It’s been eleven years since Dr. Margaret Wade-Lewis died after courageous and lengthy battles against multiple bouts of cancer. During these many years since, her daughter, Esi Lewis, always refers to me as “my mother’s besty,” a title I love.
Her legacy teaching in the Black Studies Department at SUNY New Paltz is still legendary. She never missed a teachable moment. With dignity, civility and charm she schooled me on all matters of black history for which I am very grateful.
Now, her daughter is carrying on her mother’s legacy, albeit in her own unique way, as a newly elected New Paltz Town Board member. (Her father David Lewis also served a term on the Town Board.)
Esi, who was born here, left New Paltz after high school, became a lawyer, worked in criminal justice in NYC and returned because, “Living in NYC gave me so much appreciation for New Paltz, the history and beauty of this Town.”
Like many children with parents who were very “popular” in small towns (Esi’s word to describe her mother), she wanted to forge her own path in a larger arena. Nevertheless, after her tenure in NYC and the birth of her daughter, she returned to give her daughter the happy childhood she had experienced in her family home on Huguenot Street (which was coincidently built on the burial ground of African slaves brought here in the 1600’s).
Recently, former Governor Cuomo signed an executive order directing communities in NYS to form the Police Reform and Reinvention Committees.
Esi was appointed by the Town Board to serve on the citizen board. The experience was formative for Esi who became interested in local political issues. As a result of her respect for Police Chief Robert Lucchesi, who she said is “open-minded and willing to augment the recommendations,” she answered “Yes” when David Brownstein asked her to run for his spot on the Town Board.
Yesterday, Esi and I visited for several hours. She reminds me enough of her mother to fill me with nostalgia, however, she is different, charming and funny in an entirely singular way.
We both agree that in life one does not choose their path or destiny. The way appears before us from serendipity and circumstance. When the clearing materializes, the way is revealed and all that is needed is to follow in its direction.
Thus Esi has a new direction, a result of her presence here and her community activism.
“I am working on a project to open an African American Cultural Center in the Ann Oliver House at 5 Broadhead Avenue just behind Stewarts. This historic house was built in the First Free Black Neighborhood by Jacob Wynkoop, a free black man. His mother Jane Wynkoop was the first black landowner who bought property from Mrs. Hasbrouck. Jane purchased the property because the vote was only granted to landowners. She wanted her two sons to be able to vote. The Village worked hard to preserve the home and I am passionate about seeing the Cultural Center to fruition.”
I often tell Esi about how her mother and I used to count black people in New Paltz, at the high school spring concert, in ShopRite, or anywhere. There were so few then. After Margaret died, I kept up the tradition until there were so many people of color here it became unnecessary.
It wasn’t until yesterday that I found out there was an entire neighborhood of freed blacks, even a black church in New Paltz so long ago. Esi recently learned that Jacob Wynkoop had built those homes, so I presume Margaret did not know either.
Thanks to our new Town Board member this history may come to life. I am so proud of Esi. Her mother would be, too. Thanks Esi for coming home.