans with them when they came to America, but “they were always marginalized, always part of ‘holdings’ that also included cattle, barns and so on. When my research took me to Oxford, I eventually began to see they were enslaved individuals on the stage of history, even though Africans were shoulder-to-shoulder with the Europeans in the Revolutionary War.”
When he was teaching at New Paltz, he and his students wrote a book together based on students’ imaginings after watching the film The Middle Passage. “When I was reading the passages they had written while grading their papers, I couldn’t believe their imagination. It was like they channeled people, and the students gave those people who came across a voice,” he recalls. Together, they created In Their Own Words, a book that tells stories – of a woman having a baby on board ship, a woman who died from the shock of being branded, a person who jumped overboard because they preferred to die being eaten by sharks rather than be enslaved – that Williams-Myers was convinced needed a larger audience.
Since his retirement from SUNY-New Paltz in 2016, he says that he has been “Getting my house in order. I don’t want Albert to be defined as a hoarder,” he laughs. “I taught for 36 years, and it went by so fast. Seems like just yesterday that my girls were 10 and 12 years old and playing with dolls.” He’s working on a Peace Corps diary and writing poetry, and has also been gearing up to do more research and writing about the integrated communities that were created here in the Hudson Valley in the 1600s and beyond. “In 1619, when the first vessels moored at Jamestown, Europeans were indentured servants and Africans were slaves, and they were very similar to each other socioeconomically. They married, produced children together and the Eagle’s Nest community, up in the hills of Hurley, has many descendants still there with European names who were born of African and European heritage. I hear there’s a team going into Eagle’s Nest now who are making a documentary film,” he adds.
Dr. Williams-Myers has donated 15 boxes of books to the library, and a woman who worked in the Civil Rights era has made a similar donation. The library is actively seeking children’s books and furniture, especially chairs and tables, and can always use donations of money.
Like its sister library in Poughkeepsie, the A. J. Williams-Myers African Roots Community Center Library was created to promote literacy through teaching and learning about the African roots experience, particularly in the Hudson Valley. “I feel very honored and very excited about it,” says Williams-Myers.
“I want to make sure young folks are grounded here,” says Winfield. “They should want to leave a legacy, and in both libraries, we fight against the ‘school-to-prison pipeline.’ I want to send a message that education can help you, rather than hurt you; and that’s one reason the libraries are connected to the church communities, too. Young people don’t have a sense of what history means to them, and we want to create connections to community, instead of just family and gangs.”
The A. J. Williams-Myers African Roots Community Center Library is located at 43 Gill Street in Kingston. Donations to support the purchase of collections, furniture and technology infrastructure may be made via PayPal or by mailing a check care of the library to PO Box 2203, Kingston NY 12402. Please visit www.africanrootslibrary.org or write to firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.