Edward Hesdra is hailed for operating an Underground Railroad safe house in Nyack, NY. The UGRR was a secret operation since the penalties for assisting fugitive slaves were severe for the slave as well as the abolitionist. Few records exist that tell us about the activities of agents, conductors and safe house operators; however, historians have been able to establish some of the routes enslaved African descendants took in seeking their freedom. According to Dr. Frank Green, a local historian who lived during this time, “the Underground Railroad was so arranged that only a few knew its complete workings. The agent at Jersey City knew of Hesdra’s place, and Hesdra knew the agent at Newburgh.” Historian Carl Nordstrom stated:
“to run a stop on the under-ground railroad and be black yourself was a very dangerous position to take. The fugitive slave law meant that a person caught with an escaped slave on the premises risked indictment. It was not something entered into lightly and almost no one in Nyack was pro-Abolitionist. They were like Communists used to be thought of. It was not a place where you could trust your neighbors not to squeal and Hesdra had to be very secretive.”
The coal cellar at the Hesdra house is thought to be the hiding place since it could be locked and had an opening into the kitchen. Of course, well-to-do blacks had been known to hide runaway enslaved people in plain sight, posing as visitors, party guests, etc.
Edward and Cynthia Hesdra owned several properties in Nyack. The pink shingled home that is said to have been the safe house was located on the Nyack Turnpike. (Intersection of Route 59 & 9W). The Hesdras owned three other properties located on the banks of the Hudson River in Nyack.
The story of Edward and Cynthia Hesdra is fascinating not only because of their involvement in the Underground Railroad, but because they were a wealthy black couple during a time when most black people were enslaved; however, the Hesdras had not been immune to slavery. Cynthia Hesdra had once been enslaved as well. A New York Times article from1890 described Cynthia as an ex-slave and Edward as a Hebrew mulatto and a freeman who was said to be the son of a Virginia planter (slave owner). The article explained that the couple was married while Cynthia was enslaved and that her freedom was purchased.
Federal census data shows that Virginia was designated as Edward Hesdra’s place of birth; however, documents from the New York State Court of Appeals maintain that Edward Hesdra was born in 1811 and was a “native of Port-au-Prince Hayti, coming to this country in 1833.” A New York Times article from 1883 states that Hesdra’s father, “a Frenchman, married a colored woman in Hayti. They lived at Portsmouth, Virginia, and owned slaves.” Census data from 1850 places Fannie Hesdra, believed to be the mother of Edward Hesdra in New York City. Her place of birth is listed as Santo Domingo (Haiti and Santo Domingo share the same island.)
Historian Carl Nordstrom maintained that Hesdra said “his father Leon was a soldier of Napoleon who came to Virginia and established himself as a planter.” Nordstrom speculates that Hesdra himself could have been enslaved. Hesdra “could have been Leon’s son by a slave and his father let him escape.”
A New York Times article from 1883 reported that Cynthia Hesdra was born in Tappan,, NY in 1810. The fact that she was enslaved was revealed during a court battle over her fortune after her death. Little is known about Cynthia or Edward before 1840.
An Enterprising Couple
The Hesdra’s were an industrious couple. Historical accounts and court documents show that a spring located on the property of the Hesdra home in Nyack was used to furnish water to the residents of the village of Nyack. Edward Hesdra brokered a deal with his neighbor Mr. Onderdonk who paid a fee to access to the water. Onderdonk in turn sold the water to the village.
By trade, Edward was a cabinetmaker and built furniture. In court documents, Edward argues that his business and investments helped to create a large portion of the couple’s wealth. Both Cynthia and Edward owned homes that were rented to others. Several homes were owned and rented on Sullivan Street in Manhattan. In addition, an 1859 Nyack map shows that the Hesdra’s owned three properties on the banks of the Hudson River in Nyack. The properties were near the Rockland County Female Institute that opened Aug 28, 1856, on a 10-acre plot on the banks of the Hudson River in Nyack. The school housed 100 students.
Edward and Cynthia never had children, but their home was often teeming with family members. According to news articles and court reports written after her death, Cynthia was caring for many family members. Cynthia’s mother Jane Moore lived with the family for a time in Nyack as well as a host of nieces and nephews from both sides of the family. The Hesdra’s may not have had children of their own, but there were plenty of small children at one time or another in the large home that was described as “pink shingled, with a second story balcony, walnut staircases, marble fireplaces and having gigantic rooms.”
Information is scant regarding Underground Railroad activities especially as they relate to the Hesdra family. Nevertheless, Cynthia Hesdra did support an organization formed to help formerly enslaved people by opening an account with The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company that was incorporated in 1865. The purpose of the bank was to create an institution where former slaves and their dependents could place and save their money. The original bank was first headquartered in New York and later moved to Washington, D.C. The Freedman’s Bureau reunited families, legalized marriages, and provided education, food, clothing, job placement, legal and other services to former slaves.
Supporting the agency for freed slaves was a family affair. Existing in archival records is also a bank account record for Cynthia’s nephew Jeffrey who lived at her home on Sullivan Street and whose middle name was Hesdra.
An Ex–Slaves Fortune
Much about the Hesdra Family’s life is yet to be discovered although information stemming from the years of litigation over the family fortune reveals interesting aspects about the lives of the Hesdra family.
After Cynthia’s freedom was purchased, the couple moved to Amity Street in the Greenwich Village neighborhood of New York City where they would live amongst other Blacks. This section of the Village was referred to by others outside of the community as Little Africa. It indeed was an enclave of Black New Yorkers who were laborers, business owners, educators, musicians and religious leaders. There, Cynthia opened a laundry that became quite profitable. Cynthia Hesdra, reported the New York Times, “was an industrious, saving and money-getting woman.” Various news articles about the case reveal that after a few years she was able to purchase the house in which she lived in at 103 MacDougal Street, and purchase three houses on Sullivan Street, near Bleecker. This Eventually Cynthia Hesdra would acquire a property at 102 West Third Street, approximately five houses in Nyack, and a farm in New Jersey.
Cynthia also became the neighborhood banker “carrying on a quiet money-lending business with her neighbors.” Once the Hesdras moved to Nyack, Cynthia continued the laundry business in Nyack and in New York City. The Hesdra home in Nyack appears to have been a country home for the couple since court documents state that they stayed at the home only “sometimes.” The couple maintained their home at 215 Sullivan Street in Manhattan throughout their marriage.
By the 1840 census, we find Edward and Cynthia in Rockland County. The transition from enslavement to owning their own businesses and multiple real estate holdings is phenomenal. At the time of Cynthia Hesdra’s death in 1879, her estate was valued between $100,000 to $200,000. In today’s terms this estate would be worth more than
7 million dollars.
© 2009 The CEJJES Institute
Written by Jamila Shabazz Brathwaite
Researched by Jamila Shabazz Brathwaite
Edited by Wylene Branton Wood