By Helen O’Field, Special to The Orlando Advocate
San Diegan Dolores Van Rensalier got the word on Mar. 29, 2022, from the National Park Service (NPS): The historic site she fought for had been added to the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom after years of effort. Historic preservation requires endurance and dedication.
Van Rensalier’s biracial personal history had led her to discover in Paterson, New Jersey, her free black grandfather, William P. Van Rensalier, who was a “conductor/engineer” on the Underground Railroad. He collaborated with his close white friend and employer, the abolitionist Josiah Huntoon, a wealthy coffee and spice merchant, whose mill was a haven for escaped slaves.
This biracial effort, so typical of the 19th century Abolitionist Movement, ultimately helped hundreds to gain freedom from enslavement. Thanks to descendants like Dolores Van Rensalier and her foundation, the two men are memorialized in perpetuity. To honor her remarkable ancestry, Van Rensalier formed the non-profit Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Foundation through which she raised $277,000 to hire famed black sculptor Edward Joseph Dwight, Jr. (He was the first African American admitted to the Air Force training program for NASA astronauts in addition to his award-winning art works.)
What should have been a slam dunk became no easy road to freedom. Huntoon’s house was demolished and the resulting vacant lot was slated to become a parking lot or possibly home to a fast-food chain. In 1994, day by agonizing day, Van Rensalier feared the lot would be sold by the Paterson city council when it was the obvious place for the monument. But by 1996 her research proved the lot’s historic nature and convinced the city officials to preserve it. Many black leaders in Paterson helped. How could they resist her repeated phone calls to them (Los Angeles to Paterson), often in the wee hours? They responded with strategic suggestions like pressuring the city council to heed Van Rensalier’s urgent plea. This worked.
By 2004 Van Rensalier had formed her foundation and begun the endless fundraising–and, oh, joy, one donation was a $171,000 historic preservation grant. This put the project on a trajectory to 2014 when the sacred site was completed.
What followed were years of loving foundation maintenance of the site (owned by the City of Paterson, New Jersey), and encouragement to several Paterson area historians to apply to the NPS for listing on the National Underground
The historic site is one of 16 new listings in the 43rd round of applications from 11 states chosen to join the existing group of some 700 sites, facilities and programs in the Network, which honor those who escaped from slavery and those who assisted them on the legendary Underground Railroad. The 700 sites are in 39 states, plus Washington, D.C. and the U. S. Virgin Islands.
The stunning bronze Huntoon and Van Rensalier Historic Site honors the sheer guts and fortitude of African American slaves escaping to freedom. They are shown on sweeping wings extending on either side of the figures of the two abolitionists.
We quote Diane Miller, manager of the Network to Freedom:”…as we celebrate Harriet Tubman’s 200th birthday, the freedom seekers and allies highlighted in each Network to Freedom listing remind us of what can be accomplished when people take action against injustice…we look forward to working with members to amplify the power of these places.”
In her letter to Van Rensalier, Robin Krawitz Regional Manager of the National Park Service program (NTF) wrote, “Thank you for the immense work you have done to save this important historic site. Your book is in the bibliography…” That book is Bridge Street to Freedom.
Today, Dolores Van Rensalier resides in San Diego and is married to Dr. John Warren, publisher of the equally historic San Diego Voice & Viewpoint Newspaper.
In 2019 the Lemon Grove Historical Society’s Remembrance Project featured Van Rensalier in a fascinating discussion of biraciality and color in the Lemon Grove Library before a packed house. We are grateful to her for her candor, love of history and intrepid spirit. Knowing she is at the helm of the Huntoon-Van Rensalier story is an inspiration.
The fabulous Huntoon Van Rensalier Historic Site lives on as part of the National Park Service and is annually viewed by thousands of visitors.
Great job, Dolores!
Helen O’Field is the Treasurer/Historian to the Board of the Lemon Grove Historical Society