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Hidden figures: These African-Americans with Long Island ties made history

"The field of local history has been working very hard to correct itself to include once-marginal people such as women and African-Americans. We have a long way to go to make sure everyone is included."

William Cotter sits on bench outside sales office

William Cotter sits on bench outside sales office while a picket line parades past him at South Village Green in Levittown on Dec. 6, 1953. Photo Credit: Newsday/Bill Sullivan

Long Island's celebrated African-American history dates to at least the 18th century, when poet Jupiter Hammon, of Huntington, became the first African-American writer to be published in the United States, and it continues with living legends such as NAACP national leader Hazel Dukes, of Roslyn, and Ashanti, of Glen Cove, a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and superstar. 

But those giants are only part of the story of African-Americans on Long Island who should be remembered during Black History Month.

“Most of the history of African-Americans on Long Island is hidden, but now a light is being shone upon a history that goes back to Colonial times,” says Joysetta Pearse, a genealogist who manages the African American Museum of Nassau County in Hempstead. “Although slavery did exist on Long Island, many Africans came of their own free will as early as the 1600s as whalers and sailors to the East End, and some stayed as free men,” Pearse says. 

Indeed, technological resources and the coordinated efforts of local historians have led to belated recognition of a number of overlooked African-Americans, says Georgette Grier-Key, director of the Africana Studies Long Island History Initiative at Nassau Community College.

“The field of local history has been working very hard to correct itself to include once-marginal people such as women and African-Americans,” Grier-Key said. “We have a long way to go to make sure everyone is included.”

Here are some of the African-Americans who were born or lived on Long Island, and who have attracted renewed interest in the fields of civil rights, fair housing, art, architecture, education and homeland security.

All-black crew kept the coast clear

The Harlem Hell Fighters 369th Infantry Regiment and the Tuskegee Airmen of the U.S. Army Air Corps are celebrated African-American military units, but largely unknown is the all-black crew that staffed Coast Guard Life Saving Station Tiana in East Quogue at a critical point during World War II.

In June 1942, six months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Long Islanders’ nerves were again on edge after learning that Nazi agents slipped from a submarine onto an Amagansett beach and boarded a Long Island Rail Road train to Manhattan. The plot was foiled, but the threat of enemy landings continued.

In response, the Coast Guard reactivated the Tiana station and staffed it with a crew of 150 African-American guardsmen fresh from the Manhattan Beach Coast Guard Training Station in Brooklyn.

It was the nation’s second all-black lifesaving station — the first was on Pea Island, North Carolina, both the result of services that would be segregated until 1948 — and was commanded by an African-American, Chief Petty Officer Cecil R. Foster. From 1942 to 1944, the uniformed guardsmen patrolled the beach and dunes with dogs or on horseback, keeping an eye out for enemy U-boats round the clock and in all kinds of weather.

“They kept Long Island safe at night when Germany was actively seeking to do terrorism on our shores,” says local historian Christopher Verga, of Bay Shore, author of “Civil Rights on Long Island” (Arcadia, 2016).  

The station closed permanently in 1946 and was converted into a beach club that operated under different names until 2013, when Southampton Town purchased the site. It’s currently being rehabilitated as a museum dedicated to the African-American Coast Guard station crew.

Pioneers in America's first suburb

In the 1950s, African-Americans were still being denied the dream of homeownership in Levittown, despite a 1948 U.S. Supreme Court decision overturning the community’s racially restrictive covenants.

Nevertheless, William and Cynthia Cotter waged their own quiet challenge against de facto segregation.

Cotter was an auto-body repairman in his early 30s when the family sidestepped local real estate agencies to sublet a Cape Cod on Levittown’s Butternut Lane. Cotter was also a former president of the Great Neck NAACP who chaired The Committee to End Discrimination in Levittown, an organization formed in 1949 to “halt Levitt’s discriminatory practices,” according to a flyer Cotter signed and distributed in 1951.

The Cotters hit a roadblock in 1953, when their lease ran out and their landlord, Mid-Island Properties, refused to sell them the home or renew their lease. Cotter sued citing racial discrimination but the suit was initially lost in State Supreme Court. 

That’s where Cotter’s organizational skills came in handy. County marshals sent to evict the family that December were met by 60 protesters who carried the furniture back inside the house and stood or sat on it. Nevertheless, soon after in a cold December drizzle, the Cotter’s belongings were shuttled to the curb.

It wasn’t long before the Cotters were back on Butternut Lane, though, living in a house sold to them by a sympathetic Brooklynite. The new home was next door to the previous one. In 1957, when the Cotters were reportedly one of three black families living in Levittown, Cynthia Cotter told Newsday that the family “never had any trouble” with neighbors.

Today, Levittown’s population is just 1.4 percent African-American, according to 2018 census estimates. “Cotter fought against de facto segregation, which is enforced through real estate agencies, social factors, intimidation and by banks that are hesitant to approve loans," Verga explains. "It’s one of the hardest forms of housing discrimination to combat.”

Azurest’s founding was a sister act   

In the late 1940s, a unique Hamptons community was created by Brooklyn schoolteacher Maude Terry and her sister, Amaza Lee Meredith, an artist and college professor.

On a 20-acre Sag Harbor parcel near a cottage Terry had rented, the sisters conceived a subdivision named Azurest, a contraction of the words, “as you rest,” says Grier-Key, also executive director and curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society of Sag Harbor. With help from local residents, the sisters set up and managed the Azurest Syndicate, through which they brokered sales and financed mortgages for African-Americans. The sisters have streets named for them: Terry Drive and Meredith Avenue. 

Meredith, a self-trained architect who built a modernist dwelling that is now part of Virginia State University in Petersburg, designed at least two Azurest homes. The Meredith-designed Terry Cottage still stands in Azurest and is owned by Terry's descendants, Grier-Key says.  

More than 70 years after its founding, Azurest is still a place to rest away from the city heat, to enjoy clams on the half-shell and thrill to a patriotic Fourth of July parade, Grier-Key says.

“We wouldn’t have a historic African-American community in Sag Harbor without” sisters Maude Terry and Amaza Lee Meredith, says Grier-Key, who is seeking historic landmark status for the community.

The woman behind a middle school

Alverta Banks Gray Schultz made her living as the owner of an employment agency, a beauty shop and school in Hempstead Village and Glen Cove, but her influence extended through a half-century of civil rights progress.

Schultz, who lived in Hempstead from 1933 to 1984, was among the founders of the Nassau NAACP. A lifelong Republican who believed in working within the system for positive change, she became one of Nassau’s first black officials when she was appointed to the Hempstead Housing Authority.  

“She did a lot for the schools in Hempstead, and she also did a lot for civil rights,” says Schultz’s stepson, Melvyn Douglas Schultz, 79, of Fayetteville, North Carolina. “I know they rolled out the red carpet every time she went to Albany.”

When Alverta Gray Schultz was named Nassau County Citizen of the year in 1980, Newsday wrote, “Along with Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley, NAACP lawyers and David Adams, another Nassau branch founder, she laid the strategy for a battle against de factor segregation at Hempstead’s Prospect School 30 years ago.”

In the same article, Schultz said she didn’t want to be known as a fighter, but “just somebody who stood up to be counted on the issues . . . You don’t win much with bricks and curses.” In 1984, the Hempstead school district’s middle school was named for Schultz, who had served as the district’s adult education director. That’s an honor also accorded to President Barack Obama, for whom the district named an elementary school a decade ago.

Her renaissance began in Hempstead

The artistic journey of Vivian Schuyler Key (no relation to the Sag Harbor historian Georgette Grier-Key) began in her hometown of Hempstead, flourished in Brooklyn and led to recognition as a visual artist of the Harlem Renaissance. 

Schuyler graduated from Hempstead High School in 1924, when the village was predominantly a white community. She was one of only two African-Americans, both women, in a class of 46 graduating seniors, according to records at the Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra University.

Schuyler established her artistic credentials early on, winning high school awards and serving as art editor of Colonial, the school’s yearbook. An inscription under her 1924 yearbook photo calls her “one of the world’s future artists.”

She went on to become one of the earliest African-American fine arts graduates of Pratt Institute, a leading art, design and architecture school in Brooklyn. Her representational artwork centering on positive portrayals of black women appeared as cover illustrations for issues of The Crisis, the official magazine of the NAACP.  

“Hempstead Village and Hempstead High School should be very proud of what Vivian Schuyler Key accomplished,” said Debra Willett, educational coordinator for the Long Island Studies Institute at Hofstra. 

Smithtown helped focus righteous rage  

The Rev. Henry Highland Garnet’s fiery 1843 “Call to Rebellion” in upstate New York was one of the most influential pro-emancipation speeches of the pre-Civil War era, shocking such fellow abolitionists as Frederick Douglass because it encouraged slaves to free themselves through armed resistance.

In 1865, Garnet was such a prominent anti-slavery figure that he made history by becoming the first African-American to preach a sermon in the U.S. House of Representatives. The house chaplain had asked Garnet to address worshippers in the chamber to commemorate the recent approval of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.

Less well-known are Garnet’s years as an indentured servant in Smithtown in the late 1820s, years that likely informed his life’s path.

Garnet was born into bondage in 1815 in Maryland, but his family escaped when he was 9 and settled in Manhattan, where he attended school and found work as a ship’s cabin boy and cook.

On his return from an 1829 voyage, he found that his parents had narrowly escaped slave catchers. He walked up and down a city street threatening vengeance against the slavers and waving a knife around. Garnet’s Quaker friends convinced him to hide out on Long Island, albeit under dubious circumstances as an indentured servant to Epenetus Smith of Smithtown.

The anti-slavery Quakers tutored Garnet in reading and writing and under their influence Garnet “became more of an abolitionist,” says Kathleen Velsor, associate professor at SUNY Old Westbury and director of the Underground Railroad Teaching Partnership.

Garnet grew into an imposing figure, “very tall and with one black eye and one blue eye,” Velsor says. “It’s because of his stay on Long Island that he became a national figure.”

Garnet’s time of servitude ended after he suffered a serious leg injury. “As he’s healing, Smith’s son encouraged him to go on to college,” Velsor said. Garnet left Long Island, returned to school, became a Presbyterian minister and traveled widely spreading the anti-slavery doctrine.

Garnet realized a lifelong dream of visiting Africa when he was appointed U.S. ambassador to Liberia, where he died in 1882.

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