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Long IslandHistory

Rocky Point roadside marker commemorates area's African-American history

President of the Rocky Point Historical Society Natalie

President of the Rocky Point Historical Society Natalie Stiefel, joined by other members of the society and Brookhaven Town Supervisor Ed Romaine, reveals the new sign off Route 25a. The Rocky Point Historical Society had a cast iron sign created commemorating the free African-American families who owned and farmed their land from 1790-1850. (Nov. 23, 2013) Credit: Steve Pfost

The Rocky Point Historical Society unveiled a roadside marker commemorating an 18th century settlement of free African-Americans in Rocky Point Saturday.

"This was a free community, way before the Manumission Act, way before the Emancipation Proclamation, that they were farming their own land," said Natalie Stiefel, historical society president.

The families that lived there sent their children to a one-room schoolhouse in Rocky Point and attended the Mount Sinai Congregational Church, Stiefel said.

"It's a wonderful story, and we want to share it with everybody," she said. The sign was erected on Route 25A, near where archaeologists from the New York State Museum in 1991 excavated the foundations of a house owned by a free African-American, Betsey Prince.

A descendant of one of the residents -- Titus Sells -- said in an interview that the recognition was important. "There are many of us that have contributed to history, but it's not talked about," said Helen Sells, 72, of Middle Island.

The Long Island History Journal reported in 2011 that in 1820, four free African-American families lived in the area.

The cast iron sign, funded by the Syracuse-based William G. Pomeroy Foundation, proclaims that free African-Americans owned and developed the land by 1790 and that early settlers included the surnames of Davis, Jessup, Lyman, Sells, Phillips, Prince and Miller.

Census data show free African-American families living there in 1790, and Stiefel said that Jonah Miller, a mulatto, owned land in the area and sold pieces of it to others. Her research showed that Miller had owned hundreds of acres of land on what was then Wading River Road.

Brookhaven Town Supervisor Edward P. Romaine, who attended the unveiling, said it was important for people to know about the contributions of African-Americans to Long Island. "We had free Africans who were not slaves, and they settled here, and it's part of the early history of the Rocky Point community," he said.

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