93-year-old reflects on farm upbringing, GE, serving others

When Beverly Lewis-Salley moved to Schenectady in the early 1950s, her first impression of the city
Beverly Lewis-Salley talks about her youth at her home in Schenectady.
Beverly Lewis-Salley talks about her youth at her home in Schenectady.

When Beverly Lewis-Salley moved to Schenectady in the early 1950s, her first impression of the city was that it was beautiful.

It was quite a change from the home she’d known in Blackridge, Virginia.

She was one of 11 kids raised on her family’s 264-acre farm, where tobacco, cotton, peanuts and vegetables were grown.

“It was fun at times, but you had to go to work. You had to pick cotton, peas and corn,” the 93-year-old recalled. “We had a lot of chores. I started working when I was 8 years old.”

Lewis-Salley met her first husband, Wayman Lewis, while attending St. Paul’s College in Lawrenceville, Virginia.

“We just fell in love,” she reminisced during a recent visit at the Schenectady home she shares with her daughter, Denise Lewis-Matula.

Lewis-Matula added to the story: “My dad said that she came around with some other girlfriends and she was the most quiet, so he liked her demeanor.”

The couple married and migrated north because Lewis couldn’t find work in Virginia. They were part of the Great Migration, when more than 6 million African-Americans from the rural South moved to cities in the North, Midwest and West between 1916 and 1970, in search of economic opportunity and to escape harsh segregationist laws.

The couple lived in New York City before coming to Schenectady.

“We did domestic work for rich people,” Lewis-Salley recounted. “It was fun. I enjoyed it. I was the cook and did the cleaning. My husband did the chauffeuring.”

She said she still enjoys cooking, although she doesn’t do it much anymore. Asked if she had any special recipes, she replied with conviction, “macaroni and cheese.”

She and her husband already had three children when they moved north — Wayman Jr., Zenobia and Xavier. The kids stayed with family in Virginia for several years until the couple felt settled in their new surroundings.

Lewis-Salley and her husband both got jobs at General Electric in Schenectady, he as a welder and burner and she as a stenotypist.

She said she witnessed prejudice in the early years in Schenectady.

“I just saw there were times when they were ignoring the blacks,” she explained, noting that she knew many nice white folks, especially co-workers at General Electric.

The couple had three more children after moving to Schenectady — Walter, Denise and Vinson.

Their house became a hangout for their kids’ friends.

Lewis-Matula recalled: “When I was growing up, the kids that were my age really loved my mom because my mom was hip. She was just one of those hip moms, and she was an easy person to talk to.”

She said her friends would often come to Lewis-Salley seeking advice.

“She was very open-minded and she always had an easy smile, which opened doors. She loves kids,” she said.

Community service

When she stopped working at GE, Lewis-Salley took a job that kept her around kids all day long. She worked as executive director of Parker Day Care Center in Schenectady for 17 years.

After retiring, she traveled extensively, to destinations including Africa, Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

Lewis-Salley was active in the Schenectady community. She joined Friendship Baptist Church, where she still attends services, and also was involved with Carver Community Center, the Pleasant Valley Conservation Club and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

She did a lot of community service work.

“I used to visit the hospital a lot. I would visit people there and I used to take them to the doctor’s, to their appointments,” she said.

She and Lewis eventually divorced and, at age 82, she got married to the late Riley Salley, a retired GE employee. The two married in 2003, at the bedside of her hospitalized son, Walter. Walter died just shy of his 47th birthday, after battling a lung disorder.

Lewis-Salley moved in with her daughter about a year-and-a-half ago.

She enjoys watching New York Yankees games, reading and spending time with her seven grandchildren, 11 great-grandchilden and one great-great-grandchild.

She still gives advice to her kids.

“When they take it,” she said with a laugh. “I tell them anyway, so whether they stand by it, I don’t know.”

Her words of wisdom for younger generations: “Just stay friendly and stay in church.”

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