Historic, but not famous

Melancton Smith, delegate to the Continental Congress

Melancton Smith (1744 – 1798) was a New York delegate to the Continental Congress.  He was born on Long Island, home schooled and moved to Poughkeepsie, where he became a a delegate to the first New York Provincial Congress in New York on May 22, 1775. He served in the Continental Line Regiment on June 30, 1775, which he organized as the Dutchess County Rangers.

Smith moved to New York City in 1785 where he was a prominent merchant. He helped found the New York Manumission Society in opposition to slavery and served in the Continental Congress from 1785 to 1787. He was the most important Anti-federalist member of the State ratification convention at Poughkeepsie in 1788.  Smith became convinced that New York had no choice but to accept the ratification of the Constitution and could not afford to wait until it had been amended. His vote for the Constitution, with the recommendation of amendments, broke Anti-Federalist ranks and brought down Governor George Clinton’s wrath.

He was one of the few important landowners and merchants among the Anti-Federalists, and Smith continued in the Clintonian party. He was elected to the Assembly in 1791 and canvassed the state for Clinton in 1792 against John Jay. He has been cited as author of the more prominent Antifederalist essays written to encourage voters to reject ratification of the Constitution.

He died during the yellow fever epidemic in New York City in 1798 and is buried in Jamaica Cemetery, Jamaica, Queens, New York.

Historic, but not famous

Jane Colden, botanist

Jane Colden (1724 – 1766) was the first female botanist in the United States. She is most famous for her manuscript in which she describes the flora of the New York area, and draws ink drawings of 340 different species of them. She was born in New York City and educated at home. Her father gave her botanical training by following the new system of classification developed by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist.

Between 1753 and 1758, Ms. Colden catalogued New York’s flora, compiling specimens and information on more than 300 species of plants from the lower Hudson River Valley. She developed a technique for making ink impressions of leaves and illustrating many with ink drawings. To many drawings she added pieces of folklore, suggesting medicinal uses for the plant.

Colden participated in the Natural History Circle where she exchanged seeds and plants with other plant collectors in the American colonies and in Europe. In 1756 she discovered the Gardenia which was outside of the classifications set by Linnaeus. Her manuscript of plant drawings is in the British Museum.

Colden married Scottish widower Dr. William Farquhar on March 12, 1759. She died in childbirth only seven years later at the age of 41; the child also died in the same year. There is no evidence that she continued her botanical work after her marriage.

Historic, but not famous

Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany, dentist, civil rights pioneer

Annie Elizabeth “Bessie” Delany (1891 – 1995) was a dentist and civil rights pioneer. She earned her dental degree (DDS) from Columbia University in 1923, only the second African American woman licensed to practice dentistry in New York State.  She was one of 10 children raised by a former slave who became a bishop in his church and a teacher in North Carolina.

She attended St. Augustine’s in North Carolina and after graduation, came to NYC and enrolled in Columbia University, where she was the only African American woman in a class of 170.  She shared a dental office with her brother, Dr. H. B. Delany Jr. after her graduation. They eventually moved the office to Harlem.

Throughout her life, Bessie, participated in many protests and marches, and encouraged civil rights organizers to meet at her and her brother’s office. She passed away at 104 at her home in Mt. Vernon, New York.

Ms. Delany and her elder sister Sarah “Sadie” Delany,  were the subjects of The New York Times bestselling oral history, Having Our Say, written by journalist Amy Hill Hearth in 1991. The book was on The New York Times bestseller lists for 105 weeks. It spawned a Broadway play in 1995 and a television film in 1999.

Historic, but not famous

James Butler, AFSCME union president

James Butler was elected AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees) Union president of Local 420 in 1972, and immediately took on the battle for better pay, benefits and educational opportunities, and against privatization and hospital closings. Butler studied at City College and worked at Fordham Hospital starting in 1954. He led the Union through the financial crisis in New York City in the 1970s.

Butler raised the public profile of the Local through rallies, marches, involvement in community affairs and a firm commitment to national, and even international, campaigns for civil rights and human rights. The Union, under his leadership, developed the newspaper City Hospital Worker and participated in the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the New York State Black and Puerto Rican Caucus, the Coalition of Labor Union Women, Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH, the NAACP, the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference’s Labor Committee and other labor and civil rights organizations. The Local became a leading force in ASCME DC37’s Hospitals Division and in AFSCME’s Health Advisory Committee.

The Union, under Butler’s leadership, went up against the Giuliani administration, preventing them from selling off the city hospitals to private interests and undermining the city hospital system. They saved Coney Island, Elmhurst and Queens hospitals going to court against the city. The city did slash the budgets of the hospitals, but they remained city hospitals.

Butler lost re-election as Union president in 2001 after questions were raised about lavish expenditures by the leadership, a burdensome dues increase, and plans for an expensive new local headquarters that never materialized.