Suffolk Closeup: The county’s shameful — and heroic — history

NICOLE SMITH PHOTO Interior of the Suffolk County Historical Society.
NICOLE SMITH PHOTO Interior of the Suffolk County Historical Society.

“Civil Rights on Long Island” is a new book by Christopher Verga. And, kicking off his January 21 presentation at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, Mr. Verga said he “chose the project” because it involves something that has “fallen through the cracks.”

It goes back to the time of slavery when, shockingly, Suffolk, and what was then Queens and Nassau County, had “the largest slave population in the North,” Mr. Verga said. A teacher of Long Island history at Suffolk County Community College, Mr. Verga showed information on a screen of the grisly details: “During the time period of the 17th century to the late 18th century, Suffolk County’s population was comprised of 18 percent enslaved and Queens County, including most of modern day Nassau, was comprised of 27 percent enslaved.”

He spoke of Shelter Island and Nathaniel Sylvester’s bringing enslaved Africans to his estate, using it as a provisioning farm for his family’s sugar plantation in Barbados.

In response to questions at the well-attended presentation, the historian said the “average” Long Island slaveholder had two to four slaves, although wealthy families had many more. Terrible treatment of Long Island’s original Native American inhabitants was ongoing, and some “Indians were also enslaved.”

Later, participation in elections by African-Americans, Native-Americans and poor people generally, was formally “prevented in 1821 by a New York State Constitution clause requiring a person [men] to own $100 to $250 worth of property to vote.”

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan became a dominant force on Long Island — one out of seven Long Islanders were members of the Klan. “This was rampant on Long Island,” Mr. Verga said. People running for public office would say, ‘I’m a member of the Klan so vote for me,” and there were signs aplenty posted declaring: “We Support Klan Members.”

The big foe of the KKK was the Catholic Church, Mr. Verga said, emphasizing that the fight against racism and bigotry is also a large part of the area’s civil rights history.

The Klan “hated immigrants” and was decidedly anti-Catholic, along with being virulently anti-black and anti-Jewish. Being “anti-immigrant to the fullest and anti-Catholic” ran “neck-and-neck” for the KKK, he related, because most newcomers to Suffolk and what became Nassau were Catholic. The line of the KKK, he said, was that Catholics “prayed to someone in Rome and were not allegiant to America.”

Flashing on the screen was a photograph of an anti-KKK demonstration in Bay Shore in 1923 that consisted, said a report in the Brooklyn Eagle, of an astonishing 40,000 people and was organized by the Holy Name Society of the Catholic Church in protest of KKK members running for public office.

It was a time that “Catholics were worried” about being targets of the bigots. What ended that was “changed demographics.” There were too many Catholics — they had gained strength in numbers.

In the post-World War II period, bias still raged with restrictions against blacks and Jews in “a lot of areas.” Levittown, with its 17,000 homes, formalized racism in deeds to those houses that stipulated they were not to be for, as a Levittown legal document stated, “any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”

But there were people “challenging boundaries … breaking racial barriers” on Long Island, and it became a “battleground” in the nation’s civil rights struggle. This included Thomas Romano, seeing “what Levittown was doing” and building a development called Ronek Park in North Amityville for which an ad that flashed on the screen declared: “Dedicated to the Proposition That All Men Are Created Equal.”

Mr. Verga spoke of how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. addressed a rally on Long Island as a photograph of Dr. King at that demonstration appeared, and there was also a discussion accompanied by photographs of area people involved in the civil rights battles here, including Dr. Eugene Reed who went on to become state NAACP president, and Irwin and Delores Quintyne, leaders of Suffolk Congress of Racial Equality.

A key part of what happened after the war, Mr. Verga said, involved black soldiers coming home and finding “the same sort of discrimination prior to the war.” Their reaction was: “I came home and I thought we were done with this racism.”

Today, “we still do have obstacles,” there are “still areas not integrated,” he said. “We still have work to do.” But there has been substantial change. On the screen came a photo of DuWayne Gregory, an African-American and presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature, and other examples of change. “We have made great strides, but we still have a long way to go.” Still, he said: “Once you have progress, you can’t stop it.”

Victoria Berger, executive director of the society, commented on the importance of Mr. Verga’s presentation: “The timeliness of embracing all the diversity we have on Long Island right now is really critical.”