As a young girl sitting at the dining table in the Oyster Bay house her great-great-grandfather built, Denice Evans-Sheppard would listen patiently as her grandfather, Percy Carll, launched into his usual after-dinner telling of the family’s history.
There would be frequent mention of her great-great-grandfather, David Carll, who was from a second generation of free blacks in Oyster Bay at a time when some blacks there were still enslaved.
Carll volunteered for service in the Civil War; he married Mary Louise Appleford, a white woman, to whom he was wed for 30 years, at a time when such unions were illegal in most places; and bought land in a historic community associated with the Roosevelt, Rockefeller and Vanderbilt families, establishing a still-existing homestead in Pine Hollow that was initially called Carll Hill.
Landowners and business
“I remember him saying most of the family, including aunts and uncles, were landowners in Oyster Bay and owned their own businesses,” said Evans-Sheppard, 52. Her great-great-grandfather owned a schooner that he used to transport freight along Long Island Sound. “His three oldest sons worked for him on the boat and didn’t like seafood because they were constantly cooking and eating seafood,” she recalled.
“He talked about my great-grandfather, Francis Carll, having a horse and buggy, and a truck for hauling trash from wealthy estates in Brookville, Muttontown, Mill Neck and Cove Neck.
Her great-great-grandfather was patriotic. Her grandfather remembered him saluting, every morning, the U.S. flag that flew on a flagpole on his front lawn.
“I had to listen to these stories relentlessly,” Evans-Sheppard said. “I was maybe six or seven, but it paid off.”
Indeed, in ways Evans-Sheppard, one of Percy Carll’s 14 grandchildren, didn’t foresee.
In observance of Black History Month, Evans-Sheppard will give a presentation on her family history on Monday at the Bar Harbour branch of the Massapequa Library. She will be joined by her cousin Francis S. Carl of Maryland. They co-authored a book: “Footsteps of a Forgotten Soldier: The Life and Times of David Carll.” Francis Carl, 52, a federal contractor, says of the event, “I just basically want to talk about the importance of people knowing their history and doing the research to find out who we are.”
Evans-Sheppard is the fourth generation of a family whose members were born and raised in Oyster Bay and who have had a presence in the town since at least the early 1800s, she said. She continues that service with the Oyster Bay Historical Society after retiring from her job as a supervisor in the probation department of the Nassau County Juvenile Detention Center.
She had been a former board member but is now the society’s new director, the first woman to hold the post.
In 1863, 18-year-old David Carll voluntarily enlisted as a private in Company C of the 26th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops, which served during the last year of the Civil War.
When the war ended, David Carll remained in South Carolina “to help some of those enslaved in the South to regain some form of normalcy; most of them weren’t even aware the war was over,” Evans-Sheppard said.
becoming the storyteller
Percy Carll was 10 years old when his grandfather died. “He lost his balance and fell while feeding his dogs,” Evans-Sheppard said, adding that he suffered an injury he was unable to recover from.
Percy Carll grew up to become the family storyteller — relating stories in the house his grandfather built in a section of the town called Pine Hollow overlooking Route 106, whose residents were Polish, Italian and African-American — and a chauffeur in the Oyster Bay Town Public Works Department. He also worked at Grumman.
Evans-Sheppard said her grandfather “talked about a lot that transpired in the family. “My grandfather’s uncle, Joseph Carll, was editor and printer for the Oyster Bay Pilot Printing House. He opened his own printery in 1922 but, on the day of the grand opening, he died of a heart attack.”
One relative, Frank Carll, had a farm where he raised pigs and chickens and grew fruit trees. “He was self-sufficient,” Evans-Sheppard said. “He sold everything to local markets.” Another relative drove a coach for a whaling family.
There were at times family disputes over property. “There were a lot of shady dealings,” Evans-Sheppard said. “I remember people coming to my grandfather making offers to sell the property. He said his grandfather [David Carll] ‘fought hard for that property’ and it was up to him to keep it.”
Not even the family name was off limits. A family member sought unsuccessfully to remove one ‘l’ from the name Carll. “It gives you a sense of pride knowing that everybody knew it was in Oyster Bay and associated it with the family,” Evans-Sheppard said.
Her grandfather also talked about cousins who danced as entertainers at the Cotton Club in Harlem, and of actress-singer Vanessa Williams being a paternal cousin.
The stories inspired Evans-Sheppard to research and authenticate them. She recalled that her third-grade teacher at the Theodore Roosevelt Elementary School disbelieved her when she, the only black student in her class, mentioned that her great-great-grand father fought in the Civil War.
“She refuted it more than once,” Evans-Sheppard recalled. “They thought everybody was a slave.”
The family embarked on its own “treasure hunt,” Evans-Sheppard said, to confirm the information her grandfather passed along.
“I sought to determine if he [her great-great-grandfather] had some sort of relevance,” Evans-Sheppard said. She and other family members searched property records in Queens County, the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and other sources.
In a Family History Room at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Plainview, they found records dating to 1810. “I found pieces relating to my great-great-grandfather,” Evans-Sheppard said. “His mom died a year after he was born.”
The Department of the Interior also had files on David Carll. “He’s all over the place, but you don’t know until you do research,” Evans-Sheppard said.
Having authenticated her great-great-grandfather’s legacy, Evans-Sheppard compiled the family stories for a program she presented in school districts, libraries and museums on Long Island from 1995 to 2001. She also wrote about them for the Oyster Bay Historical Society. In 2012, she received the Society’s Historic, Cultural and Educational Preservation Award.
Before leaving office in 2017, President Barack Obama posthumously honored David Carll, issuing a certificate that stated: “This certificate is awarded by a grateful nation in recognition of devoted and selfless consecration to the service of our country in the Armed Forces of the United States.”
Evans-Sheppard is grateful for the relatives and tales that have influenced her. “These are the people that shaped me,” she said. “I guess I was groomed at an early age. Listening to my grandfather and my aunts and uncles basically shaped me as to who I am today. I’m still learning a lot. It’s important to inspire the next generation.”
To do that, she has related the stories at different historical societies on Long Island. “It’s important to discuss our lineage so we have a better understanding of who we are,” she said.
Her son, Kai Sheppard, 14, and a cousin, Khalil Williams, 16, are among her family’s fifth generation. They expect to carry on their ancestors’ legacy. “It’s very important,” said Kai.
Evans-Sheppard suggests beginning by collecting old photos and steering clear of the trash can.
“Don’t throw things away,” she said. “It shows you are proud of who you are. When you pay your respects to those who came before, you continue the legacy.”
The home David Carll built
The House that David Carll built in 1870 sits atop a low hill in Pine Hollow, an area overlooking Route 106 in Oyster Bay.
It is a two-story house with a façade of tan-colored shingles that originally had four bedrooms and accommodated five generations of Carll’s descendants, including children and grandchildren, aunts, uncles and cousins.
The Civil War veteran built it with payment for his wartime service in Company C of the 26th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops during the last year of the war. He purchased the land with $200 of the $300 he received and developed a homestead.
Locked up for 30 years, the house was returned to use again when Denice Evans-Sheppard, a fourth-generation descendant, moved back 15 years ago. She renovated the interior with modern furnishings and lives there with her husband, Kelly, and their son, Kai, 14.
Although Evans-Sheppard was born and grew up there, she was wary of returning to the house.
“I said I would never live there,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable being there. I knew a lot of people passed away in the house. and I didn’t want the feeling of hearing or seeing anything.
“But my mom’s generation was getting older, and I felt it was necessary for me to remain in the area to help as much as I could.” She also wanted to save money, she said.