Three Village group gets grant to preserve history

Three Village group gets grant to preserve history

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Chris Matthews, Judith Burgess, Erin Tobin and Robert Lewis share a laugh after Tobin presented the grant last Thursday morning. Photo by Giselle Barkley

History is worth preserving for the Higher Ground Inter-Cultural & Heritage Associates.

Once the Bethel Christian Avenue and Laurel Hill Historic District had an extensive African American and Native American population. But with Long Island’s high cost of living, that robust population decreased as these families left the district over the years.

While many of the historic houses have disappeared due to development pressure, some descendants of the African American and Native American communities have resided in the district for more than 200 years. But Higher Ground doesn’t want the history of communities to disappear in the future.

The nonprofit organization received a $7,000 grant from the Preservation League of New York State on Thursday, Nov. 19 to help the organization’s cause. State Assemblyman Steve Englebright (D-Setauket) and Brookhaven Councilwoman Valerie Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station) were among those in attendance.

The grant will allow the organization to complete a survey of the Bethel Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District and neighboring communities. The survey is one step toward registering the historic district with the state.

“When you have a very small community with a fixed number of people, gentrification is disastrous and that’s the struggle,” said Robert Lewis, president of the Higher Ground Inter-Cultural & Heritage Associates.

Although Lewis doesn’t know the exact number of African American and Native American descendants residing in the area, he said the population might be around 7 to 8 percent. Pastor Gregory Leonard of the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church said the African and Native American history in the area dates back to pre-revolutionary war time when Native, European, and free or enslaved African Americans began establishing a rapport in the district.

Leonard added those developing relationships were an important part of the area’s heritage that the church will continue — creating a close relationship with community members and helping those in need. While some descendants have moved, Leonard said the church and the district is still home for these descendants.

Establishing the district as a historical landmark is a goal for Lewis — his effort to preserve the district began more than two decades ago. According to Erin Tobin, director of preservation for the Preservation League, the organization applied for the grant and is one of 14 to receive funding. Professor Chris Matthews of Montclair State University said the team conducting the survey would have more time and resources to execute the survey.

“Hopefully this will strengthen our understanding of this community and how it’s developed, grown [and] changed over the years and help to bring awareness to the large communities,” Judith Burgess said. Burgess is a freelance consultant who conducts historical research on Long Island communities.

Displacement in the area due to development pressure landed the Bethel Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District on Preservation League’s Seven to Save list of endangered places in 2014, according to a press release about Higher Ground’s grant. But the grant and the survey will help find a permanent way to preserve the district for present and future generations.

“This community has such a unique history and culture. If the history is not documented properly then…it gets distorted and we don’t want that to happen here,” Cartright said during the event. “We want to make sure that everything is historically accurate and the present committee has done a great job getting us to this point.”