Columns

Suffolk Closeup: Why is Long Island honoring a racist?

There’s been an effort to have a statue of Robert Moses removed from the front of Babylon Village Hall. Nearly 100 protesters calling for that action marched down Babylon’s Main Street last month to the site of the 1,500-pound, 7-foot high statue. They held signs reading “Robert Moses Was a Racist” and chanted “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Robert Moses has to go.”

Suffolk County taxpayers contributed $190,000 to the Babylon Village Arts Commission for the statue, which was unveiled in 2003 to honor the Babylon resident who died in 1981.

The protest on June 20 was among the demonstrations held on Long Island and elsewhere in the United States protesting racism since African-American George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis in May.

Last year, a Commack native, New York State Assemblyman Daniel O’Donnell of Manhattan, introduced legislation to change the name of Robert Moses Park on western Fire Island because of Mr. Moses’ racial bias.

The measure by Mr. O’Donnell — which has not advanced in the state legislature — declares: “Robert Moses repeatedly abused his power to entrench racial and economic segregation.” Among examples cited was when Moses built Jones Beach State Park, “he intentionally ordered the overpasses of the connected parkway too low for buses, so that poor people, particularly African-American families, could not access the beach.”

The stories of how Mr. Moses had bridges built low on his Southern State and Northern State Parkways to prevent buses carrying African-Americans and Latinos from New York City to Jones Beach park, are chronicled by Robert Caro in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Mr. Moses, “The Power Broker,” as well as by Christopher Verga, author of “Civil Rights on Long Island” and “Saving Fire Island From Robert Moses: The Fight For a National Seashore.”

Mr. Caro, of East Hampton, who interviewed Mr. Moses at length for his book, has described Mr. Moses as “the most racist human being I have ever really encountered.”

Mr. Verga, of Bay Shore, who teaches Long Island history at Suffolk County Community College, says of Mr. Moses: “He was very biased.”

Jason Haber, who has taught public policy as a professor at John Jay College in Manhattan, wrote a piece in the New York Daily News published last year headlined: “Robert Moses’ name should be mud: New York State should remove the racist man’s name from public works.”

In his article, Mr. Haber wrote that “the man responsible for the largest segregation and degradation of African-Americans in the 20th century is still regularly lauded as a genius, an innovator and a master builder. Instead, he should be remembered another way, as a racist who inflicted generational suffering on African-Americans across our city and state … Unelected, his power drawn from up to 12 concurrent city, state and federal appointments, he used his unparalleled control of public authorities with impunity.”

Mr. Moses ran for public office once, for governor of New York in 1934, and lost in a landslide. So he chose instead to exercise power as head of commissions and authorities throughout New York State. His Long Island base was the headquarters of the Long Island State Park Commission in North Babylon.

A flyer for the protest last month said the Moses statue memorialized Long Island’s “history of segregation, racism and racial violence.”

Anthony Torres of Babylon, 25, a leader of last month’s protest, told the New York website Gothamist: “What we’re seeing in towns like mine — which…because of the legacy of people like Robert Moses is a very predominantly white community — is that people have had enough of the current system of inequality of white supremacy.” Mr. Moses symbolizes, he added, an “abusive and authoritarian figure who designed Long Island purposefully to benefit folks like himself and segregate folks based on the color of our skin, to whom we prayed, and where we came from.”

Mr. Moses has defenders. Wayne Horsley of Babylon, a former Suffolk County legislator and until last year general manager of the Long Island State Park Commission, “argued that Moses’ work helped transform Long Island” into a place “that was more accessible to a much wider swath of New Yorkers,” reported Newsday in a story on the statue protest.

Rebecca C. Lewis of the cityandstateny.com website has written that it is “understandable” that Mr. Moses’ “legacy … has been tarnished by revelations of racist views and exclusionary policies … But no one better reflects the history of the Long Island — racist, segregated, car-dependent, but blessed with beautiful public beaches — than Robert Moses.”

The statue memorializing him should be removed.