By MIKE FARRELLY
For Montclair Local
When Edythe Sydnor of Montclair first visited Miluki in the Bumula Constituency of Bungoma County, Kenya, in 1980, she fell in love with the rolling hills, but was upset that the only school was a rickety, mud-walled, thatched hut with 45 students crammed into it.
They sat on crude wooden benches or on the dirt floor. They were the lucky ones — hundreds of children were unable to attend.
Sydnor devoted many years to raising funds to build a new primary school and then a new high school. After a lifetime of community service in Montclair and the surrounding area she decided to serve a new family in Africa.
She came to be called “Nambo” or “Mama Nambo,” who some sources say was a great queen who truly cared for her people.
Sydnor was born in Newark in 1920. She took a civil service exam during her senior year at Newark Central High School. When World War II broke out, she took a government job at Harborside Terminal in Jersey City, one of several shipping depots in New Jersey run by the U.S. Army’s Quartermaster Corps.
She heard that the Army Air Corps was accepting civilian applicants to work on ground crews in the United States so that military technicians could be sent overseas. She trained at the Casey Jones School of Aeronautics in Newark. Jones was a World War I flyer and aviation pioneer who once lived in Montclair and had been the director of physical education at Montclair Academy.
Sydnor graduated as an engine mechanic and was assigned to the air base in Rome, New York. By the end of the war, she was the crew chief.
In 1945 she moved to North Fullerton Avenue with her sister, Doris. A few years later they moved to Monroe Place. She became involved with the neighborhood center at 30 Maple Ave., a building owned by the Junior League of Essex County.
At the center, Sydnor gained experience in developing programs and fundraising, skills that served her well throughout her career. She joined the Junior League and was instrumental in setting up a federal credit union at the center.
She also started to become involved with local politics, volunteering for voter registration drives and working behind the scenes in the campaigns of people running for local offices.
She was the campaign manager for Livingston native Robert Peacock when he ran unsuccessfully for the House of Representatives in 1960. She managed the campaign of Montclair dentist John R. Fitzgerald (the first African American man to run for that office) when he ran unsuccessfully for the Town Commission that same year.
Sydnor herself ran for a position on the Town Commission in 1964, the first African American woman ever to run for the office and only the second woman to do so. Violet O’Brien ran for the commission in 1936.
Unfortunately, neither Sydnor nor O’Brien won, but their involvement broke barriers and changed the political landscape. The Rev. Matthew Carter became the township’s first African American mayor in 1968. Mary Mochary became the first female mayor in 1980.
Sydnor continued to work in jobs that served the public. In 1953 she took a job in the administration of the Textile Workers Union. A few years later she became the office manager for the Northern Division of the Salvation Army in Newark.
In 1959 she joined the Essex County Division of Youth Services, ending up as the supervisor of administrative services at the children’s shelter in Belleville.
She always valued education, including her own, and earned her master’s in public administration at Rutgers University in Newark. While she was at Rutgers Sydnor met Rufina Waswa, a young woman from Kenya, who was also working toward a master’s degree. Waswa’s father was the headmaster at the small schoolhouse in Miluki mentioned above. Sydnor visited Bungoma for the first time in 1980 and made up her mind to improve the school system.
June 12, 1983, the day Sydnor retired from Youth Services, was declared “Edythe Sydnor Day” in Essex County. Many county notables attended the testimonial dinner in her honor. State Sen. Wynona Lipman, who had lived in Montclair, was the honorary chair.
The dinner was also a fundraiser for the schools in Miluki; $5,100 was raised that day. In 1984 Sydnor created a nonprofit, The Bungoma Project. Over the course of several years she raised thousands of dollars and would return to Miluki to give them the money.
She raised the funds by selling her own beadwork and by organizing numerous fundraising events.
It wasn’t just about money, though. Those involved were inspired by her boundless enthusiasm. We should be inspired by her willingness to improve the lives of others.
“History & Heritage” is a series on Montclair history written by representatives of the Montclair History Center and the Montclair Public Library. Mike Farrelly is a trustee of the Montclair History Center and has been the official township historian, a volunteer position, since 2004.