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Black History Month

Chairperson Jennifer Martin presents a proclamation to Hon. Derrick J. Robinson. Photo from the Town of Brookhaven

The Town of Brookhaven’s Black History Commission hosted its 29th Annual Black History Month celebration on Feb. 7 at Town Hall. 

This year’s program included presentation of academic achievement awards to more than 77 top African-American high school seniors from 14 school districts who achieved a cumulative grade point average of 90 or higher.   

The commission also recognized its honoree and keynote speaker, Derrick J. Robinson, acting Suffolk County Court judge presiding over Drug Court and Mental Health Court. He is also president-elect of the Suffolk County Bar Association. 

The theme of this year’s Black History Month celebration was African Americans and the Vote. The evening included musical performances by the Brookhaven NAACP, the Faith Baptist Church Choir and Taylor Niles, as well as a dance performance by Eugenia Woods. 

Brookhaven Town Councilwoman Valerie M. Cartright (D-Port Jefferson Station), the first woman of African American descent to serve on the Town Board, also serves as the Town Board Liaison to the Town’s Black History Commission. 

The Black History Commission’s next event is the 6th Annual Juneteenth Celebration June 20.

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.”

Residents of Chicken Hill, Marjorie and Hub Edwards. Photo courtesy of TVHS

During the month of February, Three Village Historical Society, 93 North Country Road, Setauket, joins the nation in celebrating Black History Month, a commemoration of African American history and achievement, with its latest exhibit, Chicken Hill: A Community Lost to Time.

Through photographs, artifacts and recorded interviews, the memory of this neighborhood, whose residents included African Americans, Native Americans, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians, Rumanians, Irish and Italians, has been preserved.

The exhibit is a 2015 recipient of a Leadership in History Award from the American Association for State and Local History and may be seen on Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. Admission is $10 adults, $5 children and students. For more information, call 631-751-3730.

Barbara and Herman Lee with Barbara’s mother Ethel Lewis. Photos from Geral Lee.

By Geral Lee

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is unquestionably synonymous with Black History Month. He courageously confronted social inequities and racism in the midst of an adverse anti-black administration largely due to J. Edgar Hoover who had been appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation, renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Few could compete with Hoover’s power and he went virtually unchallenged for half a century.

Hoover opposed making Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday. His smear campaign attempted to label Dr. King as a communist and a homosexual. He ordered illegal wire taps of Dr. King’s hotel room to try to justify his stance and used the power of government to satisfy his own bigotry toward blacks. Dr. King persevered.

Herman Lee in his Navy days (circa 1941). Photo from Geral Lee

There were many other individuals way before Dr. King who challenged the system in the name of justice. I am certain their actions helped define his political strategies. These people — and God bless them — were not just slaves, demonstrators or rioters.    

I must include Glenn Beck in this article. I am not suggesting he is an authority on black history. As the colorful conservative that he is, his question as to why the many contributions of black people continue to remain hidden from the mainstream is a legitimate one — and yet another reason to celebrate Black History Month.

In one of his tapings, “Glenn Beck Founders’ Fridays Black American Founders” (Fox News), that I listened to on YouTube, he mentioned Peter Salem, a hero in the Battle of Bunker Hill who saved scores of American lives. During the Battle of Lexington, white and black parishioners who worshiped together were commanded to fight. James Armistead served as a double spy. And is that Prince Whipple, the black crewman, in the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware? I am not so sure because many blacks fought in the American Revolution. Freedom was not an automatic option.       

There have been unsung black heroes making all kinds of contributions throughout American history. The members of the 333rd Battalion, for example. The Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company of Baltimore, Maryland, which was one of the largest and most successful black businesses in America in the 1870s.   

“Dirty Little Secrets About Black History: Its Heroes & Other Troublemakers” by Claud Anderson reveals that in the late 1800s, blacks invented and filed for patents on a number of transportation-related devices. Andrew J. Beared invented an automatic train car coupler. Albert B. Blackburn invented a railway signal. R.A. Butler invented a train alarm. Although many inventors were fresh out of slavery and the literacy rate among slaves was 50 percent, black inventors filed hundreds of patents for transportation devices. The Safe Bus Company was a black-owned city-chartered bus line in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, from 1930 to the 1960s.   

Black history celebrates regular people engaged in positive activities. Here are some examples:

My father Herman Lee resided at 34 Christian Ave., Setauket, between 1956 and 2011. He was employed at the Setauket yard of the Brookhaven Highway Department in the 1960s and promoted to foreman in the 1970s. He did carpentry/home improvement projects for Three Village homeowners; among his regular clients, the Windrows and the Strongs. In World War II he served on the USS Hornet CV-12. After he became a chaplain for the VFW along with his wife Barbara Lewis Lee who was a practical nurse and historian in her own right. They sent all of their four children to college: Barbara, Herman, Geral and Peter.

Barbara, Herman, Geral and Peter Lee. Photo from Geral Lee

Uncle Sherwood Lewis was an employee of Long Island Lighting Company (LILCO). He came up with an idea that saved the company more than $100,000 a year according to a Newsday article dated April 23, 1977. He, too, was raised on Christian Avenue and now resides in Massachusetts.

Grandmother Ethel Lewis, valedictorian of her high school graduating class, resided at 32 Christian Ave. with her husband Howard Lewis. They subdivided their property so my parents could build their house on Christian Avenue.

Aunt Hazel Lewis, salutatorian of her graduating class, was employed at Peck & Peck in New York City back in the day — a high-end boutique clothing store for women.   

Aunt Pearl Lewis Hart received an associates degree in accounting in her 40s, was promoted to supervisor of the payroll department at SUNY Stony Brook and, until her death last month at age 92, was living in her own home on Christian Avenue.

Uncle Harry Hart, Pearl’s husband, owned his own excavation and contracting business from the 1940s to the 1980s. He acquired land on Christian Avenue and rented to many local folks.   

Remembering a few of Dr. King’s principles of nonviolence can help provide the foundation for a healthy society: “Nonviolence is a way of life for brave people; attack problems, not people; know and do what is right even when it is difficult.”     

I know there are many individuals who believe in these principles.

Black History Month means different things to different people, but if it can fill in the gaps, identify injustice, encourage positive dialogue and provide a platform for people to work toward understanding one another, it is a valuable ongoing process.

Geral Lee returned to her Setauket home in 2013 to be with her father after living in Rhode Island for 12 years. She taught physical education and health in Hempstead early in her career and received a personal invitation from her primary school coach Jack Foley, who later became athletic director for Three Village schools, to teach at Ward Melville. She served in the Peace Corps in Senegal, loves dogs and cats and currently relieves stress as a reflexologist.

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Joselo Lucero speaks during a Bethel AME Church program about building bridges during Black History Month. Photo from Tom Lyon

By Tom Lyon

Members of Setauket’s Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church hosted a community forum last Saturday to conclude Black History Month with a time of reflection about violence and its aftermath.

The event was a follow-up to last June’s memorial gathering held just three days after the tragic shooting at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, S.C. Nine people, some related to Bethel church members, died in the church’s sanctuary, yet their families spoke out for healing and forgiveness. Actions resulting from the tragedy included the removal of the Confederate battle flag from many public places across the South.

The 80 audience members reflected personally about the main themes of how we can change in response to tragic events and of building bridges throughout our communities to prevent future violence.

A featured speaker was Joselo Lucero, whose brother Marcelo, an Ecuadorean immigrant, was murdered in a Patchogue hate crime six years ago. Joselo Lucero has since become a champion against hate crimes and for tolerance, and has presented programs to thousands of Long Island students. At Bethel AME, he spoke of his family’s loss and how the village of Patchogue now holds an annual vigil in remembrance of the tragedy.

Jennifer Bradshaw, an assistant superintendent in the Smithtown school district, said, “It was so empowering to be surrounded by people dedicated to not just identify societal problems, but to work actively to solve them … to sit down and talk honestly, yet hopefully about building bridges across differences.”

Susan Feretti, of Setauket, said, “The conversation began here today is the beginning of neighbors and groups building bridges … the root of healing both locally and globally. I look forward to what lies ahead.”

Rev. Greg Leonard added that, “Based upon the very positive responses from the audience, and a questionnaire distributed, a task force is being formed to explore ways to hold more ‘building bridges’ events in the future. All community members are invited to join.”

Tom Lyon is a program director at Lift Up Long Island, a group that teaches leadership skills to youth.

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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.”

Educational production back by popular demand

A scene from a previous year’s performance of ‘Running Scared, Running Free’ Photo from WMHO

In honor of Black History Month, Long Islanders can truly celebrate the meaning of freedom with Ward Melville Heritage Organization’s acclaimed “Running Scared, Running Free: Escape to the Promised Land.” These riveting live theatrical performances, held over 150 years after the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, will be a poignant experience about the power of the human spirit and Long Island’s connection to the Underground Railroad.

Sponsored by Empire National Bank, “Running Scared, Running Free” is an interactive production based on investigative research compiled by the WMHO and was attended by over 7,000 young people and adults when it first opened in 2005. 

Oral histories shared by Native Americans inspired WMHO to research the movement of escaping slaves from the south to Long Island and north to Canada. A St. George Production, the drama is set in the mid-1850s and is told through the eyes of “Dorcas,” a female slave fleeing South Carolina. The production shows how Native Americans, Quakers, free blacks and abolitionists assisted in the Underground Railroad through the fascinating use of secret codes in quilt patterns as a vital means of communication. It is estimated that at least 30,000 slaves, and potentially more than 100,000, escaped to Canada via the Underground Railroad.

Performances will take place on selected dates between Feb. 1 to 29 at WMHO’s Educational & Cultural Center, 97P Main Street, Stony Brook Village, at 10 a.m. and noon. In addition, there will be a special evening performance on Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m. with dessert and coffee or tea.

General admission is $13 adults; $12 per student (up to 35 students); $8 per student (over 35 students); Distance Learning is $250 per class connection (IP and ISPN connectivity); $1,500 in-school performance.

The program is aligned to meet National and New York State Common Core Standards and BOCES Arts-in-Education reimbursable. For further information call 631-751-2244 or visit www.wmho.org.