Richmond Zooms with Library

By Julia Lucey

This past Tuesday, July 28, the Greenwich Library hosted Dennis Richmond, Jr., an author, genealogist, and advocate for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU), for a Zoom webinar. Dennis, just 25 years old, was full of enthusiasm as he offered the audience a look into his research on his own family’s past, his work supporting students and HBCUs, and a little bit about his process of writing his recently released memoir, He Spoke at my School: An Educational Journey.

Richmond introduced himself as the founder of the NY/NJ HBCU initiative and the author of He Spoke at My School, which looks at his life throughout his education and his dedicated work advocating for higher education. 

Richmond recounted the moment that inspired him to commit to uncovering his family’s past: in 2008 he was watching Roots with his father, a series that follows generations of decendents of an African man sold into slavery in Colonial America. Richmond decided to research his own family.

He introduced us to his great-grandmother Adele Matilda Merritt, who was born in Greenwich in 1913. While he didn’t know her personally, she was a geriatric nurse that he had heard stories about and he specifically recalled referring to her as a “baby nurse.” 

Adele was just the beginning. Using documents he found in Greenwich Town Hall, Richmond was able to look far back into his family history.

In 2012, when Richmond was in 11th grade and growing up in Yonkers, NY, he didn’t know much about Connecticut aside from hearing about Greenwich. One day he decided he would take the trip to Greenwich — he hopped on a bus from White Plains to Port Chester and then grabbed a cab to Greenwich Town Hall. When he arrived, it was “nothing more than a gold mine,” Richmond recounted.

He uncovered records of his sixth great grandmother, Margaret “Peg” Merritt, who was born into slavery in Greenwich in 1773. The records also revealed two of her sons, including Richmond’s fifth great grandfather, Charles, born 1791. Records had them listed as the “negroes of Nathan Merritt.” What further surprised Richmond was learning that Peg was freed from slavery in 1800 and both sons were soon after freed under the Gradual Emancipation Act. In other words, Richmond is the descendant of multiple generations of free Black Americans.

To Richmond, this news was entirely unexpected. Based on his education and the lack of details passed down regarding his ancestors, such a possibility was one he hadn’t considered. He was also able to uncover his ancestors’ professions. Charles and his brother, for instance, were in the land selling business, as well as his fourth great grandfather, Abraham Merritt. Abraham’s son, Edward B. Merritt, who was born in 1870, did something impressive for his time — he worked an office job as a real estate agent.

John Sherman Merritt, born 1889 to Edward, then fathered four children, Lilia May, Joseph, Adele, and Jim. An incredibly hard worker, John Sherman made a point of sending his children to college — Lilia May, born 1917, for instance, attended Pratt Institute and went on to enter prominent circles in Harlem as she entered the world of fashion. Adele, Richmond’s great grandmother, became a nurse and was the mother of Joyce Marie Watkins, Richmond’s grandmother. In the late 30s, she moved her family from Greenwich to New Rochelle, and Joyce went on to become a business owner, Richmond explained, running a daycare in the Bronx.

With this information, Dennis Richmond realized, “Not only do I come from greatness, but I have to continue the legacy.”

Richmond was born in Yonkers, NY, where, during his time in school, he became more conscious that his family life was one experienced by all of his peers. He was well traveled, taught to “speak proper,” and had a love of education instilled in him from a young age. He came from a loving family, and this different background made him subject to bullying by his classmates. It was while learning more about his family history, Dennis explained, that he began to “come out of his shell” — he even ran for school president. While his campaign was not successful, it revealed to him something even more important for his future: Richmond learned his love for public speaking.

Richmond now visits schools in the Yonkers/Bronx/Brooklyn area advocating for collegiate education, specifically HBCU education. His goal is to bring these conversations into spaces where they aren’t otherwise — he aims to hook students onto the idea of higher education. His work began with a short ten minute video to grab students’ attention and get their minds thinking about college, and it quickly became a great success at his presentations. As his presentations began to gain traction (they were all done as volunteer work), he began to receive sponsorship and internships, he explained. In 2016, for instance, Richmond began an internship with the Black Alliance for Educational Options, or BAEO, whose goal is to “change the educational landscape” for Black students.

The webinar was open for questions, as well, and one asked Richmond how we can support HBCUs today. Richmond explained many run fundraising campaigns that those wishing to contribute can keep an eye out for throughout the year. He went on to emphasize the importance of supporting smaller, lesser known HBCUs, as well. While schools like Howard University, a more commonly known school, receive lots of attention and funding, Richmond mentioned schools like Allen University and Morris Brown college, just two examples of HBCU schools the general public may not be familiar with. All funds help, Richmond made clear.

In terms of his memoir, a question asked how the title came to be. Richmond recanted a moment in NYC in which a young man noticed him and said, “Hey, you spoke at my school!” Dennis soon found this to be a common occurrence — people were recognizing him after he gave his presentations to NY area high schools. So, the name He Spoke at my School practically wrote itself, Richmond explained. Richmond had earlier marveled over the impressive legacy his ancestors had left in Greenwich. Newspapers he had uncovered included obituaries of these relatives, citing individuals including John Sherman Merritt as an “esteemed individual in the community” and a “well known colored man in Greenwich.” Now, over a century later, Richmond is making his own lasting mark.

Throughout COVID, he has been using Zoom as a platform to continue talking with students and schools. Richmond also works as a journalist, with his most recent publication in the New York Post titled “These are the Colleges Where Black Students Really Matter.” In addition, his memoir is now out and doing well. And, as his influence continues to grow, his research of his own history continues: “that’s the life of a genealogist: there’s always more to find,” says Richmond.