There’s Always a First – A Memory For African-American History Month

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 reportersThe 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.

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11 Comments

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11 responses to “There’s Always a First – A Memory For African-American History Month

  1. Thanks for bringing this to my attention, Norbrook! Mr. Holmes reminds me of PBO because I truly believe that the same thing happened in November 2008—Americans looked beyond race and elected the best person to be POTUS.

    • You’re more than welcome. I happened to have known Mr. Holmes – not well, but I knew him – and he was one of those really good people. He was a little embarrassed by all the attention, but he handled it with characteristic grace and humor. I decided to write this because it was a story I’m familiar with, and it’s one of those things that sometimes gets overlooked when we talk about history.

      • Dancer

        “Grace and Humor”…things we see visible in our current president and sadly lacking in the robot that is Romney and the utterly scummy presence that is Santorum!

        • Quite true! :-D

          It was a shock to Mr Holmes, really. He was happy he’d won and wanted to start in doing his job as mayor, and suddenly he finds out he’s made state history and all these reporters want to talk to him.

  2. Beautiful, Norbrook! Thank you so much for sharing this here. We can never hear enough about…”those really good people”… because they never brag about themselves. It’s up to others to praise them.

    • In hindsight, I think what made it a “news story” at the time was not just that he was the first, but where and how he became mayor. It wasn’t in a major city or some town with a significant African American population, it most definitely wasn’t a “liberal hotbed,” and he won as a write-in candidate. So if you were to pick a town off the map in this state which would have the very first African American mayor, Bridgewater wouldn’t have been it.

  3. Vic78

    “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.”

    The guy on the ballot never had a chance.

  4. sjterrid

    Thank you for telling us this story of Bridgewater’s Mayor, Everett Holmes.
    It does show that when people see that a person is trying to do what they can to to improve things for the better of the community, and not what they can get out of it, people will recognize it. That’s why I think President Obama’s been so successful, and it does give you faith that people will see it.

  5. Wow – what a moving and informative blog post! Love stories like this – quiet heroes in every day life!