Errold D. Collymore D.D.S. (1893-1972), a dentist and activist, who would become known as “Westchester’s Fighting Dentist,” moved to Westchester County in 1926 and integrated the Community Church of White Plains in 1927. When in 1930 the Ku Klux Klan burned a cross in front of his new home the Unitarian church members supported him. The incident made national news since it happened up north in the nation’s wealthiest county. Some employers, in an attempt to drive him out of business, told their African-American employees they would be fired if they used Collymore.
In turn, members of the Community Church left their own dentists and went to him. Although for many years the Collymores were the only African-American family in the White Plains Community Church Collymore went to serve as board member and president of that congregation. From 1952 to 1954 he was a member of the American Unitarian Association Commission Unitarian Intergroup Relations; subsequently he was the first person of color to serve on the AUA Board of Trustees (1954-1957).
Considered by many as “Westchester’s own Martin Luther King,” Errold. D. Collymore, D.D.S was a Black man who grew up in Barbados, British West Indies and came to America in 1912 when he was nineteen. As you can imagine he had to struggle very hard to find a job, put himself through college and then through dental school. He finally made it and started a dental practice in 1923 in White Plains, New York
He became the first African-American dentist in White Plains. Dr. Collymore co-founded the Urban League of Westchester and organized the the United Republican Club, and the White Plains/Greenburgh branch of the NAACP, serving as its president for many years.
In the first few weeks he found that life would not be easy for a Black dentist. He found a small apartment to rent. A white person would have been charged $30 per month, but a Black person was charged $80 per month. Black people were forced to live in the worst housing in town, pay the highest rent, and supplying their own heat. The injustices did not stop with housing.
There were no Black policemen or firemen. There were no Black clerical or white-collar workers. Black people were not allowed to swim at the public swimming pool. Black children were often physically abused by school teachers and principals. Black children could not use the YMCA except for a few hours a week.
Dr. Collymore became a “human catalyst” for most of these issues. He challenged the authorities and became a spokesperson for the Black community. Because of him the process of equal rights for minorities was speeded up. He felt that the most pressing issue was the need for better housing for Blacks and decided on a very daring way to bring this to public attention and to make it an issue that no one could ignore.
Collymore was a leader in the professional, political and civic life of the community. He led the campaign to have black nurses and nursing students admitted to the Westchester County Grasslands Hospital (now the Westchester Medical Center, Valhalla). He broke the racial barriers and of course, he was the victim of rock barrages..and the burning of a cross on his lawn when he and his family decided to move into an all-white neighborhood called the Highlands.
In his words “all hell broke loose.” A huge seven-foot fiery cross was burned on the front lawn in the middle of the night. The local newspapers carried big bold-type headlines declaring a Black invasion of the Highlands,
“All sorts of pressure and threats were used to get me out; but I held on,” Collymore was quotes to have said. “That was 36 years ago. I am still there! In the days of the great confusion I laid topsoil all around my house and went about my business of planting lawns and flowers. So much so that a newspaper reporter said in a news item that he was up by my house and I did not seem to be thinking of running away. He saw me up there planting flowers.”
Dr. Collymore and his family had integrated the White Plains Community Unitarian Church in 1927. The church gave them strong moral support during the course of the housing struggle. He remained very active in the church until his death in 1972.
In a sermon entitled “A Common Faith by Which to Live” which he delivered at the White Plains Community Church on October 1, 1944 he concluded: Personally, I want a religion to live by. I want a faith to work by. It is because I have found a conscious effort to find the good life here at the Community Church that I have continued for these sixteen years to work among its people.
Really, now it can be told – you have been the guinea pigs in my laboratory of faith.
Here we have a veritable oasis of faith. Let us continue to build; – let us try to make it grow so that its example in brotherhood and faith in the essential decency of man might spread across the land and usher in the good life even beyond where we can see “far down the futures broadening way.”
In 1956 Dr. Collymore received a human relations award with the following words inscribed on it:
Indomitable champion of his race and pioneer in human
relations who has advanced the well-being of our
entire community by his vision, courage and faith in the
brotherhood of man.
It’s great to celebrate our great black leaders like Martin Luther King Jr., but we must also salute our unsung heroes in Westchester County who put in the work locally. So BW dedicates this section to Black Westchester History and remember “Westchester’s own Martin Luther King,” Dr. Errold. D. Collymore, D.D.S.