Born in New York City in 1940 to white parents, Dolores M. Van Rensalier was astounded to learn of her black ancestry when she was 17. It shook her self-identity, and she realized had to do something to honor her heritage. She couldn’t abandon those who were fighting for their civil rights. Ms. Van Rensalier thus set out on a healing journey of self-exploration. She attended college at night while building a career in Los Angeles, ultimately graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University in 1976. She also became a certified advanced management analyst through the University of Southern California.
During this time, Ms. Van Rensalier continued to research her ancestors and found that not only had both of her parents had a black parent, but her black great-grandfather, William P. Van Rensalier, was an important abolitionist. He and his white friend, Huntoon, ran part of the Underground Railroad in Paterson, New Jersey. She spent more than a decade piecing together everything she could find on their lives. Her 1994 essay, “Bridge Street to Freedom,” helped save the official historic Underground Railroad vacant lot in the city. It was about to be turned into a Taco Bell before she stepped in. Then, in 2004, Ms. Van Rensalier led the five-member board of the H-V Underground Railroad Foundation, of which she was the founder and president, to fund and build a monument on the site. People from across the nation donated funds for over 161 personalized bricks embedded at the site grounds, fortifying the abolitionist legacy of transcend race. The project was completed in 2014.
Some of Ms. Van Rensalier’s other achievements include serving as the director and curator of the Los Angeles Festival in Black Art Exhibition, which had 220,000 attendees, and of the Watts Festival Art Exhibition. In recognition of her hard work and dedication, she was honored with accolades like the Historic Site Preservation Award from the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Commission, the Historic Site Preservation Award from the Paterson Historic Preservation Commission, and the Bill Pascrell Jr. Award, among many others.
When Ms. Van Rensalier has free time, she enjoys researching black history, reading biographies and playing bridge and cards.