Errold D. Collymore

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Errold D. Collymore (1883 - 1972)

Collymore, who grew up in Barbados, British West Indies, and Colon, Panama, came when nineteen to the United States in 1912. He struggled to find a job to put himself though college and dental school, succeeding by starting a dental practice in 1923 in White Plains, New York.

Almost immediately, he found life would not be easy for a "black" dentist there. After being refused housing by several owners, he was able to rent a small apartment for which he had to pay $80 a month plus the cost of heating - a great deal of money for someone just beginning a dental practice. A "white" renting this apartment would have had to pay only $30 an month including heat. Blacks were forced to live in the worst housing in town, pay the highest rents, and supply their own heat.

The injustices did not stop with housing. Blacks also were not hired as police or firefighters. There were no blacks working in businesses. Black men who collected garbage were paid less than white men. Black people were not allowed to swim at the public swimming pool. Black children were often physically hurt by teachers and principals. Black children were not allowed to use the local YMCA except for a few hours a week, never with white children.

Dr. Collymore became a human catalyst, one who challenged the authorities and became a spokesperson for the black community in White Plains. Because of his efforts, the process of equal rights for all people in the town was speeded up.

Believing that the most pressing need for blacks was better housing, Dr. Collymore decided on a daring action to bring this discrimination to public attention, to make it an issue that no one could ignore. He and his family bought a house in the all-white Highlands neighborhood. In his words, "Then all hell broke loose." In the middle of the night, a huge, seven-foot cross was burned on his lawn. Local newspapers carried large, bold headlines declaring a black invasion of the Highlands.

"All sorts of pressures and threats were used to get me out; but I held on," Dr. Collymore said, many years later. "That was thirty-six years ago, and I'm still there! In the days of that great confusion, I laid topsoil all around my house and I planted lawns and flowers. So much so, that a newspaper reporter said in a news item that he was by my house and I did not seem to be thinking of running away. He saw me up there planting flowers."

Dr. Collymore and his family integrated the White Plains Community Unitarian Church when they joined it in 1927. The congregation gave them strong moral support during the course of the housing struggle.

In 1936, after years of work, Collymore and his supporters fought and wiped out the discrimination rules that prevented blacks from swimming at Playland Beach, the local swimming pool. He said, "When I was notified that we could swim at Playland, I took my wife, Rene, and two-year-old daughter in to test it before I let anybody else go and be turned down. We swam. Right after that I called a meeting and told the folks that we could all swim at Playland from now on."

Housing, jobs, theaters, swimming pool, city, and professional organizations: Dr. Collymore fought discrimination in them all. Some took may years He was patient and persistent, and he won. He became president of the New York Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). In 1956, the city of White Plains presented Dr. Collymore its Human Relations Award, the first black to receive it. The words of the citation filled him with a great sense of pride:

Indomitable champion of his race and
pioneer in human relations -
who has advanced the well-being of our
entire community by his vision, courage,
and faith in the brotherhood of man.

Dr. Collymore remained very active in the church until his death in 1972. There now are several black families in the White Plains Community Unitarian Church.

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