Emmett and Priscilla Basset at their Grahamsville home at an earlier date.
Sullivan County loses human rights leader, family man
Story by Dan Hust
GRAHAMSVILLE October 8, 2013 One of the unsung heroes of the civil rights movement a man whose life spanned nearly a century of pain and progress passed away last week here in Sullivan County.
Emmett Bassett was born in Virginia and travelled the world, but he lived much of his later life in a mountainside home above Grahamsville.
It was there that he died on September 29, at the age of 92.
His family surrounded him: wife Priscilla, a well-known and respected seniors and social justice advocate; daughters Mary, a doctor, and Lydia, an educator; and son Jonathan, a lawyer.
“He absolutely adored my mother,” Lydia confirmed, noting that even at the very end, as Alzheimer’s Disease worked its ravages upon his mind, he loved her.
“My mother walked into the bedroom, and he said, ‘That’s one good-lookin’ gal!’” Lydia related.
The man who most knew as a champion of human rights (including as a founder of the Sullivan County Human Rights Commission) was also a caring husband, father and grandfather.
“Me and my sisters had very close relationships with our father,” said Jonathan. “He was our rock, our mountain.”
It was an unusual family for its time: Emmett was black, Priscilla white. At times, he took care of the children while she worked outside the house. There were no such things as assigned gender roles in their home.
“He had equal expectations of all of us,” recalled Mary, who in 1952 was the first of the three children to be born.
Contrast that with life in a segregated America of the 1950s and ’60s, when a biracial couple and their children were not always welcomed.
Indeed, Emmett and Priscilla were once locked out of their apartment by a racist landlord, with whom they struggled for two years to retrieve their belongings.
But life, said their kids, was happy.
“We valued the fact we were not a typical family,” said Jonathan.
All three were given a front-row seat to history, as both their mom and dad were socially and politically active.
“There were countless demonstrations that we went to,” Jonathan acknowledged.
Indeed, Emmett was one of the organizers of the March on Washington in 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
But Emmett’s groundbreaking efforts started long before that. He enrolled in the renowned Tuskegee Institute when he was just 16, determined to learn all that he could.
A National Youth Administration scholarship allowed him to become a student of and assistant to the famed inventor and professor George Washington Carver.
The interference of World War II in his education brought him in contact with other well-educated black soldiers, and afterwards, he moved north and became the first African-American to obtain a doctorate in dairy technology.
Eventually, he became a professor at both Columbia University and the New Jersey College of Medicine and Dentistry, all the while staying intensely active in social causes.
Emmett met Priscilla, fittingly enough, at a protest in Massachusetts, and the two were wed in 1952. In 1964, they bought land and a small cabin in Grahamsville, where they raised their family.
Jonathan recalled building a more substantial home in 1976, when he gained admiration for the true scope of his father’s abilities.
“The only power tool we had was a chainsaw,” he remarked.
Mary recalled how her father, though prominent in civil rights and intellectual circles, loved even the simplest of things.
“He taught me how to recognize trees by their bark,” she said a skill she maintains to this day.
Lydia remembered trying to touch the bottom of a lake in which she was uncertainly swimming as a small child.
Just as the world and water seemed to overwhelm her, “my father in all of his clothes swooped in and picked me up.”
“Nothing terrible ever happened,” she assessed of her childhood, “and a lot of wonderful things happened.”
Emmett’s talents as a builder, farmer, scientist and activist were directly derived from his philosophies on life.
“My father was absolutely uncompromising in his beliefs,” affirmed Mary.
“He was my hero,” added Lydia. “... He wasn’t interested in impressing everybody. ... His priority was work and his family. ... He figured if you kept on moving and kept on working, things would work out for the good.”
And they did from the grand heights of his service on the Manhattan Human Rights Commission to his simple, humble assistance of two young men in relocating their mattress to a new apartment in NYC, one of whom is known today as America’s first black president, Barack Obama.
“He was vigorous till age 90,” Jonathan said, his voice tinged with awe.
That was the only way Emmett knew how to be. Even at age 8, he was exhibiting a profound belief in truth and justice.
Noting his abilities in the farm fields, so the family story goes, a neighbor told Emmett that if this were still slave days, he would have fetched $1,000 or more.
Emmett politely but firmly disagreed.
“They would have had to kill me before they could sell me,” he told the neighbor.
“He was a man of unyielding principles,” Jonathan affirmed. “There is not a single occasion I can think of when he compromised them.”