Selma & William Van Ness
Note: Video by Gilbert Lewis
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.
Selma said on her father’s side, her great-grandfather had Indian blood. Also, on her mother’s side there was an Indian Maid from Carolina. Selma had two great-uncles that served in the Civil War, however, she doesn’t know if they served for the Union or the Confederacy. They were slaves in the south and may have travelled to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Selma’s grandmother on her father’s side, died of old age at almost 100 years old. There was consumption in the family, but the women lived long lives. Her father’s remedy for pneumonia and croup was to wrap onions in a cloth tied around waist and across the head until the fever “cooked” the onions and the fever broke.
Bill’s family goes far back, even further than his great-grandmother and great-grandfather in Columbia County. They have all been born, bred, raised in Columbia County. Bill’s parent’s married young, his mother was just 16 years old. His father would travel between Kinderhook, Valatie, and Chatham Center and there he met his wife. Bill’s mother, as a young woman, belonged to Bethel AME Church in Kinderhook. After she married his father and moved to Chatham, she became a member of Payne AME in Chatham, as did Bill. Later he joined the State Street Zion Church in Hudson. Bill attended school in Chatham. There were small classes and he studied business. His father died when he was 12 years old, so he needed to be the man of the house. There were 10 kids that survived until adulthood, but two died.
Bill’s family used home remedies to treat illness. Boiling lemon, onion, and sugar mixed when you had the croup. Vick’s rub was put on a flannel, then placed on your chest. It made you sweat profusely to break the fever and the cold. Bill’s dad had real Skunk Oil he used for rheumatism!
Church was the center for social affairs. They would have Mother Hubbard Parties and a Cake Walk in the AME church. Harvest Home put on plays, with minstrels, and singing group competitions. Bill’s grandfather played the violin and sang tenor. His mother’s family were talented acapella singers. Most families did this as their entertainment.
For entertainment in Chatham it was mainly church, Sunday school, long hikes in the woods from Chatham to Austerlitz, and enjoying nature. After chores Bill would clamp roller skates to his shoes, or play games in their backyard. His father forbade them to go to Main Street, Chatham.
In Chatham Bill thought the discrimination was subtle, mostly around housing. They found it hard to find quality housing as a black family. Yet people were no problem, they were taught girl for girl boy for boy. He had a good time growing up.
Bill and two of his brothers served in the Army and other branches of the military during WWll. Mr. Watson from Chatham served in the Civil War. There is a book in the county that lists all the black vets.
There were five different railroads coming into Chatham. At the time his father was working at the railroad, Chatham was the center. They were the New York Central, The Harlem Division, the Boston, the Albany, and, for freight, the Rutland Railroad.
Selma went to the Allen Street School, the Charles Williams, Central Grammar, and then Hudson High School, which later became the Middle School. There were only six Blacks in her graduating class. Selma was the first black in Columbia County to make the National Honor Society. During her early years in Hudson, Selma was unaware of discrimination. She believed her family was well respected so they were not discriminated against. Selma felt accepted and involved with the white kids at school. There were Italian, Jewish, Polish and black kids in her neighborhood on Columbia Street. The colored school in Hudson from the 1860s was the building for the first AME Zion Church.
The Van Slyke family in Claverack had slaves so there are both black and white Van Slykes. At Kinderhook Cemetery there are white Van Ness and also black Van Ness graves.
Later on the financial impact of the closing of Cement plants, the New York Training School for Girls and the Brickyards was significant for the black community.
The Most Important thing to say to children of the future:
Selma said at an early age young people should become involved, should know, understand, and read. Their past will affect their future. Know where you come from, and know what you will do.
Bill said you should have an education, a well-rounded family life, love, and a Christian upbringing in order to determine good from bad. Never lose sight of the goal, or your hopes and dreams. Be persistent in your drive, be determined, and strive to obtain it. Never let anyone deter you from your goals.
Marcella Mary Kane Schneider Beigel (Marcella Beigel) was the RSVP Director and originator of the BLACC Oral History Project. She moved to the Columbia County area at the age of 60 and was involved in many civic projects in Columbia County. She believed in the importance of the area’s black history and enlisted seniors to cull old newspapers as well as interview local residents in order to gather information on this history. She also was instrumental in creating a curriculum guide for local schools of the history that gathered in this collection.