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Illuminating history: Students' research lifts up stories of African Americans on LI

On Aug. 19, the Southold Historical Society showed

On Aug. 19, the Southold Historical Society showed off its exhibit which honors enslaved people from Long Island. Credit: Randee Daddona

"I passed by this neighborhood so many times and never thought of stopping to look," Antonia Brogna said about the Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District marker on the route to her aunt’s home. Brogna’s awareness of the community was changed by her senior-year reporting class at Stony Brook University, she said: "Now I stop and look."

Attention to hidden history was precisely Karen Masterson’s aim when students arrived last fall for her Advanced Reporting class. Instead of focusing on writing, 17 students researched the history of slavery on Long Island, said Masterson, who left Stony Brook this fall for a professorship at the University of Richmond.

The assignment was designed to report on the remnants and effects of slavery on Long Island, which hardly acknowledges the practice, said Zachary R. Dowdy, an assistant professor of journalism who helped direct the students’ research; Dowdy was until recently a Newsday reporter. Terry Sheridan, managing editor of WSHU Public Radio who directs the university’s internship program, was also part of the teaching team.

The students dug into historical documents and research databases and found people to interview. The resulting stories ranged from explaining Southold Historical Society’s "first step" incorporating slavery in its exhibits to trying to uncover the history of the Underground Railroad on Long Island. Some of the students' research aired on WSHU.

The project allowed students "to connect past to present in a very direct way," said Masterson, who added, "I hope this project has grown their worlds."

This second and final part includes research by Felicia LaLomia, Wilko Martínez-Cachero Vas, Antonia Brogna and Gary Ghayrat. You can read the first part at newsday.com/LILife.

Recognizing a slave past

By Felicia LaLomia

LaLomia, 24, who graduated from Stony Book in December, is a reporter at North Forker. Not a Long Island native, LaLomia said she didn't face the same reckoning as classmates, many who "discovered" the history of slavery here. Yet, she said, "If the people of the North Fork don’t understand that slavery was something that happened in this area, that has a domino effect that comes through today in terms of how people understand the black-lives-matter origins of the Black Lives Matter movement."

In Southold, the Thomas Moore/Samuel Landon house's wooden shingles and white trim indicate it was built in the Colonial era. Within its bare kitchen is a table and a deep brick fireplace with a black cauldronlike pot. This was the center of the home — its heat source, socializing area, the place where food was prepared. On the table sit corn, squash and zucchini, seemingly collected from a small garden out back. Samuel Landon, Southold’s town supervisor in the mid-1700s, owned the home, which stands as a testament to what life was like for him and his family. Today, the house, whose name also references a home previously in the same spot, is a museum run by the Southold Historical Society.

Staff at the historical society are acknowledging history that has previously been ignored: that the Landon family also enslaved people — at least five.

In a back corner of the house, in a square room no more than 12 feet wide, is an exhibit created in fall 2019 dedicated to those enslaved people. One window illuminates the space where four wooden cutouts — in the shape of people knitting, chopping wood or mopping the floor — cover four otherwise blank walls. The silhouettes are painted black, representing the little bit that is known about the people. Beside each cutout, placards contain slim descriptions gleaned from various historical documents:

Simmene, fate unknown.

Caesar, son of Simmene. Fate unknown.

Condie, daughter of Simmene. Fate unknown,

Prince, married to Pogg, a free mulatto in 1769. Fate unknown.

Zipporah, enslaved woman inherited by Jared Landon.

This small room is meant to represent the enslaved people who lived in the house, most likely in its kitchen or attic. They helped run the household for Landon, his wife, Bethia, and their 10 children.

Many historians have overlooked this part of Southold’s past, often ignoring it entirely in their research papers. The historical society is trying to rewrite history with a different narrative: Enslaved people lived in Southold and their stories are as important as Samuel Landon’s.

"I wanted to give acknowledgment to the existence of all the people who lived in that house," said Amy Folk, Southold town historian and the exhibit's curator. "They [enslaved people] are a mostly unspoken part of the history, but they are very much part of the history of this town."

Adding the history of enslaved people has become a trend throughout the American South. Curators at Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s home, added slave quarters to the exhibit in 2015. The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., was finally built in 2016. The Aiken-Rhett House in Charleston, South Carolina, incorporated in its exhibit the lives of enslaved people and their living quarters in 2016. The Owens-Thomas House in Savannah, Georgia, added slave quarters to the museum in 2018. The Nathaniel Russell House, also in Charleston, excavated slave quarters in 2018 to further research the lives of 18 enslaved people who lived there.

Wayland Jefferson, Southold's first historian, from 1930 to 1961, wrote about the town's history but never mentioned slavery, a surprise considering his mother was Black. Folk said she was likely an enslaved person who escaped the South. In "The History of Southold, LI, The First Century," published in 1881, Epher Whittaker doesn’t chronicle slavery in the town except when referring to a white person as a "slave-owner" or a person who "owned many slaves."

"I think those early historians were quite seduced by this idea of the Northern association with anti-slavery in the wake of the Civil War," said Jennifer Anderson, associate professor of history at Stony Brook. Dredging up the history of enslaved people in the North undermines the untrue ideal that the region was wholly against slavery, she added.

Richard Wines, a Jamesport resident whose ancestors enslaved people on Long Island, has researched the existence of enslaved individuals in Suffolk County. "Most local history has always been written to praise and celebrate our forebears. Very little is ever said about aspects that look less rosy in posterity," he said. "Of course it was a different time. We shouldn’t be condemning them, but we should be asking how it happened — that God-fearing, churchgoing, Bible-reading people could have enslaved others of a different race."

Folk started working on the Southold exhibit three years ago after the town supervisor asked her to create a display that would represent the African American community. A year earlier, Folk had discovered that town founder Samuel Landon held enslaved people through a church ledger that listed them as having been baptized. From there, a committee gathered information about the enslaved people — their relatives, marriages and children.

"We don't know where the slaves were kept. They could have been out in the barn. They could have been upstairs with 10 kids," said Lee Cleary, the historical society's secretary.

Folk said community reaction to the exhibit has been mixed: "I have had people tell me it's the worst exhibit ever. And I said, ‘Why?’ ‘Because you didn't take it far enough.’ "

The exhibit, she noted, is the first step. Another part of the learning process for Folk involved vocabulary, she said, explaining that the exhibit refers to "slaves" though the term "enslaved people" is becoming more widely used.

Lynda Day, an Africana studies professor at Brooklyn College, said exhibits like this are rare.

"Telling the story of the enslaved people of the house is pretty revolutionary in the telling of history," she said. "History is usually the story of the elites of any society. So focusing on the lower-status people of any place indeed turns the story on its head and makes the invisible visible."

Deanna Witte-Walker, the historical society's executive director, said the exhibit is its push to include more diverse histories Southold's people.

"The question of how to be more inclusive has been an important one for our museum," she said. "The exhibit’s committee felt that it was our duty to explore the fact that Samuel Landon was a slave-owner. Enslavement in Southold Town is not a new concept. But we had never explored it ourselves."

"This is what a lot of historic house museums are stuck in the middle of," said Jonathan Olly, curator at the Long Island Museum. "Because they want to preserve the house, they feel proud about the house's history, but they may not feel proud about the entire history."

Sonia Spar, co-chair of Southold Town’s Anti-Bias Task Force, a volunteer group that promotes diversity, is trying to spread what the historical society is doing to other East End historical groups.

"We need to engage with historical societies on the North Fork to get a clearer picture, a better picture, and try to discover more firsthand resources to be able to understand and come with the responsibility and accountability that this is our history," Spar said.

She said the exhibit is a good first step at raising awareness of the history of slavery on Long Island, but more research needs to be done.

"This has been a topic that has been under the carpet for so many years. We are in 2019 … and it doesn't even tell a clear picture of enslaved people in the North Fork," she said, "So now that the topic has been put on the table, I think it needs to bring a more comprehensive and embracing approach."

But Wines, whose ancestors enslaved people, said the historical society could do more to publicize the exhibit, which has been closed during the pandemic. "So few people visit a place like that, so it is hard for it to have much impact," he said.

Day said it is a step in the right direction. "My hope is that including the Black history of our American past will lead to more understanding between the races, less prejudice against Black people, more recognition that we are all part of the building of America."

Maine Maid Inn: Myth vs. fact

By Wilko Martínez-Cachero Vas

Martínez-Cachero Vas, 21, graduated in May from Stony Brook. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, he was to begin a master's program at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Instead, he is back in his native Madrid, hoping to start the program in 2021. About his and his classmates' research, he said, "You see that happened back then, and you see segregation that happens on a day-to-day basis — you think maybe the decisions made back then impact now."

It's easy to walk past One North Mediterranean Soul in Jericho without realizing that the seafood restaurant was once the Maine Maid Inn, a place at the heart of a debate about the Underground Railroad on Long Island.

Efforts are increasingly being made to correct the historical record, especially pertaining to slavery. The New York Times’ 1619 project, an ongoing initiative that "aims to reframe" American history by discussing the "consequences of slavery and contributions of Black Americans," is part of the movement. Museums around the country, including on Long Island, are trying to change people’s perceptions of an often-misrepresented chapter in U.S. history.

An Underground Railroad on Long Island could have presented a route to freedom for enslaved people, but historians and experts are struggling to determine whether it existed here.

In 2013, SUNY Old Westbury professor Kathleen Velsor published "The Underground Railroad on Long Island: Friends in Freedom," a book discussing the possibility of an Underground Railroad on the Island. The book posits that the secret system for helping enslaved people escape started around Hicks Street in Brooklyn Heights, went east past Queens into Long Island, then largely congregated around Jericho and Westbury. A stop in Oyster Bay allowed enslaved people to cross the Long Island Sound into Connecticut and eventually escape to Canada, according to the book.

Velsor’s book is the only widely distributed work supporting an Underground Railroad on Long Island. The book includes a bibliography and 173 footnotes, many of which reference oral histories. "Nobody else has been able to put the story together, so that's why I'm the expert," she said.

Velsor’s book describes Underground Railroad stops from the Jackson Home in Wantagh to the Ketchum farm and Jackson/Malcolm Home (related to the Wantagh Jacksons) in Jericho. These places were owned by Quakers, who led the abolitionist movement here. The Wantagh site takes its name from the Jackson family that was believed to have arrived on Long Island about 1643. Robert Jackson was among the Town of Hempstead’s founders.

Velsor’s book quotes an article from a local publication that said the Jacksons helped enslaved people escape from the South before the Civil War, potentially making their home a "final destination."

Velsor depicts Jericho as vital to the Underground Railroad, its families helping enslaved people to freedom. The area’s most notable stop was the Maine Maid, according to her book. The inn, given town landmark status in 2012, was home to Valentine Hicks, a Quaker who was the son-in-law of prominent anti-slavery activist Elias Hicks. A secret stairway behind a linen closet supposedly led to a hiding spot for runaway enslaved people.

But the theory has its detractors.

"Give me a break," said Joysetta Pearse, manager of the African American Museum of Nassau County, in Hempstead. "They had cellars [to smuggle rum]. It wasn’t a secret place to hide slaves."

Evidence of the Underground Railroad on Long Island relies on oral histories. Documents are few — understandable given the circumstances under which people would have housed runaways.

But if Long Island’s Underground Railroad amounts to a campfire story, what is true?

For instance, Velsor writes that the Jackson/Malcolm House in Jericho is "believed to have maintained [the Jackson] family’s interest in supporting the freedom efforts of enslaved people," while the Ketchum farm allegedly housed runaway enslaved people. Velsor points out, however, that such arrangements were a secret — even from members of the Jericho Quaker Meeting.

Setalcott Indians purportedly passed down stories of helping enslaved people in the Three Village area, accounts that rely on word of mouth.

Another possibility is that the Underground Railroad counted on American Indians' knowledge of waterways and hunting trails around the East End. They used their "expert hunting and maritime skills as guides," said Georgette Grier-Key, executive director and chief curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society.

"There's secrecy involved with [the Underground Railroad], so it’s really hard as a historian to actually document it," said Jennifer Anderson, an associate professor of history at Stony Brook who is writing a book on slavery. "It's something that gets mythologized."

The Underground Railroad was further obscured after 1850 when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. "It [became] a federal crime to help a fugitive slave to do anything, so that’s when it really had to become secret," said Lynda Day, professor of Africana studies at Brooklyn College. "People were flouting the possibility of arrest by federal agents if they were involved in it."

Documenting the Underground Railroad 200 years later seems inconceivable.

"When people say, ‘My home was a stop on the underground railroad ’ … they were so secretive about it for obvious reasons that it's like the spy network," said Steve Boerner, archivist and president of the Cedar Swamp Historical Society in Old Brookville. Boerner said it is tough to separate fact from legend about the Underground Railroad. Nevertheless, he also thinks that the Quakers played an important role locally.

"With the maritime setting and this really strong Quaker heritage, there are very strong suggestions, but it's hard to say exactly like how formalized those things were," agreed Anderson.

And said Day, Quakers "did make their houses available for the Underground Railroad."

Much of the research in Velsor’s book came through her husband’s family, whose lineage can be traced to Quaker ancestors on Long Island. She points to those Quaker roots to support her work, but said those connections have caused skepticism.

Community amid gentrification

By Antonia Brogna

Brogna, 23, graduated from Stony Brook in May. A native of Plainview, Brogna said her experience with this project showed her "that the history of slavery on Long Island got swept under the rug."

On Christian Avenue in Setauket, tucked among homes and trees, stands Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. On Sundays, people fill its pews, listening as the pastor preaches and singing along to soulful songs about God and love. This place of worship, with stained-glass windows, was built in the 1900s, after a fire in the original 1871 structure, but a small plaque in the sanctuary notes that the congregation dates to 1848.

"When you say church, it’s actually a community of people," said the Rev. Gregory L. Leonard, pastor of the church for 26 years.

In the 1840s and ’50s, historians say, a community blending cultures and backgrounds began to bloom on Christian Avenue. The area was originally inhabited by Setalcott Indians, but as slavery ended in New York, many formerly enslaved Black people moved to the area. People of both Native American and African descent formed Bethel AME Church.

Christopher Matthews, a historical archaeologist and anthropology professor at Montclair State University, has been working to help record the rich past of the Bethel-Christian Avenue-Laurel Hill Historic District for more than a decade in a project called "A Long Time Coming." The district, designated in 2005, is important, he explained, because it is closely linked to the relatively unknown history of slavery on Long Island.

"When I worked in Louisiana, everyone knows slavery was there," he said. "But once you come to Long Island, the first thing you have to tell people is that there was slavery here. Projects like [that in] Setauket give us a chance to rediscover that there were enslaved African people there."

The community’s traditions have been kept alive through oral histories and institutions, like Bethel AME and the Irving Hart American Legion Post 1766, established on Christian Avenue after World War II by Native and African Americans who were excluded from existing posts. As with many parts of Long Island, though, rising real estate prices prompt many younger residents to find cheaper living elsewhere.

"The way the model should work with oral history is that the older generation teaches those stories to the younger generation. But if the younger generation can no longer afford to live there … basically, then the community ceases to exist," said Jonathan Olly, curator of the Long Island Museum in Stony Brook.

Shared stories are also crucial to the identities of the people whose ancestors have lived in the area, explained Jay Levenson, a Stony Brook University librarian. "If you lose it [the oral history], you lose your identity," said Levenson, who is Kanienkehaka. "You go through life not knowing who you are."

A Long Time Coming, run by Matthews in collaboration with Robert E. Lewis, a community member, and Judith A. Burgess, a cultural anthropologist and oral historian, aims to use archaeology and oral and written stories to piece together and preserve the community’s legacy.

The trio, along with students and volunteers, learned about the community members and their stories — sometimes firsthand. One such story, told by Pearl Lewis Hart, who lived in the historic district from 1924 until her death in 2017, helped give them a better understanding of the neighborhood’s early decades. They cite her in an essay published in the online Long Island History Journal, a peer-reviewed academic publication from Stony Brook's Center for Global and Local History. In her story, Hart talks about her first memory of Christian Avenue when she was 4 and horses and carriages still dominated the streets.

"About 1934 and ’35 the road was widened and a new avenue was added between Christian Avenue, Setauket and West Meadow Road, named Locust Avenue," she says. "At this time we still had the horse and wagons and my Grandmother, Rebecca Lewis, was going back and forth to Strong’s Neck. The horse was fast and many times I thought the wagon would turn over."

Stories like this have helped archaeologists and historians like Matthews piece together family trees and hints about the past. Such stories helped him discover and excavate two historical sites: the Silas Tobias site and the Jacob and Hannah Hart site. Both date to the 19th century and have ties to people, likely of African and Native American descent, who helped create the community on Christian Avenue.

"Those two sites … are really rich sources of data about people of color living in Setauket who were … founding members of that community at the time," Matthews said.

His book, "A Struggle for Heritage: Archaeology and Civil Rights in a Long Island Community" (University Press of Florida), about the project will be out in October. While it focuses on archaeological finds, it includes personal narratives of community members.

Lynda Day, a professor of Africana Studies at Brooklyn College, said that oral histories like the ones Matthews has heard in Setauket help flesh out numbers and figures found in archives and documents. "Documents tend to be produced by formal government bodies," she said. "You're going to get a lot about property taxes, wills — not so much about how people feel or about family life. So you have to try to match the two to come up with as full a story as possible."

While Matthews doesn’t know what can be done to preserve communities, he said he believes that preserving their stories might be part of the solution.

"What I conclude with the book is a call for preservationists, historians, archaeologists like myself … to develop something like an affirmative action approach," he said. "We find those who are most in need of the support we have, which is largely the expertise and resources we have as college professors or people working with government agencies. We focus on those who are in most need, rather than what's available to us."

Hidden history of free Blacks

By Gary Ghayrat

Ghayrat, 23, graduated from Stony Brook in May. Ghayrat, who lives in Lake Grove, said he found researching the history of African Americans on Long Island "eye-opening." He said, "One of people I talked to said they weren’t able to trace back their history because there is no documentation, no data. I saw how deeply it affected them."

"Grandpop, you said that our family ancestors weren’t slaves?" a young girl asked her grandfather in disbelief. He answered in a quiet tone, "as I said, not all people of color were slaves, dear. There was a few of us that wasn’t enslaved." It’s an exchange that Denice Evans-Sheppard recalls to explain how humiliating it was to be asked if she, the only Black child in her American History class, wanted to be excused from the lesson detailing the graphic treatment of Black people in "The Birth of a Nation," D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 film.

It was left to her grandfather Percy Carl to fill in the history of African Americans — beyond slavery — that is so often missing from textbooks.

"I always had an interest in history; however, in school, they really didn't show a lot about our culture, or our history," Evans-Sheppard said. "The only thing that they showed us in school was that we were slaves."

Now the executive director for the Oyster Bay Historical Society, Evans-Sheppard has documented and told the stories of that grandfather, stories he got from his grandfather, Civil War veteran David Carll, and his father, Lewis Carll, a free Black man who was a chauffeur for the Jones family on Long Island before slavery was abolished.

"I think that our local schools should implement these stories, because it will give the children more of an understanding that we're all inclusive in the fabric of history, and not just part of the enslaved aspect," Evans-Sheppard said.

In her books, "The Constant Struggle Within" (2011) and "Footsteps of a Forgotten Soldier — The Life and Times of David Carll" (2015), the latter cowritten with her cousin Francis Carl, she tells the family's history, a long tale of overcoming the challenges they faced to own property and operate businesses as people of color.

Evans-Sheppard recorded the oral histories her grandfather Percy told her about David, how, he said, "seeing the slaves working from sun up to sun down daily appeared to be the most hurtful part of being free," and helping some with clothing and food. Francis received a certificate from President Barack Obama recognizing David’s contribution during the Civil War.

Evans-Sheppard continues to be amazed by her great-great-grandfather David, whose marriage to Mary Louisa Appleford, a white European woman, in 1862 was one of the first interracial marriages recorded in Oyster Bay. The furthest back she can trace her family is David’s father, Lewis Carll, who was born in 1795 and lived as a free Black man.

"I'm trying to figure out why … like, why was he free prior to the Civil War?" Evans-Sheppard said. "That’s really deep to think … where did they come from? What were they doing? How did they get here?"

Evans-Sheppard has inspired others to research their family histories. Among them, Antoinette Brookshire, 52, of Hempstead, who also works for the historical society. "I’ve been triggered," Brookshire said. "You just wonder … how did we get here? … I’m African American, so then I asked the question: Were my forefathers slaves? Were they free men? Because there were some free men. What was their journey like on the ship from Africa? When they came to the States, where exactly did they come to? Or did part of my family first go to the Caribbean?"

She hasn’t been able to find out much about her family history but she isn’t giving up.

When African Americans look for their enslaved ancestors, identifying last names can be a big obstacle, said Claire Bellerjeau, historian at Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay. "At some point, you hit that brick wall of when we have a person and a first name, and you have to find a connection to the last name, and then try to find the particular white owner to really connect them to that era."

In a recent discovery of Oyster Bay Town Hall documents from 1823 to 1829, Bellerjeau found a Steven Carl who she believes could be a relative of Evans-Sheppard’s. A purchase document of an enslaved person named Steven from a Gilbert Carl might be the connection between the Carl name and a slaveholder, she said.

Evans-Sheppard was surprised when she learned during a trip to the Raynham Hall Museum about Bellerjeau’s discovery, and Evans-Sheppard said she will work to find out more.

Meanwhile, she continues to work to preserve what she has already uncovered about her family. Like getting historic designation for Pine Hollow Cemetery, where David Carll — along with 10 other Civil War veterans — and the rest of Evans-Sheppard’s family are buried. Established in 1884, the cemetery was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2018 following her efforts working with African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Evans-Sheppard said that although there were challenges getting the cemetery recognized, she is happy to see the place where one day she plans to be buried properly maintained. "I know that they are smiling down, so yes, I’m happy," she said, standing in front of the cemetery.

Read more research from Stony Brook University students at newsday.com/LILife.

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