A new documentary by amateur filmmakers Dedrick Johnson and Lloyd Means recalls the hotel, barbershop and taxicab stands in the working-class enclave of Spinney Hill, which was surrounded by largely white, affluent North Shore communities. After an urban renewal project was completed in the mid-1980s, medical and office buildings replaced most of the black merchants.
"They were just . . . they were gone," Olga Jenkins, a former Manhasset High School teacher recalls in the film.
Evidence of those businesses barely exists today, Johnson said. "You would never know that there was an African-American community there."
Through interviews with 20 community leaders and residents, Johnson and Means are seeking to preserve that history in "Spinney Hill: The African American History of Manhasset and Great Neck, Vol. 1." The Great Neck Historical Society showed the film last month, and local churches are also planning to screen it, Means said.
Alice Kasten, president of the Great Neck Historical Society, said even local history buffs didn't know much about Spinney Hill. "It is certainly a part of our culture that a lot of us knew very little about," she said.
Johnson, 47, of Manhasset, and Means, 46, of Baldwin, grew up in Spinney Hill and decided to "tell our story," Means said.
In the 1820s, freed slaves helped found the Lakeville AME Zion Church in Manhasset. More black residents migrated from the South, finding work as domestic servants and chauffeurs at nearby Gold Coast estates.
Former residents interviewed in the film recounted memories of visits by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and school integration efforts. They told stories about area resident Jim Brown, who went on to become a record-setting National Football League fullback and successful actor.
While the number of black residents in the Spinney Hill area has dwindled significantly, a homecoming tradition continues every summer on "Old Timers Day," Means said.
The former residents who gather in the neighborhood for parties were their primary audience, he said. "We just did it for the community."
The documentary, which cost about $4,500, was a labor of love for Johnson, a hospital transcriptionist, and Means, a software engineer at Cablevision, Newsday's parent company. They edited about 30 hours of interviews into a one-hour film and a 116-minute film.
One of the biggest challenges, Means said, was finding photographs of the businesses before urban renewal, which began in the mid-1960s. He is still seeking pictures.
And as more former residents ask to be interviewed, he said, the pair may have enough material for another film.