Standing for others

At 92, Priscilla Bassett still advocates for people in need

By ANNEMARIE SCHUETZ
Posted 8/19/20

GRAHAMSVILLE, NY — The day Tropical Storm Isaias arrived, Priscilla Bassett lost a tree. 

It fell across the road that runs from her house to the main road, blocking …

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Standing for others

At 92, Priscilla Bassett still advocates for people in need

Posted

GRAHAMSVILLE, NY — The day Tropical Storm Isaias arrived, Priscilla Bassett lost a tree. 

It fell across the road that runs from her house to the main road, blocking access. 

For anyone in their 90s, especially someone down a mile stretch of road, this would be a problem. But she remembered the Great American crosscut saw in the barn. Unfortunately, “it wasn’t up to the task,” she said. Luckily, “a good Samaritan came by and cut it up for me. I don’t know who it was.” 

Looking out for other people—those of different races, those victimized by society—has been a constant part of her life. A long-time civil rights activist, Bassett has been a fixture in Sullivan County for decades, certainly since she and her husband Emmett moved to Grahamsville fulltime in the mid-1990s. 

Emmett was a founding organizer of the county’s Human Rights Commission, and they both were founding members of Women in Black in New Paltz. Both protested America’s wars, from Vietnam to Iraq. 

Even now, after Emmett died in 2013, Priscilla Bassett has been out protesting the proposed sale of the Care Center at Sunset Lake and has taken multiple trips to Albany with the Senior Legislative Action Committee (SLAC) to advocate for New York Health, the universal healthcare bill. 

The Bassetts have always cared deeply. In fact, when asked about her own life, her own accomplishments, Priscilla deflects. What seems to matter is the present, although she’ll talk about the past: about her brilliant husband, about the causes they fought for. And what one couple—or, say, younger people who might be reading this—could do about what’s going on right now.

When they lived in New York City, Dr. Emmett Bassett was a member of the Human Rights Commission in Manhattan and helped organize the March on Washington in 1963. And before that he was a Black boy down South, going to a segregated one-room schoolhouse. Later he became a WWII vet who used the GI Bill to get his master’s degree and then a PhD. He went on to a position as assistant professor of microbiology at Columbia, and then 18 years at the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry. Priscilla, who is white, was a librarian, active in the union, and they both served for years on the Presbyterian Hospital community advisory board, she said.

I ask about the GI Bill. Surely it made a difference in the lives of the million Black soldiers who fought for the U.S. But no, not in terms of education anyway. “It didn’t cover high school.” This hit southern Black soldiers hard, because many of them were unable to finish school before the war summoned them—they were wanted for work. “Emmett didn’t always go to school,” she said. “They needed people to pick the cotton.” 

He picked the cotton and milked the cows, but also attended the Tuskegee Institute, eventually landing a position with George Washington Carver, toward the end of that great man’s life. And from there, WWII, and then advanced education.

A story by Maria Höhn, published in the Military Times, notes that the experience of WWII—especially for those soldiers stationed in Germany, who worked to expunge racism there—served as a catalyst for them when they came home. “They were to become the foot soldiers of the civil rights movement—a movement that changed the face of our nation and inspired millions of repressed people across the globe,” she wrote.

Emmett and Priscilla met—somehow this seems apropos—on a picket line, protesting a Massachusetts restaurant that refused to serve a young Black man. “Emmett wasn’t the man,” she said, “but he was there.” 

“We were students,” she went on. “He was getting his master’s degree.” She was at Smith. “We got to know each other, and then we fell in love.” 

Was it hard for their families? “Not for Emmett’s,” she said. 

“We got married in Manhattan. I was at the New York Public Library then.” 

I asked about segregation. She brought up their stay in Ohio, while Emmett got his PhD at Ohio State. “It was an interesting experience,” she says dryly. “Our favorite place was Lake Hope, a state park, so it wasn’t segregated.” Other interviews, like the one on Waking Planet, outline how hard it was for them to find a place to live, how people treated them.

She worked at a GM plant then, “on the production line. I was a union member, a committeewoman. I argued grievances for employees.” 

Eventually, PhD in hand, the Bassetts returned to New York. In 1963, “my husband and I were looking to buy an old farmhouse. We were campers and tenters,” she said. One lead led to another, and they ended up with a plot of land in Grahamsville with “a beautiful view.” First they built a shed for the camping gear. Years later, “we built a log house with logs from Margaretville. And in the mid ‘90s, we moved here full-time.” The three kids were long grown and it was time to retire. 

Or whatever passed for retirement. The Bassetts threw themselves into work of a different sort, continuing their support for various human rights and anti-war causes. Not the kind of support that’s just writing a check, but the kind that’s out in all weather, holding signs, making a stand. They were involved with the revitalization of SLAC, and Priscilla served as chair for years. She calls the major changes planned to the Human Rights Commission here “distressing.” 

“We were a wonderful team,” she says. 

When Alzheimer’s took Emmett, Priscilla cared for him until he passed. 

And now? 

She sees her children. And “I still try to keep up to date. I’m very concerned about the President’s attitude toward eliminating payment on the payroll tax. This would devastate Social Security recipients... 10 million people will turn 65. It’s going to hurt.” She’s worried about the post office, the care center, what awaits seniors and future seniors. “We’ve pulled a veil over the reality of life,” she said. 

What advice does she have for young people now? “Look for leadership from the Black community,” she said. “As much as we talk about walking in people’s shoes” we don’t actually understand what it’s like to live their lives. 

“Learn. Study. Be knowledgeable. Teach your children... All over the world, people are learning and talking and looking. It’s time. It’s overdue.”

Sometimes the weight of pain in the world is overwhelming. Does she still have hope?

“Oh yes,” she said, and you could hear the smile in her voice over the phone. “I do have hope.”

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