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New museum exhibit sheds light on LI slavery's impact, legacy

"Long Road to Freedom: Surviving Slavery on Long Island" runs Feb. 15 through May 27 at the LI Museum in Stony Brook.

On Friday, Julie Diamond, director of communications at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, explained the importance of the museum's new exhibit “Long Road to Freedom: Surviving Slavery on Long Island." The exhibit features more than 100 items, including paintings, photographs, furniture, tools and documents. There will also be a symposium on March 9. (Credit: Newsday / Shelby Knowles)

A new exhibit opening Friday will debunk myths that slavery didn’t exist on Long Island, the institution did not last very long and was ‘’a kinder form’’ of bondage with no impact on present-day life, organizers said.

“Long Road to Freedom: Surviving Slavery on Long Island,” at the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook, is being held to honor Black History Month. The exhibit features more than 100 items — paintings, photographs, furniture, tools and documents — as well as a March 9 symposium.

“I believe this will be the largest exhibit on Long island to look at the experience of Long Islanders during and after slavery,” said museum curator Jonathan Olly. “The objects come from about two dozen lenders from Manhattan to Southampton, which include museums, libraries, historical societies and private collections.”

Olly noted that slavery started in New York in 1626 and lasted until 1827, adding, “Partially though the strength of the original material on display, the exhibit will focus on the late 1700s and early 1800s.

There’ll be a lot to be learned about the myths about slavery in New York or the North versus the South, and the peculiarities involved in the institution on Long Island, he said.

“The main myths are that slavery didn’t exist here, that it didn’t last for very long, that it wasn’t economically important, that it was a ‘kinder’ form of slavery; and that it’s in a distant past and has no bearing on how we live our lives today,” Olly said. “All of these are wrong.”

Olly said, for example, that during the Colonial era, New York had more slaves than any colony north of Maryland, with a 1698 census of Long Island recording 1,053 Africans among the 8,261 inhabitants. “The numbers only grew,” he said, adding that by 1749 enslaved African Americans comprised 34 percent of the population of Kings County, 17 percent of Queens County, and 14 percent of Suffolk County.

Julie Diamond, a museum spokeswoman, said the exhibit and symposium also provide a historical perspective on slavery that is particularly relevant on Long Island and elsewhere.

“Amid the current political division in this country, the Long Island Museum brings to light a time in history when the country was divided in its opinion of buying and selling human beings and keeping them in bondage,” she said.

Slavery impacted every community on Long Island, Diamond said, noting, “In the wake of the Civil War and Civil Rights movement, legacies of slavery endure on Long Island in how we think about race and relate to one another on institutional and individual levels even today.”

The exhibit also tells of the growth of slavery on Long Island, how enslaved Long Islanders resisted the institution and how slaves became free, communities that formed in the wake of slavery, the emergence of the black middle class and the legacy of slavery here.

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At the end of the exhibit is an area where visitors can write their thoughts about the display and post them on a wall.

“It will be an opportunity to both get instant feedback and for visitors to share with one another over the four months that the exhibit is up,” Olly said.

WHAT “Long Road to Freedom: Surviving Slavery on Long Island” exhibit and symposium in honor of Black History Month being held at the Long Island Museum, 1200 Route 25A, Stony Brook.

WHEN | WHERE Exhibit Feb. 15 through May 27, $10 for adults, $5 for students 6-17 and college students with I.D. Free admission Feb 15 through Feb. 17 for the exhibit’s opening weekend. Symposium is March 9 from 9:45 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Price is $12 per person and additional $10 for (optional) lunch.

INFO 631-751-0066, longislandmuseum.org

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