In 2016, a TV news producer handed a light-yellow folder to Carlo Gibbons. The papers inside lifted a veil of mystery from a violent episode that has haunted his family for generations.
The file contained copies of FBI records from 1946 that told how a Freeport police officer fatally shot two brothers, Army Pfc. Charles Ferguson and civilian Alphonso Ferguson, and wounded another brother, Navy cook Joseph Ferguson, on a cold night 77 years ago this weekend. Charles was Gibbons' great-grandfather.
While growing up in Uniondale, Gibbons, 34, had only occasionally heard disjointed pieces of the painful family story. But then in 2016, as News12 Long Island was interviewing Gibbons' grandfather — Wilfred Ferguson, one of three sons left behind by Charles Ferguson — the FBI file helped the family understand events that became a national civil rights controversy at the time but today are little known.
"That was the defining moment," Gibbons said. "Now the facts are here in your hands."
Since then, Gibbons has been working with others on a podcast and documentary about the shootings. Among his colleagues is Christopher Verga of Bay Shore, an adjunct college history professor and board member of the NAACP's Islip chapter.
Verga was inspired to write “The Ferguson Brothers Lynchings on Long Island: A Civil Rights Catalyst” (The History Press, 2022). The author, whose books include “World War II Long Island” and “Civil Rights on Long Island,” said he was vaguely aware of the shootings. "I heard a little about it but not in this depth," he said. Through interviews, archives of official investigations and media reports, the book pieces together the following sequence of events.
On Monday evening, Feb. 4, 1946, four of the Ferguson brothers, who were Black and all in their 20s, gathered for the first time in three years at their childhood home at 93 Bennett Ave. in Roosevelt. Charles, an Army Air Corps private who was married with three young sons, was on leave from a segregated paratrooper unit in North Carolina. Richard had been discharged as an Army private in November 1945, but like Charles, wore his uniform that night. Joseph was assigned to a ship docked in Lido Beach after five months in the Pacific. Alphonso had spent the war at home, working civilian jobs.
After stops at two Hempstead beer gardens, the four rode a bus to Freeport and ate hamburgers at a restaurant. Shortly after 12:30 a.m., they entered the tearoom at the Freeport bus terminal on Henry Street, where trouble began.
The men ordered coffee, but manager Constantin Cholakis told them there was none left. Other patrons said later that white customers were still served coffee. Cholakis told police that an angry Charles threatened to kill him and tried to jump across the counter. Charles was led out by his brothers.
As the four walked away, one of them broke a store window nearby.
Meanwhile, Freeport police officer Joseph Romeika, 26, was on overnight foot patrol. Outside the tearoom, Cholakis told Romeika that the four men had threatened him. Romeika stopped the Fergusons near the bus terminal around 1:30 a.m. An argument began. Romeika kicked Charles in the midsection, kicked or shoved Joseph and then pulled out his .38 caliber revolver.
The officer also told a passerby, Charles Crummell, who was Black, to stand with the others against a wall; Romeika ordered them to put their hands up and requested police backup on a nearby call box. Joseph said later that Charles told the officer, “You get home on leave, and the cops want to lock you up.” Romeika said Charles told him, “You [expletive] white bastard, I am going to kill you,” and “I may have a .45.”
Then Charles lowered one or both hands, or fell forward. Romeika fired. His bullet fatally ripped through Charles’ clavicle, lung and aorta. Romeika then shot Joseph. The slug passed through his shoulder and hit Alphonso’s forehead as he stood behind Joseph. Alphonso would die of a brain hemorrhage about seven hours later.
As police converged, no Ferguson was found to have a gun.
Romeika later told a grand jury, “Charles said he got a .45 in his back pocket and will kill me. I said, keep your hands up. Charles then called me a white bastard and said he would kill me. Charles reached for his assumed .45. I gave it to him — gave it to him as the other one came at me.”
In statements to police, Joseph and Crummell backed up the claim that Charles mentioned a gun and lowered a hand or hands, but Richard said he did not hear about a gun or recall Charles lowering a hand.
Charles, 27, was buried at Long Island National Cemetery, Pinelawn, with full military honors, and Alphonso, at Greenfield Cemetery in Uniondale. Richard, who had been jailed for two weeks by Freeport authorities, was released and a disorderly conduct conviction was reversed. Joseph was cleared of any misconduct by the Navy.
A week after the shooting, District Attorney James Gehrig told a meeting of 150 concerned citizens at the Nassau County Courthouse that the shootings were not racially motivated. “I feel if the men shot were white, there would have been no issue here," he said. "It is a shame that the color question has to be raised.”
Conversely, while an all-white grand jury met to review the case, Rabbi Roland Gittelsohn of the Central Synagogue of Nassau County said at an interfaith dinner at the Garden City Hotel, “I am not in possession of all the facts, and I don’t believe anyone is, but I am positive that if the four brothers had been white men, they’d be alive today.”
On Feb. 21, the grand jury declined to indict Romeika.
Verga writes that public reaction lined up in support of law enforcement on one side and the Fergusons on the other.
In statements to newspapers, Assemb. Joseph Carlino (R-Long Beach) cast doubt on the Fergusons by drawing attention to their criminal records, including Charles for attempted burglary and Alphonso for disorderly conduct.
Ferguson supporters organized rallies on Long Island and in Manhattan. Representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union, American Jewish Congress and other groups, including the NAACP, for which future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall was special counsel, urged New York Gov. Thomas Dewey, a Republican, to launch a state investigation. Some unions and veterans' groups echoed the plea.
The New York Committee for Justice, a grassroots group fighting for a more thorough investigation, published a pamphlet that declared “New York’s Lynching goes UNANSWERED.”
In Hempstead, the Communist Party of New York State met to discuss ways to support the Fergusons, to the dismay of Walter White, national executive secretary of the NAACP, who feared that associating with communists could undermine the organization’s civil rights work. And Verga writes that members of the Ku Klux Klan in Nassau County planned to spy on Ferguson rallies to take note of attendees.
Folk music icon Woody Guthrie wrote a protest song with lyrics telling of the Fergusons being denied coffee and the tearoom manager calling police. “The cop turned around and walked back to young Charlie, kicked him in the groin and then shot him to the ground,” Guthrie sang.
Verga writes that the FBI focused on communist groups involved in calls for justice. Its internal report concluded on April 22 that “no criminal proceeding was warranted” for the shootings.
In July, Dewey ordered a state investigation. Hearings were conducted in Manhattan. The investigation's conclusion, announced Aug. 2, found “no evidence to establish that the officer, who thought his life was in danger, would have acted in any different manner had the four men before him been white.” It also found no violation of civil rights or evidence of bias by the district attorney.
Alfred S. Titus Jr., a retired NYPD homicide detective from Valley Stream who is an adjunct assistant professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, read Verga’s book and described for Newsday what Romeika faced in handling the group.
The officer did not have a taser or mace, Titus said. Romeika hears “that one of the men may have a .45, and then one of the men moves. It would not be uncommon for him to do something … either use your nightstick or use your gun … I’m really not surprised that he shot the individual.”
However, Titus said inconsistencies recounted in the book made him question whether the shooting was justified.
For example, the autopsy found that the bullet that killed Charles traveled downward from the clavicle. If Romeika fired from his hip, as he said, the gun would seem to have been at the level of Charles’ head. Verga suggests that Charles was falling forward on icy ground. He was wearing smooth-sole Army shoes, and according to the autopsy, had alcohol in his system and was hemorrhaging internally from Romeika’s kick.
As for Alphonso, Romeika testified that he fired the second shot “within a second” because Alphonso ran toward him “and tried to grab my gun.” However, Verga writes, Alphonso was behind Joseph when he was hit; in addition, Arthur Stevenson, a bus rider at the terminal, told the district attorney, “After the first man was shot, the officer whirled around and shot the shorter man [Alphonso], who had his hands up. [I] did not observe the shorter man attempt to approach the officer.”
The book's title
Verga said the Ferguson shootings highlighted the plight of Black soldiers who fought for freedom abroad in World War II but confronted discrimination back home. The author devotes a large portion of his book to describing the structural racism — in housing, education, employment and public accommodations — that existed at the time. And, he says, the killings joined other instances of brutality against Black people in pushing forward the nationwide fight for civil rights.
Explaining his use of the term “lynching” in his book title, Verga said: “A good portion of the community saw this as a police shooting. But the people of color saw this as a relic of lynching.”
Historian Terry Anne Scott, author of the 2022 book “Lynching and Leisure: Race and the Transformation of Mob Violence in Texas” (University of Arkansas Press), said the Freeport shootings do not fit the scholarly definition of lynching: a killing that involves a mob of three or more who believe they are acting in service to race, tradition or community.
She said lynchings were still happening in America in the 1940s, but had become less visible, so supporters of the Fergusons apparently used the word to draw attention to the case and the greater problem. "I noticed in some of the primary sources that it was the civil rights activists themselves who were calling it a lynching, and I think that was a very strategic characterization," she said. "They could draw more attention to the incident and work to denigrate the police officer in the public’s mind.”
Among people interviewed by Verga was Wilfred Ferguson, one of the three young sons left behind by Charles. Wilfred died of cancer last year at the age of 78.
Before his death, Wilfred told Verga that the shootings always troubled him. “Even if he said he had a gun, if it wasn’t produced, why was he shot?” Wilfred said of his father. “See, that’s what I can’t understand.”
THE FAMILY LEFT BEHIND
Pain from the Ferguson brothers’ shootings is still felt by family members nearly eight decades later, but Carlo Gibbons says the story of his great-grandfather’s death has helped turn his life around.
Gibbons, 34, grew up in a four-bedroom home in Uniondale surrounded by aunts and uncles — the seven children of Wilfred and Arlenia Ferguson. Wilfred, Gibbons’ grandfather, was one of the three sons left behind by Charles Ferguson after the Army private was shot to death by a Freeport police officer in 1946. A fixture in the family’s lives was a framed portrait of Charles showing a serious World War II veteran smartly dressed in his uniform. His death wasn’t discussed much.
Gibbons, a 2006 graduate of Uniondale High School, said he got into trouble on the streets while also taking classes at Nassau Community College. He spent time in jail and on probation for dealing drugs, gun possession and fleeing police. From ages “16 to 27, it was just jail, jail, jail, jail,” Gibbons said. His probation ended in 2020.
Gibbons said FBI records given to him by News12 in 2016 lifted the mystery around his great-grandfather’s death and gave him purpose. He also said he had a dreamlike experience in which he felt as if his ancestors said to him, “Do you see where your life is heading? The story is there in front of you. Pick it up and do something with it.
“I feel like that was Charles telling me from the past, like, ‘Yo, turn the family into something for my name,’ ” Gibbons said.
Gibbons began research with the idea of making a movie based on the fatal shootings. He went to Hollywood, where he now works as a movie production assistant while also delivering for DoorDash and Grubhub. Meantime, a production company, Transformer Films, has begun work with Gibbons on a podcast and documentary about the story.
The 1946 shootings “inspired me to live better, to think better, to be better,” he said.
“This is a journey of healing for Carlo — for him and his family, but also a journey that has the potential to help us heal collectively,” said Bob Coen, a co-founder of Transformer Films.
Historian Christopher Verga’s latest book, “The Ferguson Brothers Lynchings on Long Island” — prompted by Gibbons’ mission — is meaningful for other Ferguson relatives, too.
Giselle Ferguson, 52, an executive corporate secretary from Amityville — Wilfred’s daughter and Carlo Gibbons’ aunt — said the book stirred up emotions for her. “Of course, I cried,” she said. “And in reading just the detail and the passion that Chris had for the story, I had another ball of mixed feelings with tears and appreciation that the story was finally being told.
“I know that it was in the newspapers so many years ago, but I believe the story was one-sided.”
Her brother Harold Ferguson, 48, a Uniondale school safety officer who lives in Glen Cove, was so inspired that he got Charles Ferguson’s Army dog tags tattooed on his left forearm. “I just wanted to remember my grandfather in the best way I could,” Harold said. “He decided to join the military and fight for our country.”
He added, “My dad never knew his dad. I commend my nephew for even taking the steps to find out what happened. He did a lot of research . . . It just gives the family some type of closure.”
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