‘Fearless warrior’: Activist, trailblazer Audrey Harvey remembered for strengthening both Schenectady, state

Audrey Harvey, seated, is shown with her children, from left, Dyane, Erich and Lynn. Provided

Audrey Harvey, seated, is shown with her children, from left, Dyane, Erich and Lynn. Provided

Dyane Harvey-Salaam remembers helping her mother, Audrey P. Harvey, prepare for her WMHT talk show, Black Telecom, sometime in the mid-’60s.

As she puts it, the first-born daughter watched her mother do something revolutionary.

“Mom decided that she was going to do the Black Telecom program with her natural hair,” Harvey-Salaam said. “That was a radical act. Her ‘natural’ was soft and full, with a portion that was silver in the center of her head. After observing her fluffing the hair, I suggested that we create a star, so I molded it, creating an image that she kept throughout her career. When she returned home after the show she was glowing and the phone began to ring, with many different reactions to her boldness. She turned to me and said, ‘You see the power of hair?’ Simple as that… I understood that she was empowering me to be all that I dreamed.”

While that was Harvey-Salaam’s first impression of the power of hair, it also was an early look into the power of her mother, who — outside of being a local television star — was a star advocate for so many in Schenectady and state-wide, whether they realized it or not. Harvey, who died on Jan. 3 at 90 years old in North Carolina, spent her life — especially from the ‘60s to ‘80s — advocating for others as a founding member of the Schenectady Legal Aid Society, an executive director of the Schenectady Community Action Program (SCAP) and a host and producer for Black Telecom.

Harvey later became program director for the NYS Department of Mental Hygiene, creating partnerships with medical schools to increase enrollment of Black and brown students to become physicians. She later worked for the NYS Civil Service Commission, where she identified discriminatory practices in the state exam, leading to a major lawsuit and corrective measures for future exams, as well as part of the Union College Diversity Program and the Human Rights Commission. Audrey later left Schenectady around the ‘90s to become special assistant to the Commissioner of Public Health in DC, retiring in North Carolina. But her time in Schenectady and New York left an impact, as peers and family members say that most people whose lives were affected by Harvey’s work, may not even know her name.

While in Schenectady, she earned plenty of titles, including “the woman with the star,” supervisor, mentor, and of course, mother of three.

When Harvey-Salaam and her siblings were growing up, her mother would keep two phones in the house. One was the family phone and the other was for her role as secretary for Schenectady’s NAACP chapter. It helped Harvey-Salaam realize just what activism was. On days where Harvey was a bit swamped with other work as she juggled her many roles, she would have her young daughter take a few calls.

“She shared what she imagined was necessary to improve the quality of Black life in Schenectady, and even the country,” Harvey-Salaam said. “I remember her always going to ‘a meeting’ … and even in this flurry of activism, she made sure that I was still supported, that my dreams were valued and realized, even though my dreams had nothing to do with activism, or so it seemed at that point.”

Harvey’s younger children — Erich and Lynn — also saw their mother’s activism first hand growing up, although a little later.

“She dreamed a dream that with exposure and access to opportunities, Mom recognized a person could achieve their highest potential. And she set about to make that happen and put the work behind it to try to make someone else’s life better,” Lynn said. “Not only her own life, but she was a community builder. She reached back and lifted as she moved through the world. She didn’t just say, ‘OK, this is just for me.’ But this is for we.”

One important push that her son Erich recalls is of his mother’s role in the Legal Aid Society, which helped Black people in Schenectady buy homes.

“When prospective Black home buyers would arrive at a property in question, a white real estate agent or property owner would inform them that the property is no longer on the market” Erich said. “Maybe a couple days later, white surrogate buyers would confirm, either in person or over the phone, that the property is still for sale. Some of the time, they would actually make the sale. Then the surrogate buyers would resell it to the African American family that was initially interested in the property. This is how a local psychiatrist and his wife were able to purchase their home along the northeastern border of Central Park.”

This wasn’t the only instance of Harvey’s push to help Black families and locals. Omoye Cooper, who worked under Harvey for two years during her 36 years working for New York State, said the “fearless warrior” who later became her friend knew exactly what she needed to accomplish with the NYS Civil Service.

“During the time that she worked with the merit office, what she did basically greatly increased the number of Black and hispanic people in professional and upper-level positions in the New York State government,” Cooper said.

And the state is still seeing the effects of that, Cooper said.

“She had put a foundation in place that continued to grow,” Cooper said. “Many of the people that she brought in for two-year trainee-ships, they stayed, kept their career in New York State, and we moved up to executive-level positions. She put in place a large number of protected-class gatekeepers in New York State to ensure employment equity for everybody. There’s a lot of people out there who don’t know that. They don’t know that if they’re in certain positions right now, a lot of it has to do with the foundation that Audrey Harvey helped build.

She built that foundation in many of her other roles, too.

During the Attica Prison Uprising of 1971, Harvey — who was with the Department of Mental Hygiene at the time — was instrumental in getting Black nurses into the medical teams so inmates would feel safe.

Harvey was never afraid to take a stand when she felt things weren’t helping underrepresented communities, said Andrea Allen, who had Harvey as a direct supervisor at the department in the ‘70s.

“When it came to racial issues, she was very direct. The majority of the administration at the time was white. And they didn’t always respond well,” Allen said. “But she challenged them in the decisions that they made that were not going to be helpful to the workforce, it was a large minority workforce. If this issue was going to affect minorities, if you were allowing that to happen, you were her opponent.”

Harvey’s work also has helped enrollment of students of color at Union College and changed the makeup of New York State’s leadership roles. But above the impact she left on her community, Harvey was always a star to those who she loved — her three children, three grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

“The most important lesson that I’ve learned from my mother is to stay informed,” Erich said. “Speak truth to power, the people and yourself. Take care of each other. Follow your passion. Balance your work, with time among family and friends, explore the arts and travel when you can.”

Categories: News, Schenectady County

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