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African-American

Politicians, coaches, veterans, police officers, firefighters and volunteers reflect on Black History Month

Former Huntington Town Councilwoman Tracey Edwards. File photo by Rohma Abbas

By Kevin Redding

African-American figures, leaders and movers and shakers across Suffolk County reflected on their lives and accomplishments to commemorate Black History Month.

David Lewis, Smithtown volunteer firefighter/retired NYPD officer

When David Lewis and his family moved to Smithtown from Hollis, Queens, in 1977, he said they were one of just two black families in the community. He was 7 years old and said he immediately saw the effect their skin color had on residents in his new hometown. Their property was often damaged, there was name calling, and he said his parents received lots of phone calls from neighbors warning not to send their children to the school district.

“The N-word was a big part of our childhoods, we were told we didn’t belong,” Lewis said. “But I
remember my dad saying, ‘You belong here. I don’t care what they say, I’m sending you to school.’”

David Lewis

Lewis said his father’s ability to hold his ground lit a fire in him.

“In the back of my mind, I remember thinking that I’ve got to prove to everyone in Smithtown that I belong here,” he said.

Lewis, who grew up in and around the kitchen as the son of a professional chef, started a chocolate and candy business out of his house as a ninth-grader, encouraged greatly by his high school cooking teacher as well as business instructor, who loaned him $100 to buy a mini-refrigerator. He hired local kids to help out and his budding entrepreneurship made headlines in the newspapers. Around that time, Lewis also began a private mentoring program for struggling kids in the neighborhood, many of whom came from broken or single-parent homes.

After graduating from Smithtown High School West, he attended the Culinary Institute of America, became a certified chef and spent a few years working in the industry until he decided to switch gears to pursue a full-time career helping people. Already a volunteer with the Smithtown Fire Department, Lewis joined the New York Police Department, determined to bridge the gap between youth and police. During his 25-year career on the force, Lewis regularly watched over neighborhood youth, encouraging students to do their homework and steering them away from trouble while offering mentorship to youths in Smithtown, Queens and Brooklyn. He received the Commendation Medal from the NYPD in 2000 and eventually retired out of the 104th Precinct.

Outside of the police uniform, he has served as an emergency medical technician; a fire prevention instructor in local communities; a fifth-degree black belt instructor, lending his expertise at Suffolk County PAL Martial Arts; an assistant Scout Master for Cub Scout Pack 340; a volunteer at the Smithtown Guide Dog Foundation; was employed part time as a security official in the Smithtown school district; co-founder of KiDS Need MoRe foundation; and remains an active captain in the fire department. 

Through it all, Lewis said the accomplishment that’s meant the most to him was when he received an award for Greatest Person of Smithtown in 2012.

“That was just tremendous to me,” Lewis said. “I thought back to being 7 years old and being told I didn’t belong in Smithtown. That’s one of the things that’s always motivated me here, and [that honor] proved that I do belong.”

Eric Brown, head baseball coach at Suffolk County Community College

For 30 years, Eric Brown has been a coach, mentor and friend to more than 1,000 student-athletes at Suffolk County Community College, where the Coram native also served as campus coordinator and warehouse and mailroom supervisor. He retired as head coach of the men’s varsity baseball team in 2017. During his leadership tenure, he guided his teams to seven National Junior College Athletic Association World Series; won 685 games; was named Region XV Coach of the Year in 1998, 1999, 2000 and 2006; led Suffolk to be named a nine-time winner of the NJCAA Region Umpires Association’s annual sportsmanship award; and was elected into the JUCO Hall of Fame in 2014.

A petition was even created recently calling for the baseball field at Suffolk County Community College Selden campus to be renamed the Coach Eric Brown Field.

Eric Brown

But despite being grateful for all the recognition, Brown, a graduate of the college himself, couldn’t help but laugh about how his career played out. Throughout his years as an athlete at Longwood High School, Brown’s true passions were basketball and soccer — he even went to LIU Post on a soccer scholarship — and baseball was very much an afterthought.

“Baseball was just something I did because everybody else in the neighborhood played it,” Brown said.

He said when he returned to Suffolk, hired as a material control clerk, he was approached by his mentor at the time, who was in charge of the basketball and baseball programs, who brought Brown in as an assistant basketball coach. Through his mentor, Brown learned everything he knew about baseball and soon began coaching the sport himself.

Throughout his career, Brown has been acknowledged for his role as a “player’s coach,” and someone who makes sure the athletes on his team are well-taken care of and successful on and off the field.

“I really care about these kids,” Brown said. “The long and short of it is that they’re more important than the program itself. They are the program.”

Tracey Edwards and Doc Spencer, Huntington elected officials

Former Town of Huntington board member Tracey Edwards, who has served for many years as the Long Island regional director of the NAACP, said while she considers her hometown a great place to live, she
admitted Huntington, and all of Suffolk County, still has a lot to work on when it comes to race relations.

“I would say, as a young person, I had a wonderful experience growing up in the Town of Huntington,” Edwards said. “But as I got older, as I reached adulthood, that’s when bad experiences started to happen. We’re being naive to think there is not still gender, racial and cultural bias where we live, and where everybody else lives.”

Edwards has built a career on trying to make a difference on that front. Since elected by the town in 2014, she has strived to be an exemplary community advocate and public servant — and was especially focused on making Huntington a more inclusive place, regardless of age, race, gender or economics. She has worked to
expand affordable housing legislation for millennials and first-time homebuyers; spearheaded the creation of the Huntington Opportunity Resource Center, a program that offers assistance with résumé preparation and job searches, exploration of career options and access to job training for unemployed and underemployed
residents; and led a strong campaign for Huntington supervisor in 2017, a race she lost to now Supervisor Chad Lupinacci (R).

William “Doc” Spencer

“Being a black woman, it was very difficult for her to run for that position as it was portrayed in the results,” her mother, Dolores Thompson, a lifelong civil activist, said in December. “And yet, her experience and background is far better than most, black or white.”

Edwards pointed to her parents and the way they raised her as her main source of strength and inspiration.

“I was raised to believe and to understand that everyone is equal and to treat everyone with respect,” she said.

Just the third African-American elected legislator in Suffolk County history, William “Doc” Spencer (D Centerport), who is also a beloved physician and ordained minister in his community, agreed with Edwards that the region has plenty to overcome, but also sees every day how far it’s come.

“Long Island has certainly had its struggles with division and difficult race relations but I’m optimistic, just evidenced by the fact that I’ve been chosen to lead by an overwhelmingly white population,” Spencer said. “I don’t believe people look at me as a black man, but, hopefully, as a good doctor, representative and humanitarian. As the only black official in the Town of Huntington, I’m a voice of unity, a voice of harmony and I believe it’s incredibly important that we have acceptance.”

Spencer himself grew up in West Virginia in an area still heavily segregated.

“Most blacks lived on one side of town with substantial divides throughout the area,” he said, reflecting on his upbringing. “I would be stopped by police if I was driving in a particular section. I’ve been chased and called names. I experienced all of that in the 1970s and ’80s. We have made great strides.”

Michael Jordan, president of the Visually Impaired Persons of Suffolk

In 2014, Southampton native Michael Jordan’s life became permanently dark. The U.S. Marine Corps veteran and former Southampton Golf Club employee began losing his eyesight a few years prior in 2011,
so when he went completely blind, he was ready for it, determined to stay active, independent and productive. That same year, he joined the Visually Impaired Persons of Suffolk, a social group designed to empower and self-advocate the blind community with ties to Deer Park and Port Jefferson. As a member, he noticed that the extent of the “social” aspect of the group was sitting together for a cup of coffee and a donut.

Michael Jordan

“I said, ‘We’ve got to start being active here,’ if you want to sit around and drink coffee, I can do that home,” Jordan said.

He took the reins as an orchestrator of outings and activities, from fishing and park trips to dinner functions, bowling nights and fundraisers. Members donated funds to five underprivileged families last year.

Jordan, who pays for a majority of the event’s raffles himself, quickly rose to a vice president position and, in 2017, he was elected president of the group.

“All I want to offer is giving, love and joy,” Jordan said. “I like to help people for a day to help them forget about their problems, and that way, they can see someone in an unfortunate situation spreading joy in life.”

Jordan said it’s important to him that his colleagues in the group recognize their importance in life, despite their disabilities.

“I want to show people of Suffolk County that we are people,” he said. “When you look at us, you should just see a resident. You don’t see that I’m blind, you don’t see that I’m in a wheelchair, you don’t see that I’ve got hearing aids, don’t see that I’m in a walker, or what have you.”

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In a celebration on the July Fourth weekend, a Black Lives Matter banner is dedicated. Pictured are, Racial Concerns committee co-chairs Kay Aparo and Barbara Coley, Janet Hanson, John Lutterbee and Sara Lutterbee. Photo by Barbara Coley

It certainly has not been a quiet two weeks in America. A shooting in Dallas, Texas, resulted in the death of five police officers, and the killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, La., and Philando Castile in St. Paul, Minn., have sparked a national conversation, with many people on social media finding themselves in between #BlackLivesMatter, #BlueLivesMatter and #AllLivesMatter.

Supporting #BlackLivesMatter doesn’t make someone anti-police, and responding to #BlackLivesMatter with #AllLivesMatter does nothing to address the reasons the movement started in the first place. The same goes for killing police officers.

Yet every time a new video surfaces showing a young black male being detained, and in some cases killed by police, or another story of an attack on a uniformed officer comes to light, finger-pointing and politically motivated, unproductive talk ensues for as long as the given news cycle will allow.

There is one important question that needs to be answered and given substantial thought by every person in the United States, so that we can decide what kind of a country we want to be. It is also important to note that asking questions of your government or law enforcement does not mean you are against them.

But why do we see interactions between African-Americans and police officers frequently start at a place of such heightened tension? How is it that we continue to see citizens of our country killed by the people entrusted with protecting them, and how do we fix it?

Just like any relationship, this one is a two-way street that needs reflection and cooperation from both sides to provide any hope of one day fixing it. We believe it would serve America well to look past the conversation of #AllLivesMatter. This phrase would not have started without #BlackLivesMatter, which came to the forefront because of violent incidents in this country. We need to look at why these events took place, if we want to try to fix what many citizens now think is a national problem.

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Bethel AME Church in Setauket. File photo by Alyssa Melillo

“It changed, so how can we?”

That is the question Rev. Greg Leonard of Setauket’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church has asked the Three Village community, and that is the question residents will have the chance to answer at a special service planned for next week. Leonard and more than 100 members of his church hosted a moving ceremony in the aftermath of June’s horrific shooting at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in South Carolina, and he said Black History Month was an appropriate time to reflect.

“At the previous meeting, we started to build bridges to one another and we want to continue doing this,” he said. “And with this being Black History Month, Bethel wanted to take leadership and hold an event at which all people — because black history isn’t just for black people — can come together.”

Bethel AME scheduled the gathering for Saturday, Feb. 27 at 3 p.m. at the church, located at 33 Christian Ave. in Setauket.

Rev. Gregory Leonard leads a service at Bethel AME Church in Setauket. File photo by Alyssa Melillo
Rev. Gregory Leonard leads a service at Bethel AME Church in Setauket. File photo by Alyssa Melillo

The event flyer that Bethel AME Church has been distributed promoted the hash tag #PrayForCharleston, which went viral following the June 17, 2015 shooting that killed nine African Americans at a church in South Carolina. The flyer also challenged the Three Village community with moving the dialogue forward to address racial issues and injustice across America.

“The primary issue we’re talking about is change,” Leonard said. “It’s about how this change happens on a community-wide basis, and also on an individual basis.”

North Shore native Leroy White lost his second cousin DePayne Middleton Doctor in the tragedy and said the outpouring of support from Three Village families was overwhelming in the days following the shooting.

“What we saw was a community coming together so well that it was almost unbelievable,” White said in an interview in June. “The response was so overwhelming that we were taken aback by the number of people who showed up. It showed me that this is one of the better communities in America.”

Since the shooting, Leonard said he has already seen strides made across the country to enhance the discussion about race in America. He cited the removal of the Confederate flag outside a state building in South Carolina back in July as a pivotal moment showing what could be achieved through common understanding.

“That was a revolutionary moment,” he said. “I think no matter how people might have felt, the remembrance of the tragedy and also the great grace the people had in terms of forgiveness after the fact can begin to build bridges, even to people who feel they might oppose your stance on any particular matter.”

Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured in uniform during his Army days. Photo from Langhorn

By Rich Acritelli

Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured in uniform during his Army days. Photo from Langhorn
Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured in uniform during his Army days. Photo from Langhorn

To say that Long Island native Butch Langhorn has lived a full life would be an understatement. As a veteran and a community man, he has both seen a lot and given a lot back to the county that raised him.

From his youth, Langhorn was a gifted three-sport athlete, excelling in football, basketball and track for Riverhead High School. His impact was so great that he held the record for the triple jump for 10 years after his graduation.

In 1964, the young man enlisted in the U.S. Army and was stationed at Fort Totten in Bayside, Queens. While he worked in the personnel office, his sporting abilities allowed him the chance to play basketball within the Special Services of the Army. Langhorn competed as a 5-foot-8-inch guard against many who had experience playing semiprofessional and Division I hoops. The servicemen competing had the rare opportunity of representing their military bases in games that ranged from Maine to New Jersey.

The next year, Langhorn was deployed to South Vietnam, where he saw the earliest action of the war in Southeast Asia. In an interview, he noted the beauty of the nation and the influence of French culture on the former capital of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City. For a couple of months, Langhorn was a gunner on a helicopter that flew into the major combat areas of South Vietnam, engaged against the North Vietnamese Army and the Viet Cong. He was tasked with helping medical evacuation crews with the vital mission of returning wounded and dead U.S. soldiers to American bases.

As a young African-American soldier during the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, Langhorn observed the treatment of blacks in South Vietnam. According to Langhorn, he had a relationship with a local woman of French descent who took him home to meet her family. When he met her mother, the woman told him to shower and take a nap before dinner. Again he came into her presence and she wrongly believed that he was a white soldier who had too much dirt on his skin. It was one example of a different racial experience for Langhorn — he quickly learned that most of the black soldiers who were fighting against the communists in South Vietnam were not understood by the very people they were trying to protect.

Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured with his family. Photo from Langhorn
Butch Langhorn has served his nation for decades. Above, he is pictured with his family. Photo from Langhorn

After more than a year overseas, Langhorn went home to finish his Army tour. By 1971, he quickly re-enlisted as an active guardsmen reservist, serving full-time for the New York 106th Air National Guard base in Westhampton Beach. For many years, he was the head of the recruiting station that brought in many fine airmen, noncommissioned officers and officers. Langhorn had a prideful hand in signing military members from different backgrounds to enhance the Air Force wing. Many of the men and women he recruited have been deployed to the Middle East to fight the war on terror, conducted massive air-sea rescues in the Atlantic Ocean, endured the rigors of the elite pararescue jumper training and deployments, and tackled the older mission of aiding space shuttle landings. Langhorn later oversaw the personnel department that was responsible for sorting out the paperwork needs of the military unit.

Langhorn may be retired after serving four decades in uniform, but he is still a dominant member of his community and has spent a lot of that time trying to help young people. He served on the Riverhead Central School District Board of Education for five years, working to keep athletics and other programs in the schools, and as a current assistant for the Suffolk County Sheriff’s Office, he organizes educational programs that bring high school criminal justice students to visit the county jail. In his role, he also helps guide nonprofit groups that are focused on rehabilitating inmates. In addition, former Congressmen Michael Forbes and Tim Bishop both recognized Langhorn’s professionalism, and he served as an instrumental member of their staffs to handle veterans affairs.

Since his youth, this North Shore citizen has given back to his society and to his nation. TBR Newspapers salutes him during Black History Month.

Sigma Psi Omega members make healthy snacks for children. Photo from Pleshette Shelton

Giving back and making a difference in the community is what the women in the Sigma Psi Omega chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha have strived for since June 23, 1990. But the quest to serve the community did not start with the chapter.

According to Alpha Kappa Alpha Inc., Howard University student Ethel Hedgeman founded AKA, the first African American sorority, on Jan. 15, 1908, in Washington D.C. Her goal was to unite like-minded women to help give back to those in need. One hundred years later, her efforts still drive members like Pleshette Shelton, the current president of the Sigma Psi Omega chapter in Bay Shore in Suffolk County.

“We went from doing 20 programs a year, to last year we did, I want to say 45,” Shelton said in a recent interview.

Shelton’s chapter was charted by 26 African American women in Hauppauge. Now, the local chapter doubled to include around 50 members. Although the women in the chapter are Suffolk County residents, this graduate chapter welcomes all AKA members regardless of which university they attended as undergraduate members.

Second Vice President Trina Gerrard, joined the sorority as a sophomore at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Md, before moving to Long Island and joining the local chapter. For Gerrard, a full-time social worker, what attracted her to the undergraduate sorority was not just the ladylike mannerisms of the members but also the services they did for their community.

Last month, the Sigma Psi Omega chapter celebrated its 25th year the day after providing its services on June 13 at the Tri Community Youth Agency in Huntington. They conducted a seminar for youths and their families regarding financial literacy and historically black colleges and nutrition, according to TRI CYA Director Debbie Rimler.

“Our center serves youth 5 to 21 years old,” Rimler said. “Most of them are at or below the poverty line. It’s great for these families to have this type of information available for them.”

For Sigma Psi Omega, the quest is to find those in need and help educate, feed and provide activities for them to learn, grow and enjoy. According to Shelton, some of these youths do not receive a hot meal during the weekends or holidays since some pantries do not serve on those days.

“I started to cry,” Shelton said when she learned these kids only have microwavable food when the pantries are not in service. “I waste so much food myself that here are families living in shelters and they’re hungry.”

It was one of many eye-opening experiences for Shelton.

“The question isn’t, ‘Why would you serve?’ It’s, ‘Why wouldn’t you want to?’” Shelton said.

Before providing its service, the chapter meets with Dorothy Buckhanan Wilson, the sorority’s international president. Wilson organizes the programs and identifies target communities before the chapter uncovers the communities that are most in need.

Their programs are not limited to financial literacy or historically black colleges. The chapter also organizes blood drives, arranges craft days where children can make pieces of artwork like paper mache flowers for Mother’s Day, provides information on going green, helps single mothers living in shelters and finds employment or career opportunities for the individuals they help among other services.

For the communities to which the chapter frequently provides its services, the women try to “piggy-back” off of what they taught the children on their previous visit while maintaining a light-hearted fun learning environment.

“You want to make sure you’re keeping it light because these kids are already going through a lot,” Shelton said.

Funding for these programs does not come from donations but out of pocket. Sigma Psi Omega chapter members are required to contribute some of their own money to gather appropriate supplies for each program they organize.

According to Gerrard, there is a high demand for the chapter’s services that “people are just waiting because they don’t have direction. They don’t know where to reach out to,” Gerrard said. As a result, some individuals respond within a week of the chapter reaching out to them.

On many occasions, the communities this chapter serves are not aware of information available on the importance of going green or managing finances. The sorority does not just give back by providing the programs, but they are also teachers to those who do not have access to various resources.

But like any other group, working with members of the chapter is not always easy.

“It’s a sisterhood. It’s a lifetime commitment so you get a lot of fulfillment,” Garrard said. “Sometimes you get frustrated … but you find the strength from each sister.”

The chapter has retreats where members can resolve tension and discuss and strategize plans for a program or community in need.

“Each community is different,” Shelton said. “Going in and finding what that need is and being able to help them succeed … even if it’s one life.”

Going forward, both Shelton and Gerrard want to continue their efforts and continue their founder’s purpose by helping communities that require their services.

“I think that it was phenomenal to have an organization that is still around for that long and it’s still growing strong,” Gerrard said. “It makes us know that whatever we are doing, we’re doing it for a cause and it’s … making our founders proud to continue their legacy.”

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Overview of the slave trade out of Africa. Photo from Yale University Press

By Beverly C. Tyler

A book titled “The Logbooks: Connecticut’s Slave Ships and Human Memory,” by Anne Farrow, uses a log of three voyages over a period of 20 months in the first half of the 18th century, recorded by a young Connecticut man who went on to captain slave ships and privateers, to tell a much wider and disturbing story.

Farrow’s book connects Dudley Saltonstall, the Connecticut man who kept the log books, to the unknown slaves who were transported from Africa, then to the men in Africa who first enslaved them, to the ships that transported them across the Atlantic, and finally to the men who purchased them to work to death in the Caribbean sugar plantations and in the rice plantations of America’s southern colonies.

Farrow, a former Connecticut newspaper reporter, said the story of African-American people must be told over and over, from the beginning. She said she believes that it has not yet been absorbed into the family of stories told and retold about America and that the story of injustice and suffering still has not made its way into the national narrative.

Unknown to most Americans is the fact that colonial Connecticut had been a major hotbed of British West Indies plantations where slaves were growing and processing sugar in a monoculture that yielded huge profits to England. In addition, Rhode Island men were at the helm of 90 percent of the ships that brought the captives to the American south, an estimated 900 ships.

Farrow noted that over the course of two centuries an estimated three million Africans were carried to islands in the Caribbean to grow sugar.

Farrow’s book, compact enough to be read in just a few days, is an engaging, local and personal history. The story of the Connecticut and Long Island Sound men who took part in the slave trade is disturbingly real.

It brings into focus the way many of our own prosperous and influential Long Island families made their fortunes. It doesn’t change who they were or who we are, but it provides us with a clearer understanding of the pain and suffering caused by their actions.

Farrow emphasizes that we should acknowledge what was done and keep it as a reminder of man’s inhumanity to man and how we are continually striving, often unsuccessfully, to make our lives better for all.

The book is also the story of her mother’s declining memory due to dementia, the memories her mother would never recover, and the log books, the story she did recover.

Farrow wrote, “I couldn’t avoid the contrast between what was happening to my mother’s memory and the historical memory I was studying, which seemed so fractured and incomplete.”

It is again and again evident from Farrow’s research and gripping prose that slavery was not just a southern problem. Slavery served white people in the north and in the south. Farrow notes that the killing uncertainties of life as a captive were linked to the state of bondage not geography.

In spite of the federal law prohibiting the importation of slaves from Africa, slaves were still being transported from Africa across the Atlantic until at least the beginning of the American Civil War. The story of one of our own East Setauket slave ships, Wanderer, was detailed in my column two weeks ago. I must apologize that the name of the primary author of that article, William B. Minuse, was omitted from the opening credits.

Beverly Tyler is the Three Village Historical Society historian.

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