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Schomburg Center's 'Black Suburbia' features Westbury family's story

"Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson" at the Schomburg Center in Manhattan explores the history of black suburbia. The exhibit runs through Dec. 31, 2015. Photo Credit: Michael Falco

Jesse Pone Jr. moved to Long Island in 1955 for the same reasons many of his generation did: He wanted a nice house in the suburbs, good schools for his children and quality health care -- the last of which would go a long way toward helping his younger son, Darrell, follow in his physician father's footsteps.

Dr. Pone, a general practitioner, relocated his wife and three children from Trenton, New Jersey, to Westbury, where he practiced medicine for 35 years. He built a successful career on postwar Long Island and became part of that era's wave of black suburban pioneers, men and women who were often better-educated and unwilling to live in segregated enclaves or accept subpar schools and services. For Darrell Pone, his family's status was not atypical.

"As a kid, we had a lot of my dad's colleagues visiting the house," recalled Darrell Pone, now 60 and a resident of Old Westbury. "I thought all black men were doctors. That's what I was going to be."

He did become a doctor, overcoming the challenges of cerebral palsy to build a practice that focused on rehabilitative medicine. The story of the father/son physicians stands at the center of a new exhibit, "Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson," at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Manhattan.

"Darrell's story is amazing," said James Levy, a former Hofstra history professor whose work with the university's National Center for Suburban Studies and other local scholars provided the foundation for the exhibit. "When I met him, I knew he had to be part of this."

Making strides

Darrell Pone was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck. He was deprived of oxygen and doctors feared he would not survive. Pone was later told that a minister was called in to administer last rites. But he lived, and was diagnosed with spastic quadriplegia, a form of cerebral palsy that impairs muscle coordination and control of the arms and legs, as well as speech.

Jesse Pone Jr. knew that his son would require special care. Having done his residency at Meadowbrook Hospital (now Nassau University Medical Center), he also knew where he could find it: United Cerebral Palsy of Nassau County. At the organization's Roosevelt facility, Darrell Pone received state-of-the-art physical and speech therapy. He also got a pair of leg braces, which extended from his waist to his feet, and was taught how to use them until he was strong enough to walk unassisted.

"At least I could walk," he recalled. "There were a lot of kids there that couldn't walk, couldn't speak. For the first time in my life, I felt fortunate."

As his youngest son struggled to learn to walk, Pone worked out of the family house on Cross Street, near Post Avenue, and built his medical practice.

At the time, the community had two distinct identities: the village of Westbury and the adjacent hamlet of New Cassel, an African-American enclave since the 19th century. The residents of New Cassel began coming to the new black doctor in Westbury.

Among the Pone's Westbury neighbors was a war hero: pilot Spann Watson, who had flown 32 combat missions as a member of the fabled Tuskegee Airmen. After the war, Watson settled in Westbury, a community that was not his first choice. He wanted to live in Levittown, but was turned away when he tried to buy a house there.

"He didn't want us growing up in an all-black neighborhood," his son Weyman, now 59, recalled "And he wanted us to go to good schools, and Westbury schools at that time had a top-flight reputation."

It was in that school system, when Weyman Watson was in kindergarten, that he met Darrell Pone, a first-grader. The two remain friends.

Pone's interaction with able-bodied children, including gym classes, was encouraged. In today's parlance, he was being "mainstreamed," a practice more common today than in the 1960s. By the time he arrived at Westbury High School in 1970, it was a racially mixed school where black and white students got along. Pone was an honor student, a member of the school's chess club, a cymbal player in the marching band and the manager of the varsity baseball team.

"He never gave up at anything," Weyman Watson said. "He never thought he couldn't do it."

Pone said it was an attitude instilled in him by his parents. "Dad always thought he could accomplish anything he set his mind to," Pone said. "Mom [Annette] always encouraged me to stick with it."

Pone also credits the community and cohesion of other black parents in Westbury.

"They were our coaches, our teachers, they were our role models," he said. "Every parent and every teacher knew I was Dr. Pone's kid. If I stepped out of line, I knew he'd hear about it."

Son's journey to med school

In 1974, the year after Pone graduated from high school, his father moved the family north of Jericho Turnpike to the village of Old Westbury. There, he embraced the fruits of his upward mobility, buying a black and silver Rolls-Royce, wearing stylish suits and on weekends heading east to Montauk to indulge in his favorite pastime, fishing.

But the move to a Gold Coast mansion didn't distract the elder Dr. Pone from his obligations to his patients. On April 7, 1981, Watson's older brother was killed in a car accident. About 4 a.m. the next morning, the family got a visitor. "Dr. Pone came to our house at 2 in the morning, to check on my mother," Weyman Watson recalled. "He was always available."

After graduating from C.W. Post, Darrell Pone was accepted into his father's alma mater, Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tennessee. The new chapter of his education brought a new struggle.

At a time before classroom recording or videotaping was feasible, Pone's hand couldn't keep up with the copious note-taking during the long and technical lectures. Instead of retreating into isolation, he reached out to a new group of friends. "I found a group of students who were willing to help," he said. "We all prepared and shared notes together, to make sure we got everything."

He also completed his residency where his father had, Nassau University Medical Center. At the suggestion of one of his father's colleagues, a psychiatrist, Pone chose the emerging field of rehabilitative medicine as his specialty. This meant his patients would be physically challenged, like he was.

At the hospital, he recalls that "people would ask if I was a doctor. I don't think many people had ever seen a disabled doctor, much less a black disabled doctor."

After completing his residency, Pone worked at Harlem Hospital for two years, then joined a practice in Queens. In 2001, he married the Rev. Gloria Nixon, a minister. Four years later, he retired from medicine.

In 2011, Pone's wife met Levy, the historian, who was interested in an oral history of the Congregational Church of South Hempstead that she had compiled as associate pastor. He wanted to integrate her efforts into his larger project to collect voices of black suburbia. When he heard about her husband, Levy wanted to meet him. He spent three hours with the couple.

"We kind of bonded," Levy said.

When the oral history project developed into the Schomburg exhibit, the story of two generations of two black doctors on Long Island was part of it.

"He deserves it," Nixon said. "I'm very proud of him, always."

In "Black Suburbia," the Pone story is told in text and through photos loaned by the family -- including one of Jesse Pone Jr. with his beloved Rolls-Royce -- as well as Darrell Pone's stethoscope from medical school, which is displayed in a case with artifacts from other notable black Long Islanders.

Jesse Pone Jr. died in 1992; his wife passed away in 2011. Pone said his father would have enjoyed being viewed as a suburban pioneer -- and proud to see his and his son's success celebrated.

"He was a big believer that hard work and persistence paid off," Pone said. "He would have loved to have seen us spotlighted at the Schomburg, to show kids the truth of that."



Darrell Pone remembers the night his dad became a hero.

It was Sept. 3, 1968. The Pone family was driving back to Westbury from a vacation on Martha's Vineyard when a report of a hostage incident close to home came over the radio. A man had shot two people and was holding a child at gunpoint in a basement in New Cassel.

"When Dad heard the name of the hostage taker, he shouted 'That's Mr. Mitchell, one of my patients!'" recalled Pone, who was 13 at the time. "He never drove so fast in his life."

What unfolded once Pone reached Long Island was reported the next day in 72-point headlines in local newspapers.

Jesse Pone Jr. arrived at the scene to find police surrounding the rooming house on Bond Street where Winston Mitchell, a 27-year-old factory worker and ex-convict, was holding a 2-year-old girl hostage in the basement. He had earlier shot and wounded the child's mother and uncle.

Speaking through a bullhorn, police had tried to coax Mitchell out. So had his mother and his minister, who had gone into the house and spoken with him. Dr. Pone offered to try. "I've had pretty good rapport with him in the past and I thought I could help," he told reporters later.

As a dozen police officers stood by, and a crowd estimated at about 300 watched, Jesse Pone Jr. approached the basement where the man had barricaded himself. Mitchell had earlier told his mother that he believed he had killed Mary Ellen Crider, who was reportedly his common-law wife. But she was alive and being treated at Meadowbrook Hospital.

Dr. Pone relayed that information to Mitchell.

"I told him that what he was considering, self-destruction, was way out of proportion to the severity of the damage that had been done," he told reporters at the time.

After further discussions -- including a long talk with Crider, who was brought back to the scene on a stretcher to talk Mitchell into turning himself in -- Dr. Pone urged Mitchell to consider his and the child's future, then asked him to hand him his gun, assuring him that police would not shoot him or handcuff him if he surrendered. He complied, ending the eight-hour drama.

Darrell Pone said that at the time he didn't think of his father as a hero, in part because "I was in 8th grade and did not know what a hostage meant."

When his father was given an award by the Nassau County Police Department for "outstanding police assistance," Pone said he began to understand the bravery his dad showed. Looking back now, he said he's not surprised his father swayed the hostage-taker when others had failed.

"Dad knew that black people trusted a black doctor more than anyone else, especially Dr. Pone."


"Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson," is an exhibition that is a partnership between the Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture and the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

When: Through Dec. 31

Where: Schomburg Center for Research and Black Culture, 515 Malcolm X. Blvd., in Harlem

Hours: Monday, Thursday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Tuesday and Wednesday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; closed Sundays

Contact: 917-275-6975;

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