Dr. Errold D. Collymore, UU Civil Rights Activist

If the name Errold Collymore sounds slightly familiar, you may be, or have been a student or staff member of the Silverthorn School of Magic. And if you haven’t yet been a student or staff member of Silverthorn, your time will be coming this spring. Unfortunately, that’s really the only way UU’s in our area have heard of him in this century. He is one of Silverthorn’s house founders – the Collymore House – because he is a pillar of UU civil rights work in the 20th century.

His work for civil rights that started in the 1920’s brought about change on a local scale, that would later be reflected on a national scale: integrating into white neighborhoods and churches; working for equal housing and work opportunities for African Americans; bringing to light the inequieites of segregation and racism. His work for civil rights in lower New York state was so influential and long-lasting that he has been called “Westchester’s Own Martin Luther King“. (1)

And yet, he’s nearly unknown to UUs in many places. In fact, I believe he is one of the greatest unsung, unrecognized UU activists in history. He comes up in no search on the UUA website, in our collective UU curriculum Tapestry of Faith, or in the UU Biographical Dictionary. Why? I’m forced to wonder if it’s because he was a black Unitarian at a time where there were very few people of color in Unitarian churches in the northeastern US. It’s only now that UUs are starting to search out the leaders and voices of the marginalized in our religion. Here is one such leader.

Errold D. Collymore

Dr. Errold D. Collymore, Sr. was born in Barbados in 1892, a child of 5, including 2 siblings who died in infancy. At the age of 16, he left his home to work on the construction of the Panama Canal. During his time there he worked as a radio operator and learned morse code. When he enlisted in the army during WWI in an effort to immigrate faster into the US, his radio and morse code skills served him well.

Following the War, he lived and worked in the greater New York City area, where he struggled to find adequate, affordable housing. A fact that would be a catalyst for his Civil Rights work. Although it was a struggle, he found enough work to put himself through dental school at Howard University in Washington DC, and in 1926, he returned to NY and moved to White Plains with his wife to live and set up his dental practice.

You need to pause and picture this for a moment. In 1926, White Plains, NY was still in the grip of segregation. Black Westchester Magainze states that “There were no Black policemen or firemen. There were no Black clerical or white-collar workers. Black people were not allowed to swim at the public swimming pool. Black children were often physically abused by school teachers and principals. Black children could not use the YMCA except for a few hours a week.” (1.)

And yet, Dr. Collymore set up his dental practice, becoming the first Black dentist in White Plains. He bought a home in a new, affluent, all-white neighborhood called the Highlands. By inserting himself into white society he shone a light on the inequities of segregation. And he made himself a target.

He was quickly hammered with death threats and subjected to blatant racism and terrorism aimed at getting him out of that white neighborhood. A newspaper proclaimed a “Black Invasion of the Highlands” had come; stones and motor oil were thrown at his house and property with intent to harm and destroy. As he would later state: “All hell broke out.”(1.)

Some local employers threatened their African-American workers with firing if they patronized Dr. Collymore’s dental practice, attempting to drive him out of business. And in 1930, three years after his move, a 6-foot cross was burned outside his house while he stood looking on from the doorway, a camera in one hand, and a rifle in the other.

But his courage and will drove him, not only to stay but to fight harder for Civil Rights in Westchester County. In 1935 he founded the White Plains chapter of the NAACP and would serve as its president several times. He organized and became Chairman of the United Colored Republicans Club, whose aim was electing Black people to public office or getting them into city and county jobs.

On his website James L. Collymore, youngest son of Dr. Collymore lists some of the following achievements attributed to his father:

  1. Serving as President of the White Plains Colored Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA). (Yes, the “Y” was segregated at one time, even here in the North.)
  2. Getting the first black policeman hired on the White Plains police force.
  3. Getting the first black nurse hired at Grasslands Hospital in Valhalla, NY. (Now, the Westchester Medical Center.)
  4. Working to get decent, low-income housing built in White Plains in the late 1940’s. It became known as the “Winbrook Housing Development” (a.k.a. “The Projects.”)*
  5. Working on the National NAACP, and the National Urban League. (2.)

Dr. Collymore found strong support in his church community – a Unitarian church that he integrated in1927. The congregation stood by him during the attacks and cross burning, and when his practice was threatened, many members of the Unitarian White Plains Community Church left their own dentists to become his patients. Despite being the only family of color in that congregation, Errold Collymore would go on the become a board member and eventually President of the Community Church. During his time there, he became known for his Unitarian and civil rights sermons and speeches.

In a sermon entitled “A Common Faith by Which to Live” which he delivered at the White Plains Community Church on October 1, 1944, he acknowledges how he pushed boundaries, even in his own faith community, as he concluded:

“Personally, I want a religion to live by. I want a faith to work by. It is because I have found a conscious effort to find the good life here at the Community Church that I have continued for these sixteen years to work among its people.

Really, now it can be told – you have been the guinea pigs in my laboratory of faith.

Here we have a veritable oasis of faith. Let us continue to build; – let us try to make it grow so that its example in brotherhood and faith in the essential decency of man might spread across the land and usher in the good life even beyond where we can see ‘far down the futures broadening way’.”

I compiled this story about Dr. Errold D. Collymore, Sr. to help bring his amazing legacy of civil rights work back to the surface. He should no longer remain in the shadows of UU history. His work paved the way for further civil rights actions that we’re more aware of during the 1950s and ’60s. I urge you to learn more about Dr. Errold Collymore, Sr. by exploring the resources below, and share what you learn with others who have yet to hear about “Westchester’s Fighting Dentist”.

Article Notes:
1. https://blackwestchester.com/bw-history-errold-d-collymore/
2. http://www.jc3.net/ED%20Collymore%20Articles.html

Other Sources Used:
https://archives.nypl.org/scm/23072 (the New York Public Library holds an archive of Dr. Collymore’s papers which you can learn about, and request access to at this site)

More Resources:
Another archive of Errold Collymore’s papers can be found here: https://www.worldcat.org/title/errold-d-collymore-papers-1928-1999/oclc/883419690

Read “A Faith to Live By,” a sermon Errold D. Collymore gave to his Unitarian church, which can be found in the book Been in the Storm So Long, by Jacqui James and Mark Morrison-Reed, editors, Skinner House Books, Boston, 1991.

A speech of Errold Collymore’s, delivered in 2015 by his son James L. Collymore and Ted Lee, Jr. at the White Plains Public Library can be seen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VVuUsAjLyvo

Read a letter from Errrold Collymore to W. E. B. Du Bois here: https://credo.library.umass.edu/view/full/mums312-b121-i155

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