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Bethany Arts Community’s Third Annual Black History Month Exhibition Celebrates Westchester’s Mavericks

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January 26, 2023

By W.B. King–

Driving south on Route 9 in Irvington, it’s hard not to notice Villa Lewaro, an Italianate styled 34-room, 20,000 square foot mansion located at Fargo Lane and North Broadway. The towering four white pillars not only provide entrance into the sprawling domicile but a portal into understanding the vast accomplishments of Madam C.J. Walker.

An African American beauty mogul, Walker commissioned African American architect Vertner Woodson Tandy to build the mansion in 1916. And while it would take nearly three years to complete, she said it was not built for her, but so “Blacks could see what could be accomplished with hard work and determination.”

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Walker is considered the first female millionaire in the United States, which given the time period as a woman, let alone being a person of color, is astounding. “I am a woman who came from the cotton fields of the South. From there I was promoted to the washtub. From there I was promoted to the cook kitchen,” she once noted. “And from there I promoted myself into the business of manufacturing hair goods and preparations.”

Award-Winning Exhibitions

Walker’s story, along with many other inspirational and successful tales of overcoming segregation and racism, are the subject of Bethany Arts Community’s 2023 “Black History & Culture: Fulfilling the Vision in Westchester.”

Bonnie Bradley, executive director at the Ossining –based Bethany Arts Community, explained the exhibit, which runs from January 27 to March 3, speaks to the organization’s ethos that “fosters sharing, connection and collaboration, in an inclusive culture where people experience the power of art to improve lives and deepen their perceptions and perspectives of the world.”

Noting that the Black History Month exhibition series began three years ago in the gallery spaces at Bethany Arts Community, Bradley said the first year attracted “a few hundred people, and this year we are preparing to welcome thousands of people from Ossining and beyond.”

For the third consecutive year, the exhibit, which is sponsored by Northern Westchester Hospital and Phelps Hospital Northwell Health, is curated by Ossining Village Historian, Joyce Sharrock Cole. The previous two exhibitions both titled “Ossining Black History & Culture: Resilence. Dedication. Excellence.” were “an ode to the Ossining African American Community and its historic contributions,” Cole noted.

On the strength of those offerings, Cole and Bethany Arts Community received the 2021 New York State Senator Elijah Reichlin-Melnick Heritage and History Award. This year’s exhibit, Cole explained, will expand upon the award-winning historic storytelling — beyond Ossining borders and into the surrounding communities, such as Irvington and Madam C.J. Walker’s remarkable story.

Visitors, for example, will also learn about New York City-born George W. Hill, a doctor who began practicing medicine in Ossining in 1934. Celebrated as a trailblazer, he was the first black physician on the regular attending staff of any hospital in the county, joining the Ossining Hospital staff in 1935. Three years later he founded the Ossining Negro Civic Organization, among countless other accomplishments.

“He was a true man of the community,” Cole said of Hill. “This is an expansion of the content that we presented over the last two years. All these stories interest me as a historian,” added Cole, a lifelong Ossining resident. “Curating these exhibitions is an honor and speaks to the curious child in me. This isn’t just an Ossining story, this is a Westchester story.”

Bradley added that “Each uniquely themed exhibit gallery will highlight the steps taken by Black visionaries in our neighborhoods who worked diligently, intentionally, and purposefully to uplift the Black race in Westchester and beyond.”

A Living Museum

Noting that the 2023 exhibit builds upon the success of the last two years, Cole said there will be differences, including a companion program with the Ossining Public Library on February 25th at 2 p.m. featuring a discussion with Madam C.J. Walker’s great-granddaughter, A’Lelia Bundles. The event will be livestreamed.

“The exhibition will utilize oral history accounts and genealogical research to unearth the histories of Black entrepreneurs, organizations, and lawmakers from all facets of the community’s business and social life,” she noted.

Bradley further explained that this year’s exhibition has expanded to include a living museum element featuring local actors at the opening reception on Saturday, January 28th and a Jazz concert scheduled for February 25th.

“This year’s outreach is far more expansive and has provided us the opportunity to engage with more neighboring school districts for the first time, with plans to welcome thousands of students for guided tours, grow our high school docent program, and welcome more community organizations and groups from greater Westchester,” Bradley said. “We are inspired and proud to watch this exhibition grow from its original focus on the history of the Black community in Ossining to include all areas of Westchester County.”

The exhibition is free and open to the public during gallery hours: Monday – Friday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. On Saturdays throughout February, the gallery will be open 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The gallery is closed on Sundays. “Walk and Talk” tours led by Cole are scheduled for February 1, 8, 15, and 22 at 6 p.m. Tour admission is $25 adult and $10 student.

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