New library focused on African-American history opens in Ponckhockie

A.J. Williams-Myers, flanked by portraits of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth, speaks at Saturday’s ceremony. (photo by Dan Barton)

A former corner grocery store in Kingston’s Ponckhockie neighborhood has a new lease on life as a library and community center devoted to African-American history and culture. A huge crowd attended the opening of The Library at the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Center last Saturday afternoon, Feb. 18, with speeches by Williams-Myers, a retired SUNY New Paltz professor of black studies who has written several books on African-American history, organizer and activist Odell Winfield, the Rev. G. Modele Clarke, pastor at the New Progressive Baptist Church right across the street, and Mayor Steve Noble.

Books on African American history lined the shelves, and various social justice causes, such as the protesters at Standing Rock, were represented with signs and pamphlets. The library is modeled after the Sadie Peterson Delaney African Roots Library, established in 2001 in Poughkeepsie by Odell Winfield, who will also preside over the Kingston center.

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“We are all one, and that’s what this library is all about,” said Williams-Myers, noting that humanity itself was born in Africa and spread all over the world from there.

Williams-Myers spoke of how he came up to the area to camp when he was a kid, and later realized the same land he played on was once worked by Sojourner Truth when she was still enslaved.

“I might be, as they say, an old man,” Williams-Myers said, “but the library will always be there.”

He noted that the many kids in the room for the ceremony and those who will use it in the future “are the leaders of tomorrow. They are vessels of change that we need and have always had. It begins at home, and it begins here.”

“Let me just say, I don’t know if it’s me or what, but the diversity in this room is overwhelming,” said Clarke, to raucous cheers and applause from the crowd of blacks, whites, Native Americans and Latinos.

“One of the great things about Kingston is when we have a special cause, no matter what obstacle may stand in front of us, we work together to get things done,” said Noble, who hoped the strong support the library has gotten so far would continue. “In this neighborhood in particular, the community has worked so hard to bring itself together, to use this old amazing building that long has sat vacant … it’s really special.”

Winfield said the impetus came from local clergy, who wanted to re-create the Poughkeepsie library here in Kingston. He said the library would host an after-school program for kids, in which middle-school students would help tutor elementary school children on their reading skills. Reading programs focused on black history will be presented and various black inventors will be showcased every month. The library will also feature an annual African book festival in the spring and an annual conference focusing on critical issues to the black community in February.

Winfield said the library will also host Kingston’s monthly End the New Jim Crow Action Network (ENJAN) meetings, an initiative inspired by Michelle Alexander’s path-breaking book, The New Jim Crow, dedicated to abolishing institutional racism. He hoped activities would begin next week. So far, the library has raised $13,000, including a generous donation from Susan Butler, who lives in the Adirondacks (and is a friend of Winfield’s wife). Donations can be sent to the A.J. Williams-Myers African Roots Library, P.O Box 2203, Kingston NY 12402.

Born in Westport, Conn., in 1952, Williams-Myers was one of seven children and was adopted by a Catholic priest in New York City. He was sent to a prep school in Hartford, Conn., when he was a teenager and attended Wagner College in Staten Island, for two years before moving to St. Thomas, where he and his wife, Janice, taught at a church school for 20 years.

Williams-Myers worked with the New York City Youth Board in the mid 1960s, counseling gang members in East Harlem, before attending the University of North Carolina and serving in the Peace Corps in Malawi. He then earned his masters and Ph.D. in African history at UCLA and taught three years at Carlton College in Minnesota, before joining the faculty at SUNY New Paltz in 1979, where he served as chair of black studies. Williams-Myers’ books, which were among the volumes populating the shelves lining the walls of the large room, include On the Morning Tide: African Americans, History, and Methodology in the Historical Ebb and Flow of Hudson River Society, which examines the still little-known history of blacks in our region.

Building owner Philip Brown, who lives in an apartment on the second floor, said his mother, a special ed teacher at Bailey Middle School, bought the store back in the late 1960s. (The façade still bears the distinctive vintage sign, Lou’s Market, from the original owner, who was Italian.) Brown, who teaches in the Kingston City School District and coaches local sports teams, said his goal is to eventually transfer the entire building over to the library. He pointed out where the former cooler, near what had been the butcher’s counter, has been transformed into a computer room.

Also present was Amy Trompetter, whose Redwing Blackbird Theater, based in Rosendale, uses puppetry workshops and performances to raise people’s social conscience and fight injustice. Trompetter has applied for a grant from the Mid-Hudson Arts Council. The funding would support a program at the library in which kids and adults in the community would tell their stories through puppets they would create. Trompetter, who worked at New York City’s legendary Bread and Puppet Theater in the 1960s, said she is dedicated to creating a program whether or not she gets the funding. Redwing Blackbird Theater is partnering with ENJAN in Poughkeepsie and Kingston to help end the system of racist incarceration.

Also present were clergy, along with numerous residents and former residents of Ponckhockie, local historians (including Ulster County Historian Geoffrey Miller), and businesspeople. Maureen Byrd-Blue, co-owner of Blue-Byrd’s Haberdashery & Music on Wall Street, participates in Redwing Blackbird Theater’s puppetry workshops. Working with puppets “makes it easier to express something. It makes it more personal, because you created it, and there’s a true connection.”

With additional reporting by Dan Barton

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