Activist and NAACP New York State Conference President Hazel N. Dukes turned 90 on March 17. The longtime local leader has built a legacy of fighting for civil rights spanning more than 70 years and continues to improve conditions for the Black community.
A native of Montgomery, Ala., Dukes moved to New York in the mid-’50s becoming a community organizer in Nassau County. She is a member of the NAACP National Board of Directors, a member of the NAACP Executive Committee as well as an active member of various NAACP board sub-committees.
Along with her dedicated work with the NAACP, Dukes is a former president of the Metro-Manhattan Links Chapter, in 2010 was appointed the National Links NGO Representative and is a former trustee of the State University of New York and Stillman College. She is a member of the National Council of Negro Women, Inc., and National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, INC. Dukes is also a member of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority Northern Manhattan Alumnae Chapter.
In an interview with the AmNews, Dukes says that even though she’s 90, what keeps her feeling less than her age is spending time with youth.
“I feel like I’m 26,” she said enthusiastically. “I really love interacting with young people to see what their thinking is of this world we’re living in and tell them the story of who they are and what they have inherited as a legacy. That keeps me going and I feel great.”
Dukes credits her late father, who was a Pullman porter, along with civil rights leader and union organizer E.D. Nixon with getting her involved in activism. The two men were close friends and Dukes would listen as they discussed how Pullman porters were treated and issues impacting African Americans at the time.
However, it was an incident she remembers vividly when she was a child involving her grandmother when a white man referred to her as “auntie” that had a lasting impact.
“He said, ‘Hey auntie, how are you doing today?’ and my grandmother said, ‘Don’t you dare call me auntie. I don’t look like your auntie and I’m not your auntie, get on away from her,’” Dukes said. “I came from a family that didn’t take any disrespect. Although they knew they were ‘negroes,’ they didn’t let people disrespect them.”
Her family moved to New York to Nassau County, Long Island in 1955. While history highlights rampant segregation and racism in the South at the time, Dukes faced racism in the North. She recalls seeing an apartment and being denied due to her race and having her money sent back to her. There was also discrimination in the community of Levittown at the time, which did not allow Blacks to move in. Dukes became the first African Americans to live in Roslyn Gardens apartments in Nassau County. Soon after, other Blacks moved into the complex creating a solid population of middle class African Americans living in the area.
Not only getting a front row to history, Dukes has also played a significant role in shaping history. From participating in the Civil Rights Movement, to seeing America inaugurate its first Black president and first Black women U.S. vice president to now witnessing the nomination of the first Black woman to the U.S. Supreme Court, Dukes said her role is one of the things she’s most proud of.
“There are several highlights for me,” she said. “I cast Electoral College votes here in New York for Presidents Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris. I’ve been the NGO representative at the United Nations. I was on the committee with Bill Lynch and Mayor David Dinkins that brought Nelson and Winnie Mandela to New York City.”
Dukes’ name is synonymous with the NAACP. She was introduced to the civil rights organization during her first year of college at Alabama State University. Dukes was elected president of the NAACP New York State Conference in 1975 and served almost 50 years. She was mentored by the late politician and activist C. Delores Tucker and former NAACP President Magnolia Macmillan.
Dukes told the AmNews that her current term will be her last. She didn’t name anyone specifically that she would like to see take her place but said she’s mentoring potential successors.
“My term is up next year and I’m working with a group of young adults in their 40s and 50s to see who’s going to step up,” she said.
Even though she’s watched and been part of the unfolding of history, Dukes says there is still work to be done. One thing she’s passionate about that continues to need change, she says, is the fight for fair education. An initiative was recently named in her honor in Southeast Queens, which consists of funding given to the NAACP for programs and technology resources in four schools.
Another issue is voting rights. Dukes continues to work on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would improve absentee ballot voting and expand opportunities for people to vote other than on Election Day in New York State.
A prominent figure in New York politics, Dukes said that she never wanted to run for office because she “makes politicians.” Out of all of the people who have left before her, she misses her longtime friend and former New York City Mayor David Dinkins the most.
“He called me his sister and we were very close,” Dukes said. “I didn’t make too many real decisions about fights that I chose unless I spoke to Basil Paterson and David Dinkins.”
Through the years, she’s been affectionately referred to as “Mama Dukes” by all of the people she’s touched and influenced. When asked what type of legacy she wants to leave, Dukes said she wants to leave a legacy for young people.
“I want to leave a living testimony,” she said. “I often think about Mary McLeod Bethune and she left things for us as African Amricans and one was education. She wanted us to love each other. On the gravestone, it’s only the day you were born and the day you die but I want to leave living testimony.”