British novelist George Eliot said “It’s never too late to be what you might have been.” In the case of Dr. Frances Pratt, the Nyack NAACP president who retired in December 2020, she’s right on time to be considered a living legend.
This energetic octogenarian, who took on leadership of the NAACP Nyack Branch in 1981, has received numerous awards for her service as a tireless civil rights and social justice activist. One girlhood experience in her native South Carolina made an indelible mark on her life and pointed her towards what became her destiny. She tells a story of going with her mother to get ice cream cones. The server told her mother they would have to go around to the back of the parlor to get their ice cream. Barred from entering the establishment, they were also asked to eat outside. The image of her mother’s trembling hands clinging to the cone was seared in her memory.
While Frances Pratt (née Powell) was attending Friendship College in Rock Hill, SC during the mid-1950s, she received the life-changing news from her mother that she had to leave school and work to help support the family. The job she found was in New York and would pay $40 per month. However, before she was able to take the nearly 800-mile journey North, she picked peaches to earn the money for her $17.50 bus ticket. Those dreams of completing her college education seemed to have vanished, but she remained undeterred. And God had plans for her.
Two years after she had been in New York, she met her husband, Marshall Pratt, while working at a Harlem nursery school. After their marriage, Mrs. Pratt moved into the home her husband owned in South Nyack. It is Mr. Pratt who gets the credit for the growth of her signature accessory—a fancy wide-brimmed hat. This headwear artistry was a fashion statement among African American women who wore them to accent their Sunday best. Mrs. Pratt explains, “Hats were a symbol of dignity.”
In addition to providentially meeting Marshall Pratt and making the quaint Rockland County village her home, there was something else about Nyack that grabbed her attention.
She became aware of the school then known as Nyack Missionary College. The sight of the sign at one entrance of the campus stirred her heart and her memories of wanting to become a missionary. “I wanted to go to Addis Ababa in Africa,” she recalls. Instead, responsibility to her family meant having to serve others more locally. Eventually, she did earn a degree in nursing at Rockland Community College and went on to become the first African American head nurse at the Nyack Hospital emergency room and the hospital’s Office of Employee Health.
Nyack College community relations initiatives drew Mrs. Pratt to the campus and she became a regular guest at events hosted by the College. For her extraordinary service to the community she was presented with the first Nyack College Social Justice Day Award in 2006, recognizing her decades of advocacy for the voiceless and underserved in Rockland County. Another milestone moment came in 2015 when Nyack presented her with an honorary Doctor of Letters and inducted her into the President’s Hall of Distinction. “For me,” Dr. Pratt beams, “That day was a dream come true.”