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Untold Stories Help Bring ‘Black History and Culture’ Exhibit to Life

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By Barbara Kay

A play depicting the life of Helen Ray Fowler, above, the first Black woman to be executed in New York State,. It is part of Bethany Arts Community’s “Black History & Culture: BLACK PRESENCE. PROFOUND INFLUENCE” exhibit that coincides with Black History Month.

When relating the Black experience in America to the public, attention is often focused on the stories that have familiarity to the masses.

But this year’s exhibit at Bethany Arts Community (BAC) in Ossining that opened Friday and coincides with Black History Month will focus on the overlooked contributions of Black people and the impact that the idea of community has had on the country.

This is the fourth installation of the exhibit entitled “Black History & Culture: BLACK PRESENCE. PROFOUND INFLUENCE.” It is held in BAC’s space that “lends itself to expression,” said Ossining Village Historian and genealogist Joyce Sharrock-Cole, who curated the exhibit.

It’s an immersive experience, with several different mediums used, such as photography and theater.

“The exhibit itself is my brainchild,” said Sharrock-Cole, a lifelong Ossining resident. “It took on a life of its own. The Ossining School District came and it’s been really important as part of their curriculum for the month. We have thousands of kids that come through it.

“I try to use different mediums because everyone retains information differently and gravitates towards different things,” she continued.

The exhibit this year features a play about Helen Ray Fowler, the first Black woman executed in the state of New York. Fowler ran a boarding house while her husband served in World War II. She was found complicit in a murder committed by one of her boarders.

Sharrock-Cole was asked, as the village’s historian, to make a presentation on the history of the prisons in the area, and wanted to focus on the women who were incarcerated, which most people didn’t know, she said.

“I did my research with a genealogical lens and I started looking into (Fowler’s) life, and putting the story together and thought that no one would believe this, there were so many twists and turns,” she said.

Sharrock-Cole commissioned playwright Misha T. Sinclair to help depict Fowler’s story. The show begins Feb. 16 at Bethany Arts, with performance dates until Feb. 25.

“Black History and Culture: Black Presence. Profound Influence” is Bethany Arts Community’s fourth installation celebrating Black History Month. It’s creator and curator, Joyce Sharrock-Cole, has developed an immersive experience through different mediums to bring history to life. The exhibit is open until Mar. 8

Other displays include a mock Rosenwald school classroom where students can sit at the desks and ring the school bell, which was created in partnership with members of the Jewish community.

There is also a gallery dedicated to the Revolutionary War that was built with the help of Revolutionary Westchester 250. Other contributors to the exhibit include the NAACP, the Sons of Israel and the Ossining School District.

“What we’ve shown in this exhibit is partnership,” Sharrock-Cole said. “The Rosenwald school shows a partnership between Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, a Jewish man and a Christian man, coming together to build 5,000 schools in the south during the Jim Crow segregation era.

“They’re showing how the Black contribution was not just for the Black community; we worked with other people of different religions and ethnicities and how we contributed to our country.”

The exhibit features figures such as Paul Robeson, and “local members” including Lewis Brady, Dr. George Hill, Ella Fitzgerald and Cab Calloway, which is described by Bonnie Bradley, BAC’s executive director.

“Each room of the galleries tells a specific story that speaks to the contributions and influences of the African American community,” Bradley said. “Through an immersive and interactive experience, we hope this exhibit deepens understanding and awareness of Black History in America.”

Sharrock-Cole will be holding guided tours throughout the exhibit, and has instructed students from Ossining, as well as Tarrytown, how to lead the tours themselves.

“This is one of Bethany’s largest and longest-running programs and promises to welcome over 4,000 visitors, including local students, teachers, families, community and senior groups,” stated Julia Schonberg, BAC’s community engagement and outreach coordinator. “We are hoping to continue expanding our reach to engage more folks in these stories and histories of Black influence on our local communities.”

The exhibit opened Friday evening with a reception and will continue through Mar. 8.

“Each year I try to incorporate something different and challenge myself,” Sharrock-Cole said. “I don’t want it to be the same, and knowing that a lot of people have grown to look forward to information about Black people that hasn’t been told, I wanted to introduce it in the right way.

“I’m also African-American and I want to show my people in the best light possible and put my best foot forward when putting it together. I try to curate it in a way that pays respect to what people have done before me.”

Bethany Arts Community is located at 40 Somerstown Rd. in Ossining. For more information and a full list of events connected with the exhibit, visit

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