Heirs of Harlem Hero Call for Street, Pool Renaming

By Andres David Lopez on Nov 13th, 2012

Portrait, Madlyn Stokely and Rochelle Hill

Madlyn Stokely, shown with her daughter Rochelle Hill, lives on West 123rd Street in the brownstone where her mother, activist Hilda Stokely, lived. (Photo by Andres David Lopez)

When Hilda Stokely decided her son should have skis, nothing got in her way. She went out and bought a pair, but she didn’t send him to Aspen or Vail. Instead, she grabbed a shovel and built her own slope on a hill in Central Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park.

“I was the only black kid in Harlem who had skis,” said Bill Stokely Jr., now 57.

“She would make a decision about what she felt her family should have and she went about doing that,” said his sister, Madlyn Stokely. “She always taught us that we had a right to be whoever we wanted to be.”

Hilda Stokely showed the same determination throughout her life, breaking barriers of race and gender and fighting to improve conditions for all Harlem children, not just her own. In 1961, she became the first female elected district leader of East Harlem, and later worked with two Manhattan borough presidents as a housing and education consultant. Although she was featured regularly in city newspapers from the 1960s through the 1980s, Stokely retired before the digital age; the only online article that mentions her is her obituary.

Stokely died in December at 89, and her children want her accomplishments memorialized, both on the pool she helped bring to her community and on the street where she lived for more than 30 years.

In order for that stretch of West 123rd Street to be renamed in her honor, 60 percent of its residents must approve. The Stokelys have talked to Community Board 10 about the process, but have not yet gathered enough signatures.

A long battle may be appropriate, as Hilda Stokely was involved in several.

She lobbied the Parks Department for 12 years to build a community pool in Marcus Garvey Park. The late Thomas Hoving, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, worked with Stokely on the project in the 1960s and described her in his memoir as one who “spoke brutally and truthfully.”

When politicians offered Stokely a wading pool, Hoving wrote, she pushed for an Olympic-sized one. The parks commissioner and the Met eventually put up the money and arranged for a black architectural firm to design it, a first in Parks Department history.

That pool has served Harlem’s residents for more than 40 years. Bill Stokely wanted local leaders to rename it the Hilda Stokely Pool before she died, but he didn’t make an official request.

“There is a process in making changes,” said City Councilwoman Inez Dickens, but she said she would support the family’s renaming efforts. Her father Lloyd E. Dickens worked alongside Stokely.

In the early 1980s, when city officials were eager to show off new subsidized housing on 112th Street and Lenox Avenue, they invited community leaders, including Hilda Stokely and Inez Dickens, to tour the buildings.

Stokely was the only leader on the tour who reminded local residents of their responsibility to maintain them, Dickens said. “She would fight to get things built, but then she would fight to make sure you kept it the way it was supposed to look,” she said.

“She is one of the heroes in our community, and fought hard,” Dickens said.  “Our heroes — we need to recognize them so that the generations to come will hopefully question, ‘Who was that?’”

In 1969, Stokely sought the Democratic nomination for City Council in East Harlem. She ran against Carter Burden, a former aide to Sen. Robert Kennedy and multimillionaire descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, one of the richest Americans in history.

Campaign literature for Hilda Stokely

Hilda Stokely challenged multimillionaire Carter Burden for the Democratic Primary in the 1969 City Council Race. (Photo by Andres David Lopez)

“I’m in this thing because I just get madder and madder when I realize what has been happening in East Harlem,” Stokley told the Amsterdam News. “The political potential of the Puerto Rican and black people here has just been systematically chiseled away. Any time we’ve gained strength we’ve been immediately zoned out, manipulated into Central Harlem so that we would have to fight each other.”

While putting up campaign posters on East 100th Street one night in June, Stokely was assaulted by a building superintendent who whipped her with a dog chain, the News reported. Her cars were stripped, her tires slashed and her campaign office broken into.

Burden, one of the city’s social elite, had the money to campaign and work for the City Council full time. For a position that paid $10,000 a year, Burden told the Village Voice he would spend up to $40,000. His opponents suspected he spent a lot more than that.

“They’ve said to me that I’m killing myself politically,” Stokely said, “but I can stomach a fight when I think it’s worth it.” She lost the primary to Burden, who won the council seat and bought the Village Voice.

Stokely moved into her brownstone on West 123rd Street in 1977. “When many people of her economic class were leaving Harlem, she made a decision that she was staying,” her daughter Madlyn said. With others in the neighborhood,  she helped create the Mount Morris Association. “They believed in casting your bucket in your community, meaning you have to empower yourselves by owning, you have to empower yourselves through politics,” Councilwoman Dickens said.

By 1978, more than 35 years after she first started as a volunteer for long-time Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Stokely retired from politics. Following the death of her husband, William Stokely Sr., in 1980, she remained active by publishing a magazine and serving on community boards.

Shortly before she died last year, her great-grandson landed a job in the White House.

She spoke to him as she had talked to her own children, daughter Madlyn said. “She told him, ‘Never  forget who you are. You have a right to be there. You earned that.”

5 Responses for “Heirs of Harlem Hero Call for Street, Pool Renaming”

  1. Madlyn says:

    Hello Andres,
    Thank you for your diligence, commitment and professionalism in writing this article about our mother. You captured her essences.

  2. Melvin Y-L says:

    Great article! Even for those you may have never met Mrs. Stokely or any of her children or grandchildren this articles brings to life and reminds of all of the struggles and sacrifices made by many to build a better life for our communities and families. Wish the Stokely family success in honoring their mother, grandmother and great grandmother’s legacy.

  3. Rochelle says:

    Hi Andres,
    Thank you for writing this piece about my grandmother. It begins to tell the story of a great legend. I am happy to know she inspired you. Today, Dec. 19 is the one year anniversary of Mrs. Hilda Elizabeth Stokely’s death. So many, enjoy Marcus Garvey Park, its pool and Laskir rink on 110th in Central Park and have no idea what it took to get the facilities built, no idea Mrs. Stokely put so much into influencing the building of these spaces that we all take for granted as our right to have access to.

    Rochelle Hill

  4. Derrick sr. says:

    Thanks for the article on Ms. Stokely. She was truly a Harlem hero. What I loved about her she was always brutally honest with everyone. I enjoyed the many conversations we shared while living in her home. She gave me many suits from her basement to wear to work so i could look the part.The suites were tailor made for a family friend who had passed away but the fit me perfectly. I never told her but she made me feel so happy because i was in a mental rut at the time. I also remember getting a jeep from my job to take her to pick out a very large Christmas tree for her home. She really enjoyed decorating it and i enjoyed helping her. She made the holiday season special to me again. I felt proud to be a part of the family and my son her great grandson has taken on her legacy. God bless the Stokely family.
    Derrick Robinson Sr.

  5. Linda butler says:

    Many, many years ago way before I left Harlem to move to North Carolina, I had the most wonderful privilege of knowing the Stokely family. My family was very poor at the time, and it meant so much to me to have had the Stokely family feed me because sometimes I did not get to eat as they ate. They never knew how poor my family was; I was just a friend of Madlyn’s. I remember how impressed I was (at the age of 13 or so) with Mrs. Stokely–always so regal, yet, so genuine. I also hold close to my heart how considerate and wonderful her husband was, taking me and my niece and nephew (along with Madlyn) to White Castle. What a treat! I thank each one of the Stokely’s for such fond memories. Now that I am no longer poor, I try to remember the less fortunate because of past experiences with such people as the Stokely’s. May God bless them here and wherever their journey’s in the hereafter may take them.

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