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DIVERSE DOCUMENTS: OUR VARIED HERITAGE by S. Gardner

A guide to selected historical documents, events, places, and other material focusing on Black History, Native Americans, and other racial minority populations in the Town of Warwick.

Greenwood Forest Farms: An African-American Hamlet Rediscovered

Greenwood Forest Farms: An African-American Hamlet Rediscovered

by Dr. Richard Hull

published in the Warwick Historical Papers (newsletter) May 2005

Historical Society of the Town of Warwick

What makes Warwick so fascinating is its tapestry of hamlets, each with its own identity and history. There are dozens of them scattered throughout the town but Greenwood Forest Farms, tucked away in a delightfully sylvan setting of 143 acres off Route 17A and just a few miles east of Greenwood Lake, is special. It was New York State’s first African-American resort community.

Founded in 1919 by a group of prominent African American families from New York City, this community became a weekend and summer retreat for the Black intelligentsia of Harlem, Brooklyn and beyond.  It was spearheaded by nine members of the Carlton Avenue Y.M.C.A. in Brooklyn who had organized a club to study foreign trade opportunities in South America. Then came the War and they decided to use their accumulated savings to establish an incorporated vacation community instead. Picturesque serpentine roads were set out and land was subdivided and sold to friends and professional colleagues.

The ‘colony’ as it came to be called was an immediate success and by 1938 it boasted of twenty-eight neat cottages set in individually landscaped trellised flower and vegetable gardens. The corporation, known as Sterling Forest Farms, then set aside land for a club house and a manmade recreational lake. Community roads were owned and maintained by the residents, wells were private, and until the 1940s the colony generated its own electricity.

Greenwood Forest Farms was widely known by New York’s Black elite. Properties were owned by such luminaries as the famous lyricist and music publishing magnate, Cecil McPherson (“Cecil Mack”), and his wife Dr. Gertrude Curtis who was New York’s first African- American woman dentist. There was also Robert J. Elzy, an early civil rights leader and head of Brooklyn’s Urban League. A neighbor, Hon. Myles A. Paige, was a prominent Family Court Judge and was one of the first Black graduates of Columbia Law School. Then there was J. Rosamond Johnson, a composer and conductor, who performed on Broadway in ‘Cabin in the Sky’ and ‘Porgy and Bess’ and who in 1912 had become Director of London’s Grand Opera House. The world-famous writer Langston Hughes was only one of many literary figures who frequented the bucolic colony. It also became a haven for such civil rights giants as James Farmer and Harold W. Cruse. Langston Hughes in 1953, at Gladys Taylor’s home, Nelson Rd. E.H. Wilson, one of the original incorporators, with community leader Rose Lawrence, c. 1970’s.

At the secluded and exclusive Greenwood Forest Farms residents and guests could enjoy live music, dance, poetry readings, swimming, boating, tennis, billiards, and even horseback riding. Relations with such white farmer neighbors as the Everett Cox family were extremely cordial and endure to this day.

The community began to decline in the 1960s as the older generation passed away and their children moved on or vacationed farther afield. Also, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the gradual elimination of racial discrimination in housing and public accommodations African Americans became more geographically mobile. Nevertheless, Greenwood Forest Farms endures though in a much-diminished state. Some descendants of the original pioneers now live there year-round and continue to interact with each other. It remains a proud hamlet of Warwick and one with a distinguished past. Our historical society is now partnering with them to erect a roadside historic marker so that Greenwood Forest Farms will not be forgotten.

References: Amsterdam News

Remembering Greenwood: Video with Gordon Duncan & Kwame Johnson

This video was created by John DeSanto in 2019 for the Times Herald Record in 2019.