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Black History Month

Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr.

By Rich Acritelli

In honor of Black History Month, Errol Toulon Jr. (D), of Lake Grove, is the first African American Suffolk County sheriff. Ever since his youth through the lessons that he learned from his father, Toulon has been motivated to achieve his duty and responsibilities.  

As a kid, he asked his father, a longtime correction officer, what he did for a living. His dad replied, “We rehabilitate individuals that are incarcerated, we never throw away the key and we try to help these people safely return back to society.” 

The story of Toulon Jr. began in the Bronx, where he was born in 1962, and he lived in the city until 1990. 

Yankee batboy

Errol Toulon Jr. as a Yankee batboy. Photo from Errol Toulon Jr.

A talented baseball player who excelled as a center fielder and a leadoff hitter during his high school and college years, Toulon had the unique chance of being a batboy for the New York Yankees in 1979 through 1980.  

He was in the locker room to observe the impressive leadership skills and character of the late Yankee great catcher Thurman Munson. In the Bronx, Toulon watched Billy Martin manage the baseball stars of Reggie Jackson and Bobby Murcer, and he also met boxing champ Roberto Durán.  

As a young man in the Yankee Clubhouse, Toulon encountered a young boy, and asked him his name. It was Hal Steinbrenner, who now owns the team after his father George. 

The former batboy ended up becoming the first African American sheriff of Suffolk County, and had a wonderful time being welcomed back by senior management of the Yankees. Players like Ron Blomberg and Mickey Rivers were pleased to see their former batboy who has always worked to protect his community. Still to this day, Toulon is an avid baseball fan who glowingly recalls his special time in pinstripes around the “Boys of Summer.”

City correction officer

Errol Toulon Jr., left, with Hal Steinbrenner, general partner of the New York Yankees.
Photo from Errol Toulon Jr.

During those earlier years, Toulon took the city correction officer exam, after he completed an associate’s degree in business.  As a 20-year-old, he became one of the youngest recruits within the New York City Department of Correction.  

He observed the older jails that were built from the 1930s through 1960s, were cold, secured with steel, and lacking any of the advancements of the penitentiaries of today. Early in his career, Toulon was impacted by watching inmates hold few liberties and living in poor conditions. 

There were dangerous moments during fights, riots and emergencies, that saw officers isolated and unable to see each other where their own safety was compromised. Over the years, Toulon has learned from these lessons to ensure the constant support of the current officers of his department.

As a lifelong officer, a captain and official, Toulon always follow the examples that were established by his father. Toulon Sr. was employed by the NYC Department of Correction for 36 years in positions ranging from officer to a warden at Rikers Island. 

From his dad, he learned the value of attention to detail and always treating his staff with the utmost amount of respect. Whether it was his junior years as a correction officer or as the present Suffolk County sheriff, Toulon never loses focus on the evolving complexities of operating the county system of imprisonment. Over the past decades, he has been involved in hostage crisis, handling drug abuse, attempted escapes, and seizure of guns and contraband that were smuggled into jails by prisoners.

Suffolk County sheriff

Gov. Andrew Cuomo administers the oath of office to Suffolk County Sheriff Errol Toulon Jr. during his inauguration ceremony in 2018. Toulon was joined by his wife Tina. File photo by Kevin Redding

Toulon has always believed in the necessity in analyzing the complexity of criminal justice problems that are always evolving. There was recently a major riot in St. Louis, where the inmates broke windows and set debris on fire. Always understanding the usefulness of information, Toulon’s Sheriff’s Office examines these situations by calling different corrections agencies around the country. They try to determine the root of local or national incidents and utilize these resources to be prepared to sufficiently handle these concerns in Suffolk County.  

Town of Brookhaven Councilwoman Jane Bonner (R-Rocky Point) has worked with him through their tenures in office.

“Sheriff Toulon leads a proud department of men and women dedicated to upholding the law and running the Suffolk County Correctional Facility,” she said. 

There is always the major process of investigating prisoner grievances over health care, food, communication with family members, religious services and more. Toulon tries to improve these concerns before they materialize into a major crisis. 

During his career, he has dealt with the Ebola and swine flu outbreaks and the health implications within the jail environment. Through the determination to always contain the strength of these sicknesses, protective measures were already established within the county jails before the first COVID-19 case hit New York in last March.  

Due to the pandemic, new ways had to be developed to handle the services that were needed for the prisoners. Toulon’s office made a goal in always sharing current information on the threats and changes that COVID-19 presented to both the outside world and the jails. The virus prevented family visits, but prisoners were allocated two extra calls a week, pictures of loved ones were printed for inmates, and there were virtual substance and psychological programs. 

Professional and educational experiences

Errol Toulon Jr. with Yankees Mickey Rivers and Ron Bloomberg

Education has always been an important part of Toulon’s life which he has incorporated into his many correctional positions. He has a doctorate in educational administration, an advanced certificate in Homeland Security Management and an MBA.  

Since his election as sheriff, Toulon has spoken to many educational programs with local school districts to address the daily concerns that his department handles, always with a positive demeanor. 

VFW Post 6249 Rocky Point Comdr. Joe Cognitore has always viewed Toulon “as an upstanding and an energetic people person that has always protected our residents, worked well with community leaders, aided veterans that have fallen on criminal times in jail, and he has helped create local 9/11 memorials.”

For two years, Toulon taught at Dowling College as an adjunct faculty member. He planned to instruct students at St. John’s University, but was unable to do so due to his present position.  

Harvard University has invited Toulon to address its student body on his professional and educational experiences. While he enjoys his current position and is hopeful that he will be reelected to another term, Toulon enjoys teaching, and he would like to teach again. A leader with a tremendous amount of energy, there have been some personal battles that he has had to endure as a survivor of pancreatic cancer and Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Whereas Toulon is determined to have a secure prison system within the county, provide resources and support for his officers, he also wants to ensure that prisoners do not return. Through the Sheriff’s Transition and Reentry Team, known as the START program, correction officers help inmates find housing, jobs, medical services and food, and to become productive and safe citizens. 

Rosa Parks

Black History Month, which initially started as a weeklong commemoration in the early 20th century, has been a way to remember and celebrate important people and events in African American history officially for more than 50 years. After a tumultuous 2020, with several alleged police brutality cases against people of color across our nation, it’s more important than ever to recognize the contributions of Black Americans.

We’re not just talking about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks or former President Barack Obama (D), but also those who the spotlight hasn’t shone on enough or not at all. There are veterans who served in our armed forces, even when their fellow countrymen didn’t accept them as equals. There are entertainers who once were applauded when they were on stage but weren’t able to eat dinner at the same restaurant as those who were delighted by their performances. There are those who made great strides in science and aeronautics, who are barely mentioned in our history books.

The month is a reminder to reach out to our neighbors, co-workers, acquaintances and former classmates and listen to their stories. People just like us who work hard every day to provide a good life for themselves and their loved ones, and who dream of a better tomorrow. Yet, every day many Black Americans face obstacle after obstacle because they find — before they utter a word or make a move — they are being judged by the color of their skin.

Many of us can’t even comprehend being judged based on our bloodline. We heard the stories of our parents, grandparents or other ancestors who were once called derogatory names or turned away from jobs, some not even applying due to signs such as NINA (no Irish need apply) hung on workplace doors. But today, many of us couldn’t imagine this happening to us.

However, it’s happening every day, in our country, in our towns, even in our schools to those who are Black.

This past summer, journalism-style guidebooks used by papers across the country decided when describing Americans of African ancestry to no longer use “black” but “Black.” The call was made because lowercase is a color but uppercase signifies a culture. Capitalizing Black celebrates people who share history and culture just like Germans, Italians, Asians, Native Americans, Latinos and more.

Let’s not let this month pass without learning about our fellow Americans’ cultures and about them as human beings. Months dedicated to certain cultures provide the opportunity to learn more about the history of people outside of our inner circle and everyday lives. It gives us a chance to broaden our horizons and understand that we are all in this thing called life together, only if we realize just how similar and equal we are.

We are inviting readers to share their reflections about this year’s Black History Month in perspective articles. Submissions should be approximately 500 words, and we welcome photos to accompany the piece. Send articles and photos to Rita J. Egan at [email protected]

Fried chicken with collard greens and corn bread

By Barbara Beltrami

February is Black History Month and what better way to celebrate than with traditional, historic recipes for soul food, that wonderful collection of Southern-style dishes that boasts big delicious flavors. Here are some of my favorite must-try Southern foods, from fried chicken and cornbread to collard greens and black eyed peas. I’ve pestered friends for their heirloom recipes, and here they are.

Marjorie Grann’s Fried Chicken

YIELD: Makes 4 servings

INGREDIENTS:

One 3 to 4 pound chicken, cut up

1 cup buttermilk

2 cups flour

1 teaspoon cayenne

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

Vegetable oil for frying

DIRECTIONS:

Wash chicken and pat dry with paper towel. Pour buttermilk into shallow dish and dip chicken into it to coat. Pour flour, cayenne, salt and pepper into a resealable plastic bag and shake to combine. Place chicken pieces, one at a time, in bag and shake to coat; remove pieces to platter, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until coating has a pasty consistency, about two hours. In large skillet heat 2 to 3 inches of oil over medium high heat until very hot and carefully place chicken pieces in oil. Fry, turning once, until both sides are golden; reduce heat to low, cover and cook for 30 minutes, then raise heat again to medium-high, remove cover and continue to cook until chicken is crispy; drain on paper towels. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature with potato salad or candied yams and collard greens.

Eunice McNeal’s Collard Greens

YIELD: Makes 6 servings

INGREDIENTS:

1 large onion, chopped

1 smoked ham hock

3 garlic cloves, chopped

7 cups chicken broth

1 pound collard greens, washed and trimmed

3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

3 1/2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon cayenne

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

DIRECTIONS:

In a large pot combine onion, ham hock, garlic and chicken broth; cook over medium heat until meat pulls away from bone, about two hours; add collard greens, vinegar, sugar, cayenne and salt and pepper and cook until greens are tender, about two more hours. Drain extra liquid if desired. Serve hot or warm with barbecued ribs and black-eyed peas.

Doralee Petty’s Buttermilk Cornbread

YIELD: Makes 4 to 6 servings

INGREDIENTS:

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted, cooled

3/4 cup flour

3/4 cup yellow cornmeal

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

2 eggs

DIRECTIONS:

Preheat oven to 425 F; place rack in middle of oven. Grease an 8-inch square baking pan with one tablespoon of the butter. In large bowl thoroughly combine flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In medium bowl vigorously whisk together the buttermilk and eggs; add the remaining 5 tablespoons of melted butter and the flour mixture. Stir only until completely blended; pour batter into prepared pan and bake until top is golden and cake tester inserted in center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. Serve hot, warm or at room temperature with butter, collard greens, black-eyed peas and fried chicken

Simon Birdsall’s Black-Eyed Peas

YIELD: Makes 6 to 8 servings

INGREDIENTS:

1 pound black-eyed peas, soaked overnight, drained and rinsed

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

8 ounces pork shoulder, diced into one-inch cubes

4 strips bacon, cut into one-inch pieces

1 large onion, diced

4 garlic cloves, peeled and sliced

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

4 cups chicken or vegetable broth

2 cups water

2 bay leaves

Apple cider vinegar to taste

DIRECTIONS:

Warm oil in a large pot over medium heat until shimmering; add pork cubes and brown on all sides, about 10 minutes. Add bacon, onion, garlic, salt and pepper and cayenne and cook, stirring frequently, until lightly browned, about 7 minutes. Add broth, water and bay leaves, bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 30 minutes. Add peas to pot and simmer until they are soft but not mushy, about one to one and a half hours. Remove bay leaves, adjust seasonings, add vinegar and serve hot or warm with collard greens and fried chicken.

 

Keynote speaker will be Dr. Julieanna Richardson
Join them on Wednesday, February 3 at 1 p.m. for a virtual opening day ceremony. To register, visit stonybrook.edu/bhm

As Stony Brook University students resume classes on February 1, the University community will celebrate Black History Month (BHM), honoring the African-American experience and accomplishments. The month-long tribute will be conducted in a hybrid fashion: in-person and virtually via Zoom. It will begin with an opening ceremony featuring keynote speaker Dr. Julieanna Richardson, founder of The HistoryMakers collection on Wednesday, February 3, 2021 at 1pm. Stony Brook University has recently begun utilizing The HistoryMakers Digital Archives, the nation’s largest African American video oral history collection of scholarly materials which will be the main focus of this year’s celebration.

Dr. Judith Brown Clarke

“In addition to celebrating this long-standing tradition at Stony Brook University, we recognize this pivotal time in America’s history,” said Dr. Judith Brown Clarke, Vice President for Equity & Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer. “We seek to create a learning experience that will look to end racism, create social change, and build a more humane and just society for African Americans and the entire nation.

The HistoryMakers collection features scholarly materials that provide insight into African-American history, culture and creativity. The HistoryMakers’ founder and BHM keynote speaker Julieanna Richardson will share her vision and desire to preserve the rich history of African Americans. Richardson’s diverse background is in law, television production and the cable television industries and she combined her various work experiences and her passion for American Studies to conceptualize, found and build The HistoryMakers.

This sustainable theme for this year’s BHM is “Sankofa! Black Creativity.” The concept of Sankofa has its origin in Ghana, West Africa. When translated, it means that “it is not taboo to go back and fetch what you forgot.” Sankofa is used throughout the pan-African world to promote the idea that African people must go back to their roots in order to move forward. The theme was created to re-ignite awareness, appreciation, passion, and commitment to BHM for all people, but especially those whose ancestors are from the African Diaspora. This year’s theme, “Sankofa! Black Creativity” pays tribute to those who have enriched American life with their invaluable contributions to science, education, economics, political movements and the arts and who have worked and continue to strive to rectify inequality and injustice in our society.

Events: 

Throughout BHM, Stony Brook University will feature a number of educational, cultural and historical community events including:

Black History Month activities at Stony Brook University are coordinated by the Office of Multicultural Affairs, Department of Africana Studies and the Black History Month Committee.

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.”