As Black History Month comes to a close, conversations on race should continue, especially after a year of unprecedented dialogue on the topic. The talking can’t stop because there’s plenty of work to be done to achieve the "Beloved Community" that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. envisioned.
That ideal world — where all people share in the wealth of the earth, and racism and discrimination are replaced by a spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood, peace and justice prevail over war, love and trust triumph over fear and hatred — is still more dream than reality.
In this, the second of a two-part series, Newsday continues to highlight the efforts of Black leaders making a difference on Long Island. (Read Part 1 here.)
Bernice Sims has lived some of the history that most have read about. In her 2014 book "Detour Before Midnight," she tells the story of her final hours with the "Mississippi Burning" Civil Rights workers just before they were abducted and murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964. The workers made an unscheduled stop at her home in Meridian, Mississippi, where her parents had been hosts to Freedom Summer volunteers, students who went south to increase voter registration for Southern Blacks. Sims joined the NAACP as a youth and spent hours in the home of Medgar Evers before his assassination.
Sims left the South in the mid-1960s and by 1972 was living in Long Island. She made history in 1989 as the first African American female trustee for Hempstead Village. Sims, a social worker, also served as an advisory board member for former New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo on issues related to child and elder abuse.
Sims is a professional artist and over the years has acted in television, film and music videos. She has been a recipient of the Women Achievers Award from the Women’s Fund of Long Island.
Her memories remain. She recalls going door-to-door in 1963 in the "Freedom Ballot" effort led by the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee to break down barriers designed to keep Blacks from voting in Mississippi. The ballots were "to serve as a template to say to the world, ‘Here is my voice. Let this represent my vote, my voice if not for obstacles like voter’s suppression and Jim Crow laws standing in my way, ’ " she explained.
They were chased by the KKK and had doors slammed in their faces. It was worth it. "Our efforts led to the work of Mississippi Civil Rights icon Fannie Lou Hamer and culminated into the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965," she said.
The 60-plus Mineola resident said she learned then "about hard work, commitment, disappointment, endurance and having faith to continue to advocate for what you believed in."
That experience shaped her life. "If you do right, right will follow you. Do everything within your power to bring attention to inequities. Locate the heads of organization, departments, human resources at your job. Continue to report and expose. Someone will listen," said Sims, whose current efforts include speaking engagements that emphasize education about omitted African American history and working with the Andrew Goodman Foundation, whose mission is to "enfranchise and educate young people in the electoral process."
One of Timothy Sams’ guiding principles comes from the grandparents who raised him: "Leave people better than when you found them."
He’s always aimed to make them proud. Sams was recently appointed president of SUNY Old Westbury. He brings nearly 30 years of higher-education experience and a sweet spot for disadvantaged and marginalized students.
"My grandmother told me, ‘don’t ever think poor people don’t have standards,’ " said Sams. Education and hard work are game changers, they taught. His grandfather was fond of saying, "It’s not what they think about you, but what you think about yourself."
Those words were solace when he experienced racism. As a public middle-school student in upstate Syracuse, he said he was not taught the same material as private and parochial school students. At Union College in Schenectady, he said students of color were grossly undersupported compared with whites. These experiences shaped him.
"I decided to go into education so others would not have similar experiences," he explained.
Sams, 53, who has settled in Westbury, came to Long Island from Prairie View A&M University in Texas, the historically Black land-grant institution where he created an emergency resource center and LGBTQ+ Resource Center. He has worked to increase student and staff diversity, created the country’s first ROTC Center of Excellence (at Morehouse College), and an experiential learning and cultural immersion program in Ghana for Swarthmore College.
What he’s proud of though, in addition to his two children, is the hundreds of students he helped to graduate. "It’s about the students who told me they didn’t think they had the chops to graduate, who became doctors, attorneys. I did what my grandparents told me — to leave people better."
Last year put the treatment of Black men front and center. Phil Andrews has been preaching that gospel for years as a former two-term president of 100 Black Men of Long Island. He is also president of the Long Island African American Chamber of Commerce and president emeritus of the Black Public Relations Society of New York.
"I often encounter racism as an African American male. It could be simple things like walking past a person of another race and they clutch their bag, or approaching a vendor table of a bank at a business expo to speak to them and being ignored," Andrews said.
What’s key in handling such affronts, he said, "Is to take an affirmative response in making sure we affirm ourselves in invalidating circumstances. The story of our lives is how we handle invalidating circumstances."
Andrews, 57, of Fresh Meadows, Queens, is founder of P.A. Public Relations Co. and has served on several boards of directors, including for the Roosevelt Chamber of Commerce and currently the nonprofit Interfaith Nutrition Network. His good works earned him proclamations from former Nassau County Executive Thomas Gulotta and the current county executive, Laura Curran.
While the "networker-in-chief" is often about town, he enjoys quiet time devouring books by Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Dubois, and watching documentaries.
As a leader of 100 Black Men of Long Island Inc., Andrews helped to get an African American man accepted into the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and organized the African American Academic Challenge, in which Long Island students competed in a Black History Bowl, and Dollars and $ense, a financial literary program for youth.
"I am proud to have led the charge of Black men during my tenure at 100 Black Men of Long Island," he said. "So much negative attention is given to Black men. It was my opportunity to show the world the tremendous impact that we are having and will continue to have on America."
As the torch gets passed from one generation to the next, Daniel Lloyd works to make sure minority millennials are in the mix, ready for leadership. He is the founder and president of Minority Millennials, a nonprofit created in 2017 in Amityville that is "working to develop, fund and implement solutions to the social, cultural and economic issues that minority millennials and the future generations of America face."
The organization initiates research, polling and data collection and partners with other organizations on common goals. Right now it’s partnering with United Way LI to provide civic education and peer leadership training to YouthBuild participants in Hempstead, Brentwood and Central Islip. "Our common goal of equipping young people with the tools necessary to drive innovation and progress in their communities is key to our partnerships," Lloyd said of the eight-weeks of workshops with the theme "Bridging the Gap Between Policy & Culture."
Minority Millennials offers training and development and organizes issue-based campaigns to impact policy from the lens of minorities and millennials. For example, their Millennial Survey is a study to determine the current socioeconomic needs of Black and brown millennials on Long Island. They are creating an Index of Minority Millennials, Lloyd said, "to identify disparities between the different population groups, ultimately ensuring young people of color have both the access and opportunity to benefit from vital economic development."
Minority Millennials is educating young people in such areas as wealth building, homeownership, political equity and professional development through networking opportunities, educational programs, mentoring and business advisory services. The lack of affordable housing is high on its 2021 agenda.
Lloyd, 34, of West Babylon, a CEO of an equitable development consulting agency, is determined to solve some of society’s most pressing challenges. He’s looking for "proof of progress on Long Island."
"If we can look at all of these things in five years and factually say things have improved, Long Island will be the most rich, engaging, inclusive and generous place to live in America," he said.
When Lloyd’s not trying to change the world, you’ll find him playing basketball, listening to Lex Fridman podcasts and studying history.
"Long Island is the blueprint for housing segregation. I am honestly tired of that being our claim to fame. It's time for us to be the blueprint of harmonious diversity," Sam Law said.
She’s doing her part to change Long Island’s culture. In 2018 she founded the nonprofit Yung Hip Professionals in Wyandanch. What tops their agenda? Issues like diversity and inclusion in the workplace, criminal justice reform and affordable housing.
The organization hosts Facebook Live discussions with Long Island community leaders, elected officials and others to discuss ways to build a better Long Island. To motivate people to follow their dreams, there are monthly dialogues on the organization’s website with business owners, entrepreneurs, creative professionals and influencers.
In 2020, her organization started the Sgt. Thomas Lawson Scholarship fund for graduating Wyandanch Memorial High School seniors in honor of her late father, a Wyandanch graduate who was in the school’s band and served in the military before getting a bachelor’s degree. The fund has raised more than $1,800 for cash scholarships as well as Chromebooks for two students who entered college in the fall of 2020.
Law, 33, of Wyandanch, is chair of Diversity & Inclusion for the Melville Chamber of Commerce, TEDx speaker event organizer, model and marketing professional. She was honored with the 2020 Rising Star of the 15th Legislative District award for her community service.
She said she takes cues from Maya Angelou: "She was a jack of all trades. Each of my endeavors fills my heart and is leading to my life’s purpose."
Law, who speaks Spanish and Italian and enjoys photography, knows her story could be different. The single mother of two said, "I was a mom at 16 but graduated high school on time with honors, started college at SUNY Old Westbury, and got my master’s from LIU Post in mental health counseling.
"If it weren’t for my parents standing by me, I would have never had the courage."
Wilma Holmes Tootle
One word defines the life of Wilma Holmes Tootle: education. She has been a teacher, high school dean, assistant principal, principal, college adjunct professor and district director of personnel for the Uniondale School District.
She’s given more lessons than she can count, but she’s learned, too. One lesson comes from children's advocate Marian Wright Edelman’s statement, "Service is the rent you pay for living." It’s not surprising that Tootle’s motto is "Make service your signature."
Those aren’t mere words. Tootle is the president of the National Coalition of 100 Black Women’s Long Island Chapter, a member of the Nassau Community College Black Student Advisory Council and the American Red Cross of Long Island Diversity Committee. Her present and past community commitments could fill a book, as would her awards and honors, including the "Women Breaking Ground" Award from the Nassau County Comptroller.
Tootle is president of W.H. Tootle Consulting Services, which specializes in business and children’s etiquette, and co-president of A Better You Consulting Services, which offers executive leadership coaching. She grew up with racism in Alabama and encountered it on Long Island when she was the first female assistant principal on the secondary level in her job at Uniondale High School in 1981.
"There were some white staff members who questioned my right to be a supervisor," Tootle said. "I was passed over for a higher appointment or committee assignment, and then there were the look on faces when people discovered that I was the supervisor instead of my secretary, who happened to be white."
The best response "was to always be prepared for my duties and responsibilities, that became my level of comfort when situations arose. I stood up to people and was outspoken."
The 71-year-old Freeport resident is encouraged by recent events: "Vice President Kamala Harris taking the oath of office and youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman taking the stage. I see all of the Black women and men who are becoming 'firsts' and making strides in all fields of endeavor."
Dr. Allison McLarty
Racism rears its ugly head in all sorts of ways. Just listen to Stony Brook University Heart Institute’s Dr. Allison McLarty She is director of the Ventricular Assist Device Program. McLarty implanted the first Left Ventricular Assist Device in Suffolk County in 2010.
"Multiple studies show that outcomes are poorer for African Americans than for others with coronary bypass. They also have an increased chance of renal failure after open heart surgery," said McLarty, who is also an associate professor of surgery at the Renaissance School of Medicine, director of the Lung Cancer Evaluation Center and director of the Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation Program at Stony Brook.
She said two patients, one Black and one white, with the same diagnosis can be offered different treatment options that impact the outcome. This can happen for several reasons, but racism can be a factor. Health disparities have been glaring with COVID-19, McLarty said. "Not only are minorities suffering more, but because of disparate treatment in the past, many people of color are reluctant to take the vaccine."
The 58-year-old Port Jefferson resident knew at 10 she wanted to be a doctor. Thanks to her family’s emotional and financial support she got there. A native of Jamaica, McLarty said her heart was set on Johns Hopkins Medical School until she learned foreign students were required to put four years of tuition into an escrow account. This was beyond their means. "Mom flew from Jamaica to Hopkins to negotiate another arrangement," explained McLarty. John Hopkins said no, but Columbia University offered a full scholarship — and the rest is history.
The mother of two grown children has gathered accolades, like Brookhaven Town’s Women’s Recognition Award for Medicine in 2011 for community service.
What feeds her soul besides ballroom dancing and painting? Mentoring female students and residents, many of whom were afraid they weren’t good enough to be surgeons. She helped prove them wrong.
Read part one of the Black leaders series at newsday.com/LILife.