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If These Walls Could Talk

Etched in her own steppingstone, Carol Hazel’s legacy lays the foundation to build community and sisterhood

Legacy Issue No 1

“You have no idea what your legacy would be because your legacy is every life you touch.” -Maya Angelou

We pulled up to a crowded block with no parking on a beautiful Saturday afternoon. People stood outside of their buildings and double parked on the narrow street taking in another sunny day of interaction during a pandemic. Sounds of the city pushed through the doors of our SUV and the sun bounced off the windows of the high-rises as we hopped out to unload. Cutting through the beautiful chaos of a small block off Fordham Road in the Bronx, was a warm voice acknowledging our arrival from her 4th story window. We lugged all of our bags and equipment up 4 flights of steep stairs in the building, the same stairs my wife’s aunt, Carol Hazel, 62, climbed for 40 years. L

Since meeting whom we call Aunt Carol, 4 years ago, I noticed she is an elder of great wisdom and knowledge of our history. I’ve enjoyed her stories of growing up in the Bronx, traveling the world and diving deep into her family lineage. I would spend hours at her home, listening and absorbing the beautiful love and light she radiated. Listening to her exciting stories, I learned she was one of the first Black women stonecutters in NYC. Acknowledging this country was literally built off the labor of our people, it caught my interest when she told me she helped build the historic St. John the Divine Cathedral.

St. John the Divine Cathedral, the largest Cathedral in the world, is over 125 years old sitting in the heart of New York City. According to St. John the Divine’s official website, construction began in 1892 and continues to be constructed today; a centuries long project that Carol has left her mark on. There is profound power and significance in the fact that a Black woman from the Bronx put her love, creativity and labor in a stone that held up the same walls that echoed the legacies, speeches and sounds of great world leaders, entertainers and icons that look like her such as: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Duke Ellington, Nelson Mandela, Aretha Franklin, Alvin Ailey and many more.

Photo credit: Cathedral of Saint John the Divine (

In 1978, the cathedral recruited local youth as apprentice stonecutters for the Cathedral stone yard. At that time, Carol went to an organization called Non-Traditional Employment for Women (NEW), founded in 1978 with a mission to prepare, train and place women in careers in skilled construction, utility and maintenance trades to achieve economic independence as stated on their website. The emergence of NEW gave Carol, a single Black mother, the opportunity to break into a trade dominated by white men.

As a stonecutter it’s been pivotal, actually I still have dreams about the stone, I have a stone somewhere around here, that I keep and always kept as a momentum from the work that I did. To me, it literally means a steppingstone because it was a steppingstone that guided me into doing other things in life so as a stone cutter it was a very good job, Carol reflects.

Passionate about the field she was introduced to and the art of the work she has done, she broke down the different styles and designs stonecutters used while providing imagery to help us understand each term; from the intricate details of a brownstone to the fluted pattern of a courthouse column. Her eyes lit up while speaking as if she were seeing the stones in front of her as the names brushed over her tongue.

Before each stone is laid, and once we complete a stone, the stone actually has what's called a bolstering pattern. I had my own unique bolstering pattern. That pattern said, ‘ this is Carol Hazel, this is the stone she did.’ So for me, I’m etched in stone. I’m literally etched in stone from the work that I did and it’s historic for me. Although it’s never mentioned, I am a part of history. I am a part of New York history and the culture at that time.

Carol, like the many countless names of Black people who have built structures and institutions, that have been barred from history books but leave legacies larger than we can ever imagine. Their presence in places we have never has set the tone and opened the doors for us to get to the places and spaces we can only dream of. The racism and sexism Carol endured as a stone cutter was unnecessary but not in vain as she demanded respect every time she continued to show up another day to etch herself in what she calls her “stepping stone.”

“At the time, we went through a lot of discrimination because men didn’t want women on the construction jobs. It was like, ‘What are you doing here? You should be home with your children and cooking and washing dishes.’ [However,] I was such a determined person, all I could see was what was in front of me and that’s it,” she added proudly.

Carol, a woman of resilience, worked hours at the Cathedral stone yard and returned to her Bronx apartment to travel upstairs to the 4th floor every day to show up as a mother of four children who she worked tirelessly to provide a better life for. On that September day, we sat within the walls that heard her prayers and cries, the walls that watched her dance, laugh and love, the walls that her labor kept warm in the winter and cool in the summer, to listen to her orate her legacy for amplification of one of those countless names and stories our textbooks forgot. With intentions on writing a story on the legacy of one of the first Black women stonecutters in NYC, we learned her legacy was only partially at the Cathedral; instead, it was made whole in the walls she lived in for 40 years.

“These walls have seen so many stories. So many people come and go,” says Carol as she waves her hand around the room. I always looked at a legacy like, as a mother of four children, doing construction work and trying to build myself up, I worked as hard as I could to try to give my kids the best I could give to them. I always looked at a legacy as money. You have to leave money behind to your kids and make sure you got money. And that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.”

When asked about her legacy, she said she had not really thought of it until we inquired about the interview. In reflection, Carol realized her legacy was going to be greater than money and it has been in front of her face the whole time. Nestled in the crevices of her hardwood floors, painted into the walls of every room, vibrating from every sculpture, plant and piece of art placed around her home, was the presence of all of those who “came and went” including us who sat at the feet of our elder learning our past through her experiences and what was taught to her.

“My legacy is the things you learned here in this apartment and took with you. And the things that you’re learning and the way you’re building yourself. I believe wholeheartedly maybe there was a little whisper that I put in your ear that made you as determined as you are.”

“I just feel it. And the reason why I feel it is because you are coming back. Every time you come back, it tells me, I did something great for you because young people don’t do that. When you get older, young people just tend to keep moving forward and they don’t pay homage to their elders but time and time again [my nieces and daughters] Solise and Vita, Jessica, Lizzy, Peaches and Sonia have ALL paid homage to me...I pay credit where credit is due, and I give to those who give to me. I may not have a dollar to give to them but if I got some knowledge they can use to get their own dollars, that’s more. That’s the greatest legacy I can give to them.

Sharing stories and cultivating a safe space for people to be themselves in her home was something that was passed down to her by her grandmother, Pearl. Carol described her grandmother Pearl as a trailblazer of her time living in North Carolina in the 1940s. Her grandmother Pearl welcomed her to ask questions about her family history and family photos and have them answered with love as she does today. She reflected on a time she visited her grandmother and saw a photo of her grandfather’s first wife, grandmother and the first wife’s grandchildren. “The fact that my grandmother was in the picture with my grandfather’s first wife and her children was a value that always made me stick by women no matter what.”

She carried that silent but powerful lesson with her throughout her life, empowering and supporting women no matter what. “If the woman had a child from the same person I did like my daughter’s father, that woman I stuck close by. When she needed help, I helped her. When she needed a place to stay, I gave her a place to stay. When she needed help washing, I washed her. I loved her as if she was my sister.” She made clear it was her grandmother who taught her the value, “each one, teach one” and she devoted herself to encourage women to stick together.

“I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”

– Audre Lorde

The sisterhood she has taught and shared with others came back to her full circle in 2018 when she experienced a stroke. “I didn’t think I would come back from that. I attribute that to you, my nieces and my daughters. It’s like the girls have always played a role in my life. It made me reflect on the women that played a role in my life, getting up and doing things for the family.” Carol’s strength to fight through the aftermath of a stroke was boosted by the love given back to her from her nieces and daughters. She mentions she has many nephews and men in her life that have played a pivotal role; however, her drive comes from the women as she can see herself and legacy in them.

As a lesbian identifying woman, Carol, is happy to see her lesbian nieces embrace who they are in ways she could not growing up. “That means a lot to me because at the time I came out, I was ridiculed. People looked at me, family looked at me and they looked down on me and frowned on me.”

“When I came out, I was 25 years old. I felt some kind of way because as a lesbian and a person that grew up with a family that honed on to the Bible and Jesus and all of that kind of stuff, you carry some form of guilt.”

“It was bittersweet because the first time I stepped into a gay club was Deja Vu down in the Village (Greenwich Village). As I walked into the club and took a seat and saw all the beautiful women, dancing and hugging, I began to cry. I began to cry because I had to live a lie for other people. I don’t regret my children at all but I think if people would have left me alone, things would have been different.”

When asked if she had anything to say to the younger generation, she responded, “the only thing I can say to them is I’m proud of them and I love you. I love you, you’re teaching my generation there’s no one way to do something...I think it’s a beautiful thing to love who you want to love. Love has no limits. You should be able to love who you want to love without judgement.”

As a Queer-identifying Black woman with a child from a heterosexual relationship, the guilt she spoke of resonated with me and my experiences being closeted and “out.” There is liberation and suffocation on both sides. There is the feeling you can be who you are without being judged because you are silent and there’s the silence and masking yourself to feel safe that feels suffocating. When you are “out” it feels like freedom with a target on your back, double the target if you’re Black.

The sisterhood and community Carol creates are the very spaces needed for survival as a Black LGQBT+ woman navigating this world. Carol is special to me because she is my wife’s aunt and one of the first elders that welcomed who I am when my family did not. I felt the warmth of the walls of her home when the world was cold to me. My wife felt the comfort and validation of her love for me, a woman, on the floors we stood on in her home. As she is inspired by how free we are in our sexuality, we are because she loved us. She was open to embrace us not only because she sees herself in our story but because she was embraced, too.

“The best thing about me coming up is that my mother embraced me. Once my mother embraced me, I didn’t care about anything anyone had to say; that was it and that was all. That was the only approval I needed because so many of us don’t have the approval of family. I felt suicidal when I was younger because I wanted to come out. I couldn’t understand the emotions and no one could explain them to me. I remember the first time I stepped foot into a gay club and no one could explain to me what I was going through; I felt crazy, I even cut up my arm. I was a cutter because I couldn’t put rhyme to reason in terms of my emotions and what I was feeling for women. You look at yourself as abnormal but it can't be. There’s too many gay people.”

Carol is critical of the fine line between being embraced and exploited. She detailed the way society embraces the LGBTQ+ community during elections and campaigns for monetary gain until it no longer benefits them. “They embrace us when they need us. They want us to do things and we’re popular until [it’s] over. The gay community plays a pivotal role in a lot of the things that are going on.” At 62, she observes the way society has turned a blind eye to the elders of the LGBTQ+ and although she says she’s blessed to have support, many others are dying forgotten and alone.

“They’re dying alone and as long as they were out there being movers and shakers and giving up their money to support certain causes, they were popular, hotter than sliced bread. But when you get older, people turn a blind eye to you so you have to stay as young as possible, look as young as possible, gotta do this and do that but it’s not always like that. You need people to love you and meet you where you are. We have a lot of elders that need young people to knock on the door and ask if they’re okay.”

Carol Hazel feels life is about our service to one another; building each other up, piece by piece, stepping stone by stepping stone, which we all design ourselves with every experience we encounter and endure. As a 7th grade dropout, she has fought to elevate herself in every facet of her life. Going back to school at 38 years old, obtaining her associate’s degree, fighting through the personal losses and trials, obtaining her bachelor’s degree in behavioral science at the top of her class, and etching her mark in a historic world monument, Carol’s legacy is one of resilience tougher than stone and love without conditions. She is love, sisterhood and community. She is history as HERstory has impacted everyone she has encountered. She is etched in stone and every heart she has touched. We were humbled to reflect with her and amplify her story beyond the walls. They can’t tell her story but we can. Reflecting on the steps we climbed to reach the apartment that held her legacy, we will continue to carry it as we climb the ladder of success and create our own.

When asked about her life and legacy in this world she responded, “I’m 62 years old and I still have hope. I still have desire. I still have things that I want to do. I’m still happy. That’s what matters in this world. My legacy is information. My legacy is understanding. My legacy is love and knowing that when I close my eyes that you will be talking about me, that you will be saying this is Aunt Carol. That you WILL laugh and you will say these are the jewels that she passed on to me. If anything else, all I could give to you from my legacy is your legacy.”

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