Much of my childhood was spent in the Adirondacks, but in my teens we moved to Central New York. In many ways, it was similar. Small towns, rural, mostly farming communities. The area was also predominantly white. One of the people we got to know was a “general handyman” and carpenter who was called in when you needed something fixed, and fixed right. His name was Everett Holmes, and he lived in a small village a few miles away called Bridgewater. He was one of the few African-Americans in the area, and you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone who didn’t like him. Which is why in 1974, he made New York State history.
Bridgewater is a small village, sitting at the crossroads of US Route 20 and NY Route 8. At the time, it had about 100o people, and only 10 black families. A typical farming community for the area, really. In 1974, they had an election for mayor, and there was only one candidate on the ballot, a Democrat named Gerald Wisnoski. The voters in the election wrote in another candidate, who won: Everett Holmes. Why?
“Everett Holmes is a man who takes an interest in the village. He does little things for people, and they really appreciate it. That’s why he was elected.”
“One of the great guys that ever was. He’s lived here all his life, and if he sees anything that needs to be done, he does it. He made the park and keeps it up without a cent of pay.”
“Everett was elected because he had a good record as a trustee and because he was a hard campaigner. He’s a hard worker and he has some good ideas.”
He won because he was well-known, liked, and had a record of being active in the community. So no one in the village, or in the area, was terribly surprised that he’d won. Most of us, on hearing he’d won the mayor’s race there simply shrugged and went “Well, of course he’s good choice.” So how did he make history? Much to everyone’s surprise, including Everett’s:
Mayor Holmes was the first African American elected mayor in New York State history. Mayor Holmes received a letter of congratulations from President Richard Nixon. Holmes served twice, from 1974 to 1976, and from 1978 until his death in 1982.
Which the village found out when national and state news media descended on them. Newly-elected Mayor Holmes, much to his bemusement, found himself having to give a lot of interviews to various reporters. The people of the village hadn’t thought that there was anything “special” about what they’d done. It wasn’t done to make a statement or out of any desire to “be the first.” In fact, the shocking thing to everyone was that he was the first! Most people were sure that there must have been another African-American mayor somewhere in the state. But no, a little village in the center of the state was the first.
Since that time, other cities, including New York City, and villages have elected African-Americans as mayors. But there’s always a first, and in New York, that title belongs to an unassuming man who tried to make the place he lived in better. It belongs to Everett Holmes, mayor of Bridgewater.