One of the older Monks, Conley F. Jr., smooched with his granddaughter Kiley, one of the newest, as the fabled singing Monk Family —whose rise mirrored the rise and rich cultural contributions of post-World War II black New Haven—began to gather as they have for the past 48 years for their annual reunion, parade, and concert this weekend in the Hill.
That parade will take place on Sunday at 3 p.m. beginning at Cedar and Amistad streets, now officially called Monks Crossroads.
At that corner, a family that would eventually include eight children moved from North Carolina in 1955. And a New Haven family dynasty was born, one that continues enriching the city’s schools, churches, and arts scene.
Following the parade, the Monks always proceed to Thomas Chapel Church on White Street, which the family helped establish, for a gospel concert performed by four generations of the Monk Family singers. (Click here for a story about a previous reunion and the family’s history.)
The Monks helped anchor New Haven’s suddenly booming African American community in the 1950s with a love of song and a sense of caring. That translated into Olivia and Deacon Conley Monk bringing 45 foster children into their home in addition to their own eight kids.
The Monks’ forebears were slaves in Newton Grove, North Carolina. Their descendents include not only the New Haven Monks but jazz great Thelonious Monk and professional footballer Art Monk.
The historian of the family is Pamela Monk Kelley, a New Haven schoolteacher. “The majority of Monks,” she said, “are in the helping professions with strong musical inclinations.”
She expected to see about 40 people at the initial registration “chit-chat” held Thursday evening at the Dixwell-Yale Community Learning Center on Ashmun Street. At the parade and concert on Sunday she expects more than 100 people.
They will include Matthew Monk, the son of Archibald Monk, who owned Kelley’s great grandparents Sarah Williams and Hinton Monk. (She and her brother Friday Williams are in these pendants based on period pictures that Kelley unearthed.)
Their paths crossed a year ago when Kelley was doing family genealogical research. She was contacted by Matthew Monk, who was interested in jazz great Thelonious. Thelonious was Deacon Conley Monk, Kelley’s father’s first cousin. That friendship among the descendants across slavery’s divide was celebrated in a June 27, 2011 article in People Magazine, which was in turn based on this 2009 story in the New Haven Register.
A family as large as the Monks needs a “registration” event to orient people to when the various vans will be coordinated for the weekend events, said Kelley.
There was also plenty of time Thursday evening for the Monks to begin to catch up on the past year’s activities. For many Monks that involves following in their parents’ example of giving back to their communities, and specifically Greater New Haven, where some three dozen continue to live.
Conley F. Monk, Jr. and his youngest brother Garry said they plan to re-energize their efforts to inscribe new names, both of living and dead veterans, at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at Long Wharf. The two, along with another sister and brother, were on the original committee that raised $250,000 to erect the monument in the late 1980s.
Garry was also wearing a sample of the Monk clothing line, Monkgear, which he has just launched.
Another of the siblings, Marcella Monk Flake, who runs the city’s 8-grade talented and gifted program, said she is particularly proud of her son Doron, a local musician and writer. Doron is writing lyrics based Marvel Comics and is going on tour to Russia to play his original music, she said.
A recent highlight of Monk family activity in New Haven was a concert by T.S. Monk, Theolonious’s son, on May 7 at Yale’s Woolsey Hall. That effort raised money not only for the beneficiaries of Flake’s students’ community service, including New Haven Reads and the American Red Cross, but also for a cancer support group called Nubian Sisters, which is run by yet another Monk sibling, Jacqueline Monk Roberts.
Roberts said a particular focus of her group’s work is partnering with state Sen. Toni Harp to submit state legislation that will provide home- schooling and other support for kids who miss school to take care of their parents who are suffering from cancer or other terminal illnesses.
The only Monk this reporter encountered who does not sing was Conley Monk, III. (In this setting, when someone says “Conley” aloud, three heads turn.)
“I’m probably the only one in the family not into music. They try to get me to sing every year, but [this year] I’ve got the newborn. That’s my excuse,” Conley said.
The 29-year old photographer said he nevertheless always looks forward to these reunions. “As a child it was like Christmas. As my aunt has dug deeper into the history, it’s gotten more exciting.”
“We work hard but we learned from our parents to give back,” said Marcella Monk Flake.
The rousing annual gospel concert at the Thomas Chapel Church, formerly Ahavat Shalom synagogue, on White Street is free and open to the public. It begins at approximately 4 p.m. on Sunday, following the parade.