“In order to be a whole person operating on many different levels you have to see how it all interrelates to your past. That’s what we need to impress on future generations.” Richard Hull
For Richard Hull, Warwick’s town historian and professor of African History and Civilization at NYU, his own words could not be more apt to describe the multifaceted person he’s become, one who has been shaped by his understanding of the past, both on a personal and global scale. Spending a couple of hours with him at his home in Sugarloaf, NY, situated on Applewood Orchards and Winery, I learned about a few of the defining moments in his life.
When I first arrived, Richard pointed to a large oak tree not far from his study. “Under that tree I worked on my dissertation in African Studies during the summer months. I set up a large table and had all of my books spread out on it. And that’s where I wrote and researched.”
For me, the tree conjured Africa, the mother country from where human life sprang. For Hull, that tree marked almost a half century when he first embraced the world of Africa, seeking to understand its many facets – roots, branches and all.
At the time, he may not have realized how inextricably linked he and the farm would become, where he spent weekends and summer’s growing up. “The Farm was therapy for my Dad, who was a medical doctor with a busy family practice in Ridgewood, NJ. This was a place for him to unwind.”
Entering his study, I was introduced to several landscape paintings done by his father, who had a life-long interest in painting. “His family had been artists. He loved painting outdoor scenes.” Showing me a picture of a young man dressed in military uniform, he said, “In some ways Dad had an idyllic life, even in wartime. He volunteered for military service and was stationed at Oxford University. So he spent most of his war years at Oxford taking classes in the evening and painting in the afternoons and then tending to the wounded soldiers in the morning.”
From an early age, Richard was exposed to stories that would plant seeds for his own future. The farm, in some respects, was the fertile ground that helped him blossom into a more astute and studied observer of the natural world. Some of these stories were conveyed by a medical colleague of his father’s. “He would tell me stories about what life was like for him growing up in the 1870’s and it was fascinating. He stimulated my interest in history.”
Those stories would then be shared amongst his parents’ friends. “When we bought the farm, I was 9 years old. My parents would invite their friends and one of my responsibilities was to learn something about the history of the farm so that I could give talks to them. This was from the time I was a little kid; so I became interested in this farm, which was built at the start of the 1700’s.”
Yet that awareness of who he was, in terms of how he would define himself, would not come until later in life. At the time, the farm represented something different. “Dad ran the place like a Gulag,” Richard said with a smile. “It was a real work camp. We all had assignments. We had different chores to do.” I said to myself while growing up, 'Boy I know one place where I’ll never spend my adult life. Right here. I’m going to put as much distance from here and Warwick as I can.'”
Graduating from Ridgewood H.S. in 1958, he had yet to find a direction. “Through high school, I was not a really productive person. I was an average student. I liked gardening. I did some hunting. Meanwhile my brother David knew that he wanted to be a farmer, and he went to Cornell University to study Pomology. He was fulfilling his own dream while he was fulfilling Dad’s dream.”
It wasn’t until Richard had an opportunity to go to Russia that things changed in a big way. “Dad had an opportunity to go to Russia – one of his patients got sick – and at the last minute he asked me if I wanted to take his place. So I went. When I came back to Ridgewood, the publisher of the Ridgewood News asked me to write an article about my experience.”
The article was called “The Russia I Saw,” in which Richard recounts personal experiences and impressions of his trip. The year is 1959, with the Cold War between Russia and the United States taking root. In one story he writes of a youth he meets on the street, which captures a positive cultural exchange against a backdrop of fear that was consistent with the history of the time. “When he asked me if I would like to have some Russian records. I said yes, so he took me to a nearby record store and selected two records of Van Cliburn’s work recorded while he was in Moscow. I told him that I had brought along several records with me and would like to give him one of mine. I asked if he could accompany me back to my hotel but he replied that there was a constable there who might report him to the authorities. He suggested that we meet in a subway station at a certain hour.”
Richard’s account of his trip brought him laurels, so much so that he was invited to write a series of articles. “Everybody wanted to hear about Russia – the Lions Club, the Kiwanis Club, the YMCA – suddenly I went from a nobody to lecturing to everybody, lecturing and writing articles and getting front page of the paper, which built up my confidence. I enjoyed it.” Then he emphasized, “That was a transformative event in my life. I realized what an irresponsible life I had been leading up to this time. I had met young Russians thirsting for knowledge, witnessed the Kitchen Debates between Krushev and Nixon and had this wonderful experience.”
As Richard was becoming a rising star on the home front, what was he going to do for an encore? This fact hit home after being picked up at the airport by his new brother-in-law, John Bradner, who asked while they were in gridlock, sun beating down, in the middle of the George Washington Bridge: “So what are you going to do next year?” I said, “I guess I’ll go back to the farm and bale hay and prune apple trees.”
That’s when John shared with him a recent trip he had taken to Africa, led by African-American Dr. James Robinson who was sending young kids to Africa for summers, under community construction projects called Operation Crossroads Africa. “That was the first time any thought came into my brain about going to Africa.”
With the growing realization that he was not cut out for farm life, and still inspired by his trip to Russia, receiving opportunities as a new student at Rutgers to speak further about his experience, he came to a startling conclusion. “My brother in law was right. I was not cut out to be a farmer. My summer’s were totally unproductive.” After learning more about Operation Crossroads, Richard was on his way to Ghana. “I spent a summer there in a small village with 12 Ghanaian students, one of whom was raised in the village. He was majoring in history and later became a world famous Africanist scholar. He would teach me about the history of the village, taking me around to the tribal elders, to the drum makers, to the dancers, the woodcarvers, anyone you could think of and I got totally immersed.”
That experience would further embolden him. “When I returned to Rutgers in the fall, I went to the chairman’s office to ask him why there were no courses in African History. I always respected him. He was a well known historian in classical mediterranean history. He said Richard, “Africa has no history. Africa is a dark continent. Darkness is not the subject of history. We have courses on Europe and Africa. Whites in South Africa. The Expansion of West Africa. Forget Africans and African History.”
I said, ‘I have to respectfully totally disagree with you. Africa has had a history. I’ve lived that history. I’ve experienced that history and I’ve been taught that history, culture and civilization.’ When I left his office I said to myself, ‘If this guy has made a remark like that and he is so well educated there must be a whole lot of people in this country who share a similar ignorance.’ So I walked out on a September afternoon and decided I was going to spend the rest of my life teaching African History. I had a mission now.”
Richard’s grades went from B’s to A’s and upon graduating from Rutgers he had found a program of studies at Columbia University, which was one of only 7 newly founded African Studies programs in the nation. But when he told his father about his new desire, he was met with skepticism. “He could see me as a teacher, but not of black students of African History. He said, ‘Dick, you are not an African. Dick, you are not even an African-American. Who is going to hire you? You don’t have any credibility. And you know we are coming into a black power, black radicalism consciousness period. You don’t have a prayer; this is a dead end. Make it a hobby.’” But Richard disagreed, noting that like his brother David who had a passion for farming, he too had a passion. “I’m going to teach African History.”
The trip to Africa would once again thrust Richard into the spotlight, as the papers were interested in having him do another series, this time on his African Experience. And then he got a phone call from the dean of a small college, who wanted him to lecture to some of the girls in a chapel.
“I got there and there’s the dean and nobody else and I said, ‘there’s nobody here.’ He said, ‘They are all upstairs in the chapel. I decided to invite the whole college.’ I go upstairs and my knees are shaking and here I walk into the Douglass College chapel – there must have been six hundred people there, and I had to talk about my personal experience. That was my first real public speaking experience. When it was all over I got a standing ovation and I almost fell back in my chair and thought to myself, that was fun. That was a great experience. That’s when I really decided that I wanted to be a university teacher. I loved speaking, writing and wanted to do research.”
Convincing his father was another matter altogether, who insisted that Richard get a Master's Degree in American History as well. So they struck up a deal. “I ended up getting it in European History and then African Studies. I enjoyed it more and more and they launched a doctoral program. I became the first PHD graduate in African History at Columbia. Then my father said to me, 'Now what? Find a job.'”
By happenstance, Richard learned that there was going to be an opening at NYU through one of his neighbors, and was encouraged to see if he could get an interview. “I talked them into hiring me and I have been there since 1967 – 43 years and I’ve loved every minute. I was vindicated.”
But not quite, as there were some bumps along the way. Richard, without tenure, found his position threatened when the University was about to go bankrupt. “NYU was deep in the red, and they had to sell their Heights campus and eliminate many faculty. I was at a 4th of July barbeque and I got a phone call from the department chair. He said, ‘It’s all over. Your job is finished. The Black Power Movement was taking over too and no university is going to want to hire a white guy to teach a black subject.’”
Around that time, he had met his wife Jo, and together they became faculty residents in an NYU campus dorm where they made a real effort to invite the black students to come for dinner. It was there that they bonded with some of the key black student leaders. “When the students learned that I had lost my job, they marched on the Dean’s office down at Washington Square and protested and said they weren’t going to leave the office until they rehired Hull and gave him tenure. So they reversed themselves. The dean rehired me, and gave me tenure.”
Along the way, over these 43 years, Hull has made a dozen trips to more than twenty African countries, has written dozens of articles and books, was given a "Distinguished Africanist Award," and is a three time winner of NYU's teaching excellence award.
Although Richard wanted to put himself and farm life at a distance, which he may very well have done for a number of years, he had the chance to buy land on his father’s property, which brought him back to Warwick. “I’ve always believed that to be a responsible citizen you have to engage yourself not only in a global way but you have to remember the village you live in, you have to remember not only the roots, but the grassroots. You have to understand the community that is nurturing you, that you are living in, and so I took an early interest in Warwick.”
The many years of history tacitly learned as a young person came back to him, strengthening his connection to place and blossoming into activities that would spur a lifetime of community involvement. One such activity was researching and writing People of the Valleys Revisited: History of Warwick, New York. Now in its 3rd edition, it was the first comprehensive history of the town that had ever been published. His community activities have also included giving hundreds of lectures over the years throughout Orange County, providing input on numerous local issues, establishing associations with significant institutions like Warwick’s Historical Society and Orange County's Land Trust and taking an active interest in Warwick Valley's cultural, civic and artistic life. To honor him for his community activism, he received the "Revered Citizen of Orange County Award."
Perhaps it was something his Dad’s friend had said, the medical colleague from whom Richard learned so much in his developmental years. “’Look at all these community trees. They are beautiful Dick.’ I was about 8 years old. I said, ‘Yeah they are really nice.’ He said, ‘you know people planted these trees and they planted them for you, not just for them, for you and those trees are going to grow up just like you are going to grow up and you are going to enjoy those trees. Isn’t that a wonderful thing? People will do something in the community for the other people - for the future, planning for the future.”
And so history would become his compass and tool for envisioning a better future. “History wasn’t just reading a lot of dusty books in the library or the past but that history is a powerful tool not only for planning for the future but to be able to contextualize your life and problems, personal as well as community. So when a crisis strikes, a crisis like this which has happened before, how did other people deal with it, how did other generations deal with it.”
Now, as one of Warwick’s town elders, like the small village tribal leader of an African community, Richard answers the call of community service by lending his ear and wide breadth of experience imparted from his deep knowledge of Warwick’s history to provide vision for the future. "When I went into teaching, I knew I wanted to be more than just an armchair academic. I wanted to be involved in the community I lived in."
Recently, when invited to Hickory Hills Golf Club for a visioning meeting to determine how the public land and open space might be best used, he came up with the idea of growing and milling winter wheat. "Orange County was once the bread basket of Colonial America and we exported a lot of wheat. With the opening of the midwestern grainlands, it was eclipsed.
Now we have had these huge beautiful barns since 1936 just sitting here with tens of thousands of square feet, and I was reading just the other day that there was a growing number of artisanal bakeries, organic bakeries all over NY and that they were looking for winter wheat for baking to meet organic standards and that they are having trouble getting enough of it to meet consumer demand."
Richard understands that carrying out such an idea involves looking at other realities, yet reiterated his larger point to me: that history is a usable path in that it gives us the ability to look forward and plan for the future.
Richard knows full well that he can look back on his life with satisfaction as he's accomplished so much of what he's set out to do. “I enjoy everything that I do – I love my life because of the people that have come into it and enriched it.” One such person was Seymour Gordon, who passed away on July 28th.
In June, Richard wrote Seymour to congratulate him on the honor that was recently bestowed to him by the Orange County Legislature for serving his community so honorably. “You epitomize the very definition of 'citizenship' and are a great inspiration to us all. If everyone had your vision and generosity of mind and time this world would be a much more peaceful and happier place. You're leaving such a great legacy for our future generations and this must give you a tremendous sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. We all feel so honored and fortunate to be a small part of your endeavors. Your friend and fellow citizen, Dick.”
For Richard Hull, the seasons have come and gone, time hastening forward, revealing to him a cycle of life that begins and ends only to begin again. "I look at my calendar over there and I say, 'You know those mallard ducks should be coming in here at any time' and there they come, landing right there in the pond. I've been watching two geese lay eggs - a mama and papa - been out there now with the babies around the pond. I watch them, studying their behavior."
As an avid gardener, he is aware of this regeneration of life for he has planted many seeds, watching them grow into their own special fruits. He knows the value of planting, whether it is for a summer harvest, trees for future generations, or a young person to become a leader in tomorrow’s future.
As we left Richard's study, he brought me under the tree where he wrote his dissertation and shared with me some ancient wisdom, noting a chinese proverb which says: One generation plants the trees, another gets the shade. "What that means is that this tree, with deep roots, will out live the human being. We plant not for ourselves, but for future generations."
This idea was reinforced by another profound influence on his life, Dr. Frederick Franck, who with his wife Claske, started the transreligious sanctuary Pacem in Terris. "He brought to my attention the ancient Iroquois saying: 'In all our deliberations we must be mindful of the impact of our decisions on the seven generations to follow'. We recently put that piece of wisdom on a bronze plaque in Warwick Village's newest park, 'Hallowed Ground'."
Perhaps as some traditional African tale might have it, Richard would become a tree in his own story. There was something planted from early days by so many influences in his life and as he grew into a larger, more defined tree, he came to understand how it all interrelates.
When Richard told me of the talk that he would be giving on September 7th on Orange County's Tree Heritage at the Orange County Citizen's Foundation, I saw this tree in another light. This older, more wizened tree would serve as a symbol to carry the message of hope on to future generations, that the lessons of the past will help shape tomorrow's future.
This tree, with so many facets, with so many seasons, with deep roots, that continues to grow upward....
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