New Haven’s Monks Sing On

by Allan Appel | July 21, 2008 1:05 PM | | Comments (2)

nhimonk%20006.JPGJust about 80 years separate — or is it join? — matriarch Olivia Monk and her young great granddaughter Kyla Roberts. The remarkable, gospel-singing Monk family of New Haven came together again, as they have for the past 45 years, to celebrate their roots in the Hill, their contributions to New Haven, and perhaps most of all the power of music to foster joy and continuity.

The Monks convened, about 40-strong and from at least three states, along with members of the general community, Sunday at Thomas Chapel Church. The Monk family helped found the church the 1950, not long after arriving from Rocky Mount, North Carolina. Their tale is an inspiring chapter in the story of New Haven’s African-American community, both past and future.

nhimonk%20005.JPGSunday’s arrival at the church, at 30 White St., just off Columbus, is always preceded by the Monk family parade. It begins at Cedar and Amistad streets, where the young Olivia, with four children in tow (four more would be born in New Haven, and one adopted) established the family. She and her husband Conley had come north looking for a better life than the sharecropping postwar North Carolina could offer. After short stints on Lafayette Street in 1952, and York Street, the young family moved in to 263 Cedar in 1955.

Deacon Conley, as he was knowns, was a first cousin of jazz legend Thelonious Monk. The couple became their own kind of local legend, pioneers of the African -American community in the Hill, as well as entrepreneurs running the Monk Variety Store on Dixwell. They produced eight children, ran two small businesses, and took as foster children nearly 100 — count ‘em — New Haven kids.

The Monk porch, at 263 Cedar, became Grand Central for community. Most of the kids went to the Prince Street School, and, when it was built, Lee High School, the predecessor to Career.

Olivia Monk Henderson, another of the daughters, remembers when there were eight monks at the Prince Street School. The oldest daughter, Bishop Edith Pue, remembers walking every day from 263 Cedar to Hillhouse High.

Olivia Monk Henderson (in this family, when you say “Olivia,” no fewer than four heads turn) recalled as a young girl that the house at 263 had a Jewish family on one side and an Italian family on the other. “Neither was real excited about our arriving,” she said, as the Monk family cars lined up for Sunday’s parade, which this year was going to be all vehicular and speeded up due to the heat.

“The Italian was real particular about us kids not stepping on their property,” Henderson recalled. “But that all changed when they got to know us.

“I remember another Italian woman who ran a nearby grocery, Yolanda. When I enlisted in the army, Yolanda cut out my picture from the newspaper and she had it proudly pinned in the window of her store.”

nhimonk%20003.JPGThrough hard work, and faith, the Monks prevailed. Daughters and granddaughters have gone on to become teachers — many working at the New Haven Public Schools, no fewer than three at Riverside Educational Academy. There, granddaughter Lashante James teaches English, her aunt Pamela Monk Kelly (pictured with Mother Monk), special ed; another aunt, Jacqueline Roberts, is the parent coordinator. Kelley’s husband, Larry, is the basketball coach at Career. Younger descendant, Doron Monk Flake has his own band and writes for the New Haven Advocate.

When the Hill declined in the 1950s and ’60s, and the city went on an eminent domain tear, the Monks’ house was torn down to make way, in the 1970s, for the institutionalization of what had been a vibrant neighborhood. Pam Kelley Monk said the city paid them fairly for the house, on which corner now stands a park. Olivia, the matriarch, moved to Newhalville.

nhimonk%20002.JPGIn the 1990s, the family petitioned aldermen, and the corner of Cedar and Amistad was renamed Monk Crossroads, which means a great deal to the family. Their rise from the sharecropper struggles of post World War Two America was emblematic of the migration of African-American families to the cities of the north, where many endured, and then flourished. Deacon Conley was unable to earn much in Rocky Mount. When he came to New Haven secured two jobs, including one at the then Grace/New Haven Hospital, in addition to the convenience stores he operated.

For that reason the sense of history is as deep-seated in this family as the love of gospel music. Pamela Monk Kelley, the family historian, has traced roots back to one Archibald Monk, a white slaveowner in North Carolina. “He was known as an owner,” she said, “who treated his slaves well; he gave them property too, so by the addresses, and the census, and land records, my father and I began the history.”

Other notable Monks this family is related too include, beside Thelonious, Art Monk, the Washington Redskin and New York Jet. He’s being inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame in early August. Marcella Flake, yet another daughter, will be there representing the family.

nhimonk%20009.JPGThe living history of New Haven was also everywhere apparent at Thomas Chapel Sunday. It rocked with the call-and-response joy of hymns. (“I get joy, joy, joy when I think about … when I think about …what He done for me”). The building, originally constructed as Ahavat Shalom, an Ashkenazic Jewish synagogue early in the century, still also held the spirit of the stars of David on the pews and the Hebrew lettering above the steps where the family gathered before prepping downstairs for their entrance to the sanctuary.

Olivia and Conley took out a second mortgage on the house, said the daughters, to purchase the synagogue building. At the time the Jewish community, moving to other neighborhoods, put it up for sale. The building, said Lashante James, a granddaughter, has historical significance, although it is not landmarked. They’ve gotten permission to replace some of the original windows with stained glass celebrating Conley Monk and the other founders and family members. Today it functions both as a local church as well as a kind of Monk family chapel, in the long tradition of family chapels from the Renaissance on.

The choir was founded, said Pamela Kelley, not just for love of music, but to keep the family together. “Everyone knows,” she said, “for 45 years now, that every third weekend in July, you make those plans, no matter what else you do, you gather here.” In the New Haven/New York area there are perhaps 40 or 50 Monks, she estimated. And another 100 if you go South.

nhimonk%20001.JPGAsked what she missed most, and what she could bring back instantly if she had a magic wand, “Mother Olivia,” though recovering from a stroke, offered a clear and immediate answer: “I’d bring back my house.”

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Posted by: patrick gore | July 21, 2008 1:47 PM

the monks are a credit to african american people in new haven i have the pleasure of meeting them and they are heaven sent

Posted by: Rep. Pat Dillon [TypeKey Profile Page] | July 21, 2008 2:22 PM

When we were starting the battered women's services in Connecticut and New Haven, we went to the community - usually the churches - because there was no government support then.
One of the founders, Sofie Turner, belonged to Thomas Chapel and introduced us to the Monks. Mrs Monk and her family, and others from Thomas Chapel helped many women and children from simple charity, without any recognition.

Wonderful article and pictures.

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