Born in New York in 1940 to white parents, but raised in California, Dolores M. Van Rensalier was astounded to learn of her black ancestry when she was 17. It shook her self-identity, but she knew she had to openly honor all of 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. While raising two children from a previous marriage, she attended college at night while building a career in Los Angeles. She ultimately graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English from California State University in 1976. She also became a Certified Advanced Management Analyst (CABA) through the University of Southern California.
During this time, Ms. Van Rensalier continued to research for her ancestors and found that not only did both of her parents have a black parent, but her great-grandfather, William P. Van Rensalier, was a black abolitionist and an engineer at a spice mill owned by his white friend, Josiah Huntoon. They both ran part of the Underground Railroad at Mr. Huntoon’s home and spice mill in Paterson, New Jersey. She spent more than a decade piecing together everything she could find on their lives and their station, then a vacant lot. In 1994, her historic documentation and essay, “Bridge Street to Freedom,” helped to save and preserve the vacant lot into an official historical site in 1996. In 2004, Ms. Van Rensalier led the five-member board of the Huntoon-Van Rensalier Underground Railroad Foundation, of which she was the founder and president, to fund and build a monument on the historic vacant lot she helped to preserve. People from across the nation also added donation funds for over 160 personalized bricks embedded at the site grounds, fortifying both the abolitionists Mr. Huntoon and Mr. Van Rensalier’s legacy of transcending race. The once-vacant lot, now a prestigious historical monument site, was completed in 2014.
Some of Ms. Van Rensalier’s other achievements include serving as the director and curator of the “Black Art Exhibition” at the City of Los Angeles Festival, which had 220,000 attendees, and the founder of the “Watts Seniors History Exhibition” at the Los Angeles City Hall Rotunda. She was also the founder of the National All-American Rose Selection’s (AARS) Watts Senior Center Rose Garden, the official smallest in the nation. In recognition of her perseverance and dedication, she was honored with accolades such as the New Jersey State Historic Preservation Award, the New Jersey State Senate Award, the California State Legislature Commendation Award from the California State Legislature and U.S. Congressman Bill Pascrell Jr.’s Special Congressional Recognition Award, among many others.
Ms. Van Rensalier, now married 10 years to Dr. John E. Warren, throughout her adult life has often said “The soul has no color; it’s the soul’s character God will judge us by.”