Monday, December 14, 2015

Judge Harold L. Wood of Somers Has Made a Life of Making a Difference

I often go into an interview with a preconception of where the story will go.  I’m usually wrong.  In the case of 93 year old Judge Harold Wood, who was the first African American Supervisor in Westchester, I thought I would learn of insurmountable obstacles overcome in receiving his law degree, tales of harrowing racial discrimination and a detailed accounting of his professional life.  Admitting up front that his memory has “dimmed” in recent years, derailed the in depth look I was hoping for. But that doesn’t mean his sketchy outline of the past prevents him from processing. The same goes for his ability to inspire, and while he’s self-assured of his extraordinary historical accomplishments, it is the manner in which Judge Wood perceives himself as ordinary that really makes him stand out.

This was exemplified in his description of the time spent as a staffer for a State Senator in the early 60s. “We were all lawyers. We were all young and married. We had all been in the army and were all struggling like Hell to get ahead,” said the Heritage Hills resident.

The grandson of slaves and born of a "truckman" and a housekeeper may have started him off behind, but it never gave him any pause. "I don't know where I got it from, but I always felt that I was going to go to college," said Judge Wood.

He grew up in Ossining, always liked school and fondly remembers living alongside the local immigrant community. "So we never had any problems," he said. 

Wood graduated high school in 1937 and worked his way through college. “I went to Lincoln University.” he said of the Pennsylvania school, where he got an Associate’s in Business with honors.

This relative harmony drastically changed when war broke out, and he found himself attached to the Tuskegee airfields. As for the possibility that his officer status lightened the burden of being in the Deep South, he’s blunt in his recollection. “I don’t think there’s any black man that went to Alabama in 1940 that didn’t suffer from severe forms of discrimination,” he said.

Never going overseas and rarely leaving the base to face the harshest brunt of American racism, WWII’s end brought the GI Bill and Cornell Law School. His wife, who he married in 1940, accompanied him and his two children.

Making the most of his education, Judge Wood returned to Ossining, but soon moved to Mt. Vernon where a much larger African American community made his law practice viable.  As such, I assumed Judge Wood could dazzle me with dissertations of ground breaking cases that emerged of his rare place in an era where Father Knows Best bred only white lawyers.  “Son, I didn’t have memorable cases. I was a lawyer. People bought houses. Their children got into trouble, they went into business and I served them,” he said.

In accordance, Judge Wood was just as Ward Clever as the next guy. “I did what everybody else did. “I raised my family,” he said.

He would soon be accepted into Westchester’s Republican Party and eventually became the senate staffer.   Once again, the judge refused to attach any monumental sentiment to this stage of his life. “Listen, I was having breakfast every morning,” he downplayed the time with a laugh.

Judge Wood certainly didn’t let the chance go to waste and became Republican candidate for Mt. Vernon Supervisor. “I held that office eight out of ten years,” he said.

Thus, Judge Wood was succinct in the interpretation of his impact. “I didn’t accomplish anything other than that I was there for significant votes,” he said.

While it was likely more complicated than that, Supervising was left behind for Family Court. But he didn’t stop there – and to the likely dismay of those stewing in Tuskegee and elsewhere – Judge Wood rightly knows his place. “I do want you to know that I was making history. I was the first African American to become a Westchester Supervisor. I was the first to become a Family Court Judge, first to become County Court Judge and eventually become Supreme Court Judge,” said Judge Wood.

Otherwise, his Civil Rights record kept close to home as President of the Westchester NAACP. “Whatever work was assigned to me, I took it, but I didn’t have any national standing,” he said.

Nonetheless, he’s proud of the groundwork laid for all those that followed and would like to see more African Americans join the Republican Party. On the other hand, this doesn’t constrain him into seeing party politics in one way. “You can put it on the record. I voted for him twice,” he says of President Obama.

Still, he knows this doesn’t signify the end of America’s racial problems and references Bill Maher to emphasize it.  “The Democrats and Republicans figured out a solution to this problem they’ve created. Everything was fine. Then they went over to the White House, and the Republicans discovered Obama was still black, Judge Wood relayed.

“That’s my sentiment,” he asserted, but despairing is not in Wood’s nature.

Remembering Tuskegee and the actual fear of death that accompanied any trip into town, the sight of a little yellow bus that appeared every Sunday morning has never left him.  Seeing fellow African Americans getting on throughout the year, he soon found out that a local Catholic Church provided an opportunity  to escape the rampant racism for a sanctuary that simply gave the disenfranchised the opportunity feel like human beings.  “I never forgot that, and it’s always said to me, if people want to make a difference, they can,”

Judge Harold Wood should know from first hand experience – even if he would be the last to admit it. 

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