In Hofstra study, African-Americans share post-WWII LI stories

Julius O. Pearse, of Freeport, the first black

Julius O. Pearse, of Freeport, the first black police officer in that village and president of the African-American Genealogical Society. (Feb. 6, 2008) (Credit: Newsday/Ken Spencer)

Julius Pearse had a plan when he sought employment in 1962 as a police officer in Freeport -- "break the color line and force them to hire blacks."

He knew he wasn't wanted, a fact underscored when he was visited by a Freeport Police Department sergeant who was sent to interview him as a potential candidate.

"I could see the shock and surprise on his face," said Pearse, now 79 and a longtime resident of the village. Back then, with the combination of his name, Julius Otto Pearse, and where he was living in Woodmere, "they assumed I was white," he said.

The sergeant tried to dissuade him from taking a job with the Freeport department, Pearse said, saying Nassau County police had better benefits. He wasn't deterred.

"I already knew the village benefits were similar, so I knew then he was trying to persuade me not to come," he said. "When he asked me what was my decision, I said I would see him the next day.

"I wasn't welcomed with open arms," said Pearse, who became Freeport's first black officer. "They tried to get me to be angry and quit or make dumb mistakes." But he stayed despite the challenges, rising to first-grade detective in 21 years on the force before retiring.

Pearse's story is among scores that have been chronicled as part of Hofstra University's Suburban Oral History Project, undertaken by the university's National Center for Suburban Studies.

The project, formally launched in April 2011, seeks to tell the stories of African-Americans -- and some whites who offer historical context -- living on Long Island in the post-World War II years as the region grew to become the iconic American suburb.

GIs returning from the war and their families flocked to homes built in Levittown by master builder William Levitt in the late 1940s. Restrictive covenants at the time prevented blacks from living there.

"You want to memorialize these stories," said Lawrence Levy, the center's academic dean. "You want to document the experience of an important segment of the population that did not fit into the dominant narrative of our community, people whose experience of the suburbs was not the stereotype of being greeted by their neighbors with open arms."

 

Grant plays pivotal role

A three-year grant from local business entrepreneurs Richard and Jack Turan in December "really enabled us to fly with this thing" and build on work already begun, Levy said.

Richard Turan would not disclose the amount of the grant but said he and his brother supported the concept and required that a documentary about the project be done to make the stories accessible to others.

"Both Jack and I felt the African-American community deserved the right to have that information, to have that history for the future," he said.

The project is multifaceted. In addition to immortalizing the stories of African-Americans during the Island's growth as a suburb, its goals include teaching Hofstra students about research techniques and media skills for the documentary, and about developing a K-12 curriculum on oral histories.

"It's a very powerful way of motivating them to want to learn about history, and a powerful way of improving their academic skills: reading, writing, organization of ideas," said Hofstra education professor Alan Singer, who is heading the curriculum-development effort. Hofstra educators hope to pilot the curriculum in Hempstead and Uniondale middle schools next spring.

James A. Levy, a former Hofstra history professor who now is director of the public history program at the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater, still is coordinating Hofstra's oral history project.

He said phase two is under way, with a team of academics analyzing the interviews, seeking out broad themes and processing them for inclusion in the archives' searchable database."Part of what we're doing is building partnerships with other organizations," he said, adding the project has a "potential national component."

"The National Center for Suburban Studies really aims . . . to be a thought leader about national suburbs," said James Levy, who is not related to Lawrence Levy. "Larry's idea, and we all share it, is this is a great opportunity to do something national in some way. Hempstead and Long Island in general are a great place to start."

Dr. Darrel W. Pone, 58, a retired doctor of physical medicine and rehabilitation, also was interviewed for the history project. He recently recalled his family's search for housing when they came to Long Island in 1956 from Nashville, Tenn., and found a racial divide.

He said his late father, Dr. Jesse Pone, did his residency training at what now is Nassau University Medical Center. Darrel Pone, a baby at the time, said he later learned his parents were shown homes in New Cassel and Hempstead, where large enclaves of blacks lived.

His father eventually built a house in Westbury, he said, but not without difficulty. "It was hard for blacks to get permits to buy a home in Westbury, even if you were a doctor," he said.

In the early 1970s, the Pone family moved to Old Westbury, where Darrel Pone and his wife, Gloria Nixon Pone, now reside. Pone said his father once was stopped by a police officer who thought the black man entering the Old Westbury home was a burglar.

 

'Voice to the voiceless'

The impetus to capture stories such as these, Lawrence Levy said, came from Louise Skolnik, an emeritus professor of social work at Adelphi University who also was director of human services when Thomas Suozzi was Nassau County executive.

Skolnik said she saw the project as a way to "give voice to the voiceless."

Many of the contributors found it empowering to know their stories will be available for future generations, she said.

She and her husband, Richard, an emeritus professor of history at City College of New York, conducted several interviews. Others were conducted by Hofstra students and James Levy.

Richard Skolnik said the oral histories show "how major events occur and impact people who are living what we might consider ordinary lives."

The project, which is guided by a multidisciplinary team of academics, also has established a community advisory group, which includes the Pones. Gloria Nixon Pone, a retired associate pastor of the Congregational Church of South Hempstead, United Church of Christ, has recruited church members to tell their stories.

Nixon Pone conducted a similar effort of her own earlier, publishing a collection in 2007 about parishioners' lives at her church called "Fruit of the Spirit." Some of the interviews for her book were conducted by the grandchildren of parishioners, and revelations emerged, she said.

"When grandma told them the stories of what they went through [during the civil rights era], then they said, 'Now, I understand,' " she said. "So there was a connectedness that came about between the younger persons . . . and their grandparents. It required them actually sitting together and engaging each other in conversation."

Lawrence Levy said the Skolniks impressed upon him the importance of recording the stories of Long Island's African-Americans, people who "experienced seminal events" during their lifetimes.

"Their stories are going to die with them if we don't get them down," he said.

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