Peter Sterling Reflects on the 1960s and Rye

We are bringing this story to you in two parts. Lili Waters is an eighth grader in Francesca Miller’s social studies class at Rye Middle School. Peter Sterling visited her classroom, and she wrote the first article for Rye Historical Society to share this experience with our larger community. Alison Cupp Relyea develops programming for Rye Historical Society and had a chance to interview Peter as well. Lili and Alison’s writing begins our attempt to capture Peter Sterling’s story. Peter’s is one example of the importance of capturing living history. We hope you learn something about Rye’s past and our nation’s past through the lens of Peter Sterling.

Peter Sterling in his CORE training class (Congress for Racial Equality) May 1961

Clip of Peter Sterling, from the PBS 2011 Freedom Riders Documentary

Peter Sterling’s Visit

By Lili Waters

Peter Sterling’s life was on a positive track. As a young, white Cornell undergrad, he had a bright future and had not been negatively impacted by segregation, but he put his life on hold to help out those who were. Earlier this year, Mr. Sterling returned to his hometown to discuss his experience at Rye Middle School.

I remember thinking how brave he was to put himself in danger for the cause he believed in, becoming a Freedom Rider with his fellow Cornell classmates. It made me evaluate issues today and consider how I could better the world, even as a middle-school student. One of the things that was so moving about Mr. Sterling was his passion for the Civil Rights Movement. As he spoke, I could see he was transported back to being on the train and getting arrested. Mr. Sterling began to tear up and when asked whether he would do it again, he assured us he would.

You don’t often get to see the emotion that goes into history. It taught me that people who built the America we know today are people just like us who saw an injustice and stood up to change it. Mr. Sterling’s father told him not to take the risk by getting on the train, unwilling to sacrifice his son to the cause. Mr. Sterling still got on the train despite his father’s concern for his safety.

While he told us his story, we were reliving the history of the ‘60’s, and as importantly, we were also learning that when there is something worth fighting for, pursue it, even if you have to do so alone. It is a lesson students need today as much as when Mr. Sterling was a student; the future of the country is in our hands. There are still a lot of issues today to be solved, and it is everyone’s responsibility to tackle them.


Rye: No Place for Hate?

By Alison Cupp Relyea

At Mistletoe Magic in November, I had a conversation with another parent in town about Rye Historical Society’s goal to capture more living histories of people in Rye. She told me about a man from Rye, Peter Sterling, who visited her eighth grader’s history class. With quick texts and e-mails, she put me in touch with Francesca Miller who introduced me to Peter Sterling, and soon I was peeling an onion of a family history and Civil Rights history that shed new light on the Rye we know. It is these moments that remind me how fortunate we are to live in a small town, a tight-knit community where one connection leads to another and I find myself talking to Peter, who currently lives in Panama, about his family’s Civil Rights work and what we can learn from Rye’s history.

Peter Sterling’s parents, Dorothy and Philip Sterling, moved to Rye in 1948, one of a few artist and activist families that created the neighborhood on Kirby Lane North. Peter and his sister were young children. The Sterlings and their friends were viewed by many in Rye as a threat to the more conservative way of thinking, particularly during the McCarthy era. The Sterlings were members of the Communist party at the time and the FBI opened their mail and came to their house. Due to party affiliations in the 1950s, this neighborhood on Kirby Lane North was called Red Hill by other Rye residents.

The Sterlings were first and foremost Civil Rights activists, dedicating their lives and their work to creating more equality on a local and national level. Dorothy Sterling was a writer who wrote books on black history and integration. Philip was also a writer and a very active member of the local NAACP. Peter was the only white member of the NAACP youth chapter while he was growing up in Rye. Growing up with strong parent models leading by example, it is not surprising that Peter made the choices he did to get involved in Civil Rights as a teenager and has continued his work to this day.

Peter Sterling arrested as a Freedom Rider in Jackson, Mississippi on June 30, 1961.

Peter attended Rye schools from 2ndgrade to 12th grade, and after graduating, he went to Cornell where he continued his education and activism. While Peter’s participation in the Freedom Rides in May 1961 is part of his legacy, another moment of hate and racial injustice hit closer to home and has also had a profound impact on him and his family. In June 1961, soon after returning from Jackson, Mississippi where he was arrested as a Freedom Rider, Peter finished college and moved to New York City. He was engaged to be married and about to begin graduate school. On June 19, 1961, an explosive noise late at night outside the family’s Kirby Lane home startled Peter’s father. He ran outside to find a seven-foot cross burning on their front yard. Philip and Dorothy were both on the executive board of the NAACP at the time, and Dorothy had recently helped a local family rent an apartment at Rye Colony. The family was black, and the Sterlings believed that the cross-burning was an act of retaliation for their advocacy.

Philip Sterling called the police and extinguished the flames with a garden hose. The incident was written up in local papers and the Sterlings continued with their work as activists. Even though the Rye Chronicle denounced this “narrow, bigoted” act as reflecting negatively on the community, what happened – or did not happen – in Rye left a lasting impact on the Peter and his family. Despite the Sterlings being victims of a hate crime in a seemingly tight-knit community far north of the landscape that set the stage for the Freedom Rides, no one reached out to them to offer support or share their grief. Peter’s sister, a student at Rye High School at the time, received no words of reassurance from classmates and teachers. Community members ignored the incident entirely, perhaps out of discomfort, leaving a stinging sense that Rye was a place that turns a blind eye to hate. Unfortunately, silence for any reason can seem like condoning a racist act, and with no one standing up for them, the Sterlings felt the harsh reality of a town that, while polite on the surface, lacked the depth of character and courage to defend right from wrong.

Dorothy and Philip Sterling raised their children to stand up for their beliefs, and as they have navigated their lives and their careers, they have held on to this core value of helping others. Peter’s father was nervous when his son decided to become a Freedom Rider, but he knew that he had taught his son to do whatever he could to create positive change. Peter had to get on that train. For the sake of those of us living in Rye today, children and adults, I am so grateful that he felt compelled to act and is taking the time to tell us about his experiences, both outside of Rye and right here in our town.

For more information on the Freedom Riders and the Sterling family, we are including these resources, some of which the eighth grade students read and watched prior to interviewing Peter:

PBS Documentary, Freedom Riders – Peter Sterling featured: 

PBS Documentary featuring Peter Sterling – American Experience: Freedom Riders

Daily Item article from Portchester about the cross burning, June 20, 1961

Rye Chronicle article about the cross burning

Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice by Raymond Arsenault was the basis for the PBS documentary.

New York Times article about Kirby Lane North

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