Remembering Leonard Van Dyke, Kingston’s first black alderman

Leonard Van Dyke and his wife, Vera.

Back in the 1960s, Kingston residents Leonard Van Dyke and his wife, Vera, were instrumental in breaking down barriers to equality. Thanks to their activism—both held leadership positions in the Kingston branches of the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Justice (CORE)—discriminatory practices against blacks in the building trades union as well as in local housing were challenged. Local newspaper articles of the time testify to the fierce resistance they faced.

Leonard was born in Kingston in 1920; his grandfather, Peter Van Dyke, had bought several houses on Gage Street in the 1800s. Leonard married Vera, who had moved to Kingston from Virginia as a teenager, during World War II and served overseas. After the war the couple moved to the Rondout, where they brought up their 11 children.

Vera served as vice president of the Kingston branch of the NAACP, organized the local chapter of CORE and served as its labor organizer. Leonard served as chairman of NAACP’s Labor and Industry Committee and as Job Placement Chairman of CORE. He worked in construction, and as a member of Local 17 of the AFL-CIO, exerted pressure on the union leadership to accept blacks in the building trades. Thanks to his efforts, the Carpenters Union admitted its first two black apprentices, one of whom was his son, Joe.

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However, despite their qualifications and payment of dues, neither man had gotten any work (while white apprentices had), according to the October 14, 1964 article in The Kingston Daily Freeman entitled “State Council 50 Executive Backs Yerry in Trades.”

“Despite the fact that about 30 per cent of my union is Negro, not one Negro laborer has ever been selected to be trained as a carpenter, plumber or electrician,” Van Dyke was quoted as saying. “Consequently, all other avenues being exhausted, I have this morning called the New York State Commission on Human Rights to demand a full investigation of the policies on the unions controlled by Mr. Yerry [George E. Yerry, Jr., who was president of the AFL-CIO’s Building Trades Council].”

“I got work after that article came out,” said Joe, who currently resides with his wife, Marti, in Port Ewen. Joe’s four-year apprenticeship paved the way for a successful career in construction and ultimately his own leadership role in the union.

As Kingston’s first black alderman (he served from 1965 to 1967, representing the Sixth Ward, which then constituted downtown), Leonard was also the only city leader to challenge the federally funded urban renewal project that was leveling much of the Rondout. “At last night’s Common Council meeting, I was alone in voicing opposition to the blatant injustice of urban renewal,” Van Dyke is quoted as saying in the July 14, 1965 article, “Van Dyke Taking Renewal Complaints to Washington,” in the Freeman. He described the poor housing conditions in his ward—“two families sharing a common bathroom in a house that leaks”—and the plight of African-Americans who “can’t move into a predominately white neighborhood because too many good church-going white folks refuse to rent to Negroes.”

Leonard Van Dyke during his military service.

Leonard met with the federal secretary of HUD in Washington, D.C. after his protests fell on deaf ears locally, and his friendship and influence with Congressman Joseph Resnick, who represented New York’s 28th district, was instrumental in stopping the flow of federal funds, according to Joe. As a result, the planned destruction of the area to the west of Broadway was halted. At the 11th hour, the boarded-up buildings lining the west side of Broadway were saved—buildings whose later renovation spurred the area’s eventual resurrection.

Leonard’s and Vera’s activism rubbed off on their children. After membership in the Carpenters District Council for 14 years, during which he helped build SUNY New Paltz and affordable housing as well as put up partitions at the IBM complex and renovate the Ulster County courthouse, Joe Van Dyke joined the Ulster County Highway Department and was elected the first black (and so far, only) president of the Ulster County Unit of CSEA. Under his leadership, despite powerful resistance, the union negotiated the first meaningful raises to employees in years. 

Leonard died in 1974 at age 53 while Vera lived to age 90, dying in 2015. 

To commemorate Black History Month, Lynn Woods recently interviewed Joe about his parents’ contributions, growing up in the Rondout prior to urban renewal, and his own career. Excerpts from that interview, along with additional comments made by Joe’s sister, Renee, who lives in Washington, D.C., are published below. 

Did your father graduate from Kingston High School?

Joe Van Dyke: Back then, a lot of people dropped out and went to work, which is what he did. He joined the army and was at the Normandy landings on D-Day, for which he got a medal. After the war, we moved from Cedar Street to Rondout. I was born in 1941 and so at that time I was the only child. We moved to 20 E. Union, which had three rooms and shared a toilet with the house next door. My father then bought another house at 24 E. Union, which was two stories and had its own bathroom. We lived upstairs and my aunt and uncle lived downstairs.

Your family then moved to Ann Street and finally to Mill Street, which had a storefront. What was life like in Rondout when you were growing up?

JVD: My father ran a candy shop downstairs that had a jukebox, so the kids could dance. We called it the Chippy Joint. Right next door to us was nice brick apartment building, with a porch and a peach tree, and next to that was a beautiful white house with a cherry tree and white picket fence, where the Levys lived; they worked at Spiesman’s Bakery, around the corner. On that same street was the 7-Up bottling company. Our next-door neighbor, who was a rabbi, ran a kosher meat market and had a chicken coop. It was a family place, where kids played safely in the streets. I could tell where I was with my eyes closed because I could smell the aroma of Italian food, Irish food, Jewish food, or Southern style. It was a neighborhood of aromas.

We all went to Number 3 school. I had Italian, Irish, and Jewish friends. Uptown, there were no blacks living in that area. We’d be up there asking people if they wanted us to mow their lawn, shovel snow off their sidewalk, or wash their car, and if a patrolman happened to see us, he’d ask why we were there. Downtown was different.

What were your parents’ roles in the community?

JVD: Back then, the wards had committee men. Dave Schechter was committee man for the Republicans and Joe Epstein was the committee man for the Democrats. My parents moved closely with Epstein to get his candidates elected. They were also very nice to Dave Schechter. Everything was civil. Joe Epstein got me a job on the brickyard, where I made real good money. My mom was strong in the churches; she knew everybody, and so did my father. My mom and dad would take people to the polls. If my mother knew somebody’s family member was sick, she’d make a pot of hot soup and take it over to the family try to help the mother out.  People leaned on each other and it was just as diverse as it could be. It’s only when I started going to junior high school and high school that I felt being black was a problem.

Did your parents belong to a particular church?

JVD: There was a storefront church on Mill Street. There was paper in the windows and we’d look in and there would be Clara Cooper—we called her Mother Cooper—sitting there reading her Bible in stark white stockings and a long dress. My mother and father started helping out. They would do fundraisers to keep the place going and they raised the down payment for a new church building, which is still there. My father got some union construction masons to put down the foundation. White, black, all chipped in. St. Clara’s Church of God in Christ became Rev. James Childs’ first church, back in 1970.

How did your father become alderman?

Both of my parents were known go-getters. (Besides taking care of 11 children, my mother worked for the state at a halfway house and was a union member of CSEA.) My father had union meetings at the house. He was very well known and popular, as was my mother, and so was an excellent choice to run on the Democratic ticket. He served from 1965 to 1967. But urban renewal made him so pissed off he decided not to run again.

Leonard Van Dyke with daughters Lanette (left) and Renee (right).

Did you and your siblings participate in your parents’ activism?

JVD: Absolutely. My mother, father and me were picketing Woolworth’s uptown [in support of the Greensboro, North Carolina, sit-ins protesting the chain’s racial segregation in the South]. There was a counter picket of two or three Nazis in full uniform. My father fought those people in the war and didn’t pay any attention to them.

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Renee Van Dyke: I remember marching in front of someone’s home, with a couple of older brothers, because [the owner] wouldn’t rent to blacks, and the lady snatched my sign. This was in the early 1960s and I was in grade school. Joe, my sister, me and our parents went to the Poor People’s March in Washington, D.C. [held in May 1968]. Joe helped put up the little wooden houses on the mall [constituting the temporary city occupied by thousands of people]. It was right after Martin Luther King was killed and was led by Ralph Abernathy. We stayed there for two days.

Renee, you’re 13 years younger than Joe. What was your relationship to your parents?

RVD: I enjoyed everything my parents did and was extremely close to my dad. When I started at the new Miller School in eighth grade—we were bused out there—the white children weren’t used to going to school with blacks and they would attack the young [black] boys. A lot of racial stuff was going on, and one day I walked out of class because of something that had happened and said to the other kids, ‘we’re going out.’ Some were afraid and didn’t come, but I knew I was okay, I called daddy and he came out there. By the time I left, in ninth grade, we all got along.

I was the first in my family at attend college. My parents and my brother Richard and his wife drove me to Wilberforce University, in Ohio, and were very proud.

Joe, you were the first and so far only black person to serve as president of the CSEA’s Ulster County Unit. What was that experience like?

JVD: The Ulster County Unit covered social services, the Highway Department, where I worked, and mental health. It was around 1980, and we got some of the best contracts that the county employees ever got. The Ulster County government was playing hardball when negotiating with the unions. We got a fact-finder to come. When he saw how little employees were making, he determined the union should get a 9, 8-1/2, and 8-1/2 percent increase over three years. The county turned down those figures, but when all these employees saw the fact finder’s numbers, all hell broke out. There were job actions, let’s call it that. People were licking the bottom of the barrel to survive—men who were married with children to support. As the president, I was supposed to tell the employees to go back to work and if they didn’t, they’d arrest me, according to civil law. The sheriff’s department was coming after me and I was on the run, putting up at a hotel. We all got fined, and after many weeks without pay we got the increases. We started getting decent increases with each new contract and could really provide for our families.

I was president for two years for the unit, then served on a lot of statewide committees, then I also became vice president and finally president of the local, which is over all the units in Ulster County, including school employees, custodians, and cafeteria workers. The county and the union and me, we developed good friendships. I would do a lot of fundraisers for charities by going around to substations in the Highway Department and get donations and also do food bank drives. It was to show good faith with the community in general and we did very well. I retired in 2010.

Joe Van Dyke and his wife, Marti.

You also were instrumental in desegregating Stuyvesant Street. How did it happen?

JVD: My wife, Marti, who is Jewish, and I wanted to rent an apartment. There was this nice apartment available at 12 Stuyvesant Street listed in the Daily Freeman. We knew if we went to the Stuyvesant place as a couple we weren’t going to get it. The owner of the house lived in New York and had a person who took care of it. We decided Marti would go alone and apply for the lease. She said, “I like it,” and they said, “okay, it’s yours,” and signed the lease. A couple of days later we moved in. After a while, a couple of other families—there were three other apartments—moved out. At that time there were no people of color on Stuyvesant Street. The landlord made me in charge of the building and I rented out to blacks and whites. After three years, he wanted to wash his hands of it and my parents bought the building.

After urban renewal happened, what did your father do?

JVD: Back then people didn’t understand about breathing in dust at the brickyard or construction site and it wasn’t mandatory to wear masks, so he had gotten sick. I had a record shop on the west side of lower Broadway and when my father couldn’t work anymore, I gave him that shop. He not only sold records but had the excellent idea of selling African-type novelty items. He’d go to Harlem and get canes, capes, dashikas, dresses and other kinds of items. People loved it.

RVD: My father would go to New York City with me and my friends to pick out albums, and every Saturday we played one hour of soul music on a local radio station.

JVD: My father always went to work at the store in a suit. When it wasn’t too busy, he’d sit in a little chair and watch the world go by. My mother was bringing him lunch one day when she found him lying on the floor, dead. He was 53.

There’s a sign off Garraghan reading Leonard Van Dyke Lane.

JVD: That’s all that’s left of Ann Street, where we lived at one time. It leads up to the people he was trying to help [at Springfield Gardens, formerly the Broadway East housing complex], people who were denied access to various jobs. It was a big honor to have a street named after him.

There are 2 comments

  1. Judith Lechner and Allen Murphy, Saugerties

    Thank you for posting the Leonard Van Dyke article. What an inspiring man and family.

    Judith Lechner and Allen Murphy, Saugerties

Comments are closed.