Daily Featured Interview
Selma & William Van Ness
Selma and William Randolph Van Ness were both born and raised in Columbia County. Bill’s father, mother and grandparents were all born in this area. His grandfather was Ruben James Jackson and his wife was Alice Harder Jackson. On his father’s side, his grandmother was Hannah Jane Minisee Van Ness and grandfather, William R. Van Ness. They came from Chatham and Chatham Center. His father worked for the railroad and for a short time for The Columbia Corporation and Payne’s Mill in Chatham. The Payn Home in Chatham for aged was named after Louis F. Payne.
Selma’s family came to Hudson in 1923. Her father, Arthur Whiteside talked about the time before there were sidewalks and inside plumbing. Arthur worked on the water and sewage lines along Warren Street. Although he always worked as a plumber, he could not be licensed in Columbia County because of discrimination. He was the expert on the water and sewer lines and the Hudson Department of Water would call him for information about the original lines. He died at 89 years old. He came north from South Carolina and later his wife joined him at State Street. The family has stayed with the same church that helped them when they first arrived. Selma has two sisters and two brothers still living, but originally there were five girls and five boys. The family lived right in Hudson. Their church was the center of their social life.
Bill’s father didn’t believe in women working; the place for women was in the home raising the children. Selma’s father believed the same thing. Her mother only worked briefly after her last child was finishing school.
About the Project
This oral history project was a broad-based program undertaken by The Black Legacy Association of Columbia County (BLACC), which was formed in the late 1980s under the umbrella of the Columbia County RSVP (Retired Senior Volunteer Program) through Columbia Opportunities, Inc. The association’s subheading was “From Slavery to Freedom in a New York County.” The agencies which made up BLACC were RSVP, World Wide Mission for Jesus Team (formally called the Black Ministers Alliance), the County Museum, the county chapter of the NAACP, Columbia Preservation, Columbia-Greene Community College and the Minority Alliance at the college.
They wanted to show a "hidden legacy of Columbia County history" - the contributions made by the Black Community from slavery to present time. “While many later generations of Blacks migrated to the county there are still descendants of the original slaves living in this Hudson River Community…. [Black residents] helped to build it, [form] it, [fought] for it, [worked] in the whaling industry, at the iron mines in Ancram, in the many brickyards and prayed for it in their churches….The historical record of how the Blacks came here, what they did, how they lived, how they died, where they went to school, their social customs, their war efforts, their community involvement, their enclaves, their churches, their cemeteries have never been explored and researched in depth.” - from a NY Council for the Humanities grant application by the RSVP organization
They wanted to amass as much material as possible about African Americans in the area from slavery to the 1980s - including through oral history interviews - in order to create “respect for the contributions this group made in history.” All of these efforts led to the publication of a curriculum guide “Been Laborin’ Here All These Long Years AND Fruits of Our Labors, African American History and Culture in Columbia County, New York” based on interviews and research. The physical collection, including photos and documents, can be viewed at the Hudson Area Library History Room. For a representation of photographs and documents contained in the collection, click here, and for the curriculum guide, click here.
Thank you to our contributors
Columbia Opportunities, Incorporated (COI) donated the Black Legacy Association of Columbia County (BLACC) collection to the Hudson Area Library in 2018. All of the material in this collection was originally assembled by the Columbia County Retired & Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP), sponsored by COI. RSVP volunteers, who formed BLACC included: Vivian Austin, Ella Barksdale, Jessie Cooper, Bernice Cross, Edward Cross, Helen Dago Barreiro, Phobe Eaton, Dandridge Harris, James Kerr, Gilbert Lewis, Ethel Loveless, Julia Minisee, Eloise Moore, Marie Parker, Annie Peden, Calvin Pitcher, Otelia Rainer, Grace Schwartzman, Leslie Stiles, Marion Van Ness, Selma Van Ness, William Van Ness, Annabel Waters, Bernard Weisberger, and Beulah Whitbeck. Marcella Beigel, the COI RSVP Director devoted much time and attention to the creation of this unique and inspirational project.
In 2019, the Hudson Area Library was awarded an Accelerating Promising Practices for Small Libraries grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) for a collaborative project with Oral History Summer School (OHSS) to create interplay between this collection, the library’s oral history collection, and the 500+ life histories in the OHSS collection (Community Library of Voice & Sound). As part of this project, the library was able to digitize the video and audio recordings and archive the documents, photographs, and ephemera in the BLACC collection.
In addition to the individuals, partners and funder noted above, we wish to thank Brian Buckley for his work developing this website, Quintin Cross and Tiffany Garriga for their support of this collection finding a home at the library, library staff and several community members for helping write summaries for the oral histories, Marie O’Toole for her work archiving the collection and developing a finding aid, and to the team at WiLS and our Community Memory Cohort for the IMLS grant for their support and encouragement with this special project.
Help us preserve local history
The Hudson Area Library History Room depends upon the generosity of individual donors as well as grants and other public funding. Your donation can help us to fulfill our mission of preserving and making collections like the Black Legacy Association of Columbia County collection accessible to the public.