In celebration of Black History Month in 2022, students at Washington Rose Elementary School in Roosevelt portray such historical figures as Barack Obama and Mae Jemison in the annual "wax museum." Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.; Photo credits: Associated Press/J. Conrad Williams Jr.; Photo credits: Associated Press

On Feb. 16, a hidden figure from the 19th century will be putting her stamp on the Black History Month celebration at the Joysetta & Julius Pearse African American Museum of Nassau County.

That's the day about 100 Hempstead schoolchildren will gather at the Hempstead museum for the unveiling of a poster replica of a postage stamp issued last month to honor Edmonia Lewis (1844-1907). Lewis’ marble sculptures, including her most famous work, "The Death of Cleopatra," are held by Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. At the Jan. 26 Postal Service ceremony there, Lewis was praised as "a woman of great courage, talent and perseverance who broke through gender, race and class barriers" and "the first African American and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition." (The stamp can be purchased at and at post offices.)

"I had no idea who Edmonia Lewis was, but obviously she’s an unsung hero," said Barbara V. Powell II, project coordinator of Hempstead School District's Empire State After-School Program and organizer of the local museum’s celebration, during which students will perform skits and dance routines and sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as the Black national anthem. A replica of the Lewis stamp will be added to an exhibit of Black Heritage stamps featuring such notable African Americans as Madam C.J. Walker, America’s first female self-made millionaire, and Rosa Parks, "the mother of the civil rights movement."

"There’s so much that we’ve learned and so much that we're just learning," Powell, president of the Hempstead NAACP, said of the annual celebration of Black history, which began in 1926 as "Negro History Week" and was officially recognized and expanded as Black History Month in 1976. "We want to acknowledge all the African Americans who have affected change, and with all that’s going on nowadays with the Black Lives Matter movement, we want to pay homage to our Black culture."

Powell said she agrees with the Academy Award-winning Brooklyn-based filmmaker Spike Lee, who reportedly questioned, as a Stony Brook University speaker in 2020, why Black History Month occurs during "the shortest month of the year."

The sentiment that February is too brief a window to accommodate such an expansive subject is shared by others who organize and contribute to Black History Month events year-round.

"Black history should be celebrated every month, to shine a light and to give hope to those to know information they didn’t know before," said Jerome "City" Smith, 57, a Hempstead native who lives in Wading River. Smith, who portrays the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the 1960s African American singer-songwriter Sam Cooke at Black history events, will be performing with his ensemble Feb. 20 at Elmont Memorial Library.

Here are the stories of other Long Islanders who work behind the scenes to create Black history programs this month — and throughout the year.

Athelene Collins, beside a statue of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, is the first person of color to serve as executive director of the Hofstra Cultural Center. Collins has many met celebrities, including Cornel West, who visited to talk about the general election in 2012; Collins prizes a pair of Muhammed Ali's autographed boxing gloves, a thank-you gift after Collins hosted a 2008 conference honoring the champ. | Photos by Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.; Athelene Collins

Student of Black history meets her heroes

Athelene A. Collins of Hempstead was appointed seven years ago as the first person of color to serve as executive director of the Hofstra Cultural Center, which organizes about 100 university events a year including Black history programs.

Programming African American history events is a "continuous learning experience," said Collins, who grew up in Barataria, in the Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. She immigrated to the United States at age 21 in 1983, the same year she was hired as staff at Hofstra. Two years later, while handling clerical duties, Collins helped plan the center’s 1985 Harlem Renaissance Conference as well as other Black history programs. While working full time, Collins got a bachelor’s degree in business administration at Hofstra in 1992 and took conference management courses at New York University. For the 2021-22 academic year, Collins and two colleagues have planned more than 75 in-person and virtual programs, ranging from student breakfast meetings to scholarly conferences with prominent celebrities on the dais.

Her office is lined with mementos from a number of celebrities from past years, like the legendary acting couple Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, who attended a Black History Month fundraiser in the 1990s. She prizes a pair of Muhammed Ali's autographed boxing gloves, a thank-you gift after Collins hosted his oldest daughter, Maryum Ali, at a 2008 conference honoring the champ. "I helped her realize her idea to make the walls of a conference exhibition look like you are walking into a boxing ring," Collins recalled.

'I’m Black 365 days a year. If I want to know my history, it can’t just be in February.'

Athelene Collins, executive director of Hofstra Cultural Center

She also met the Rev. Bernice King, the youngest child of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, who spoke at a 2015 program marking the 50th anniversary of the civil rights leader’s visit to Hofstra. Another favorite memory: hosting a 2012 visit by the author, scholar and activist Cornel West to discuss that year’s general election.

Recently, Collins says she’s noticed "a big surge in Black people wanting to know their history," especially after the protests that followed the 2020 death of George Floyd in police custody. She’s convinced that "that time has passed" for Black history to be limited to a winter month with unpredictable weather, COVID-19 surges and high demand for celebrity speakers.

"I’m Black 365 days a year. If I want to know my history, it can’t just be in February," said Collins, who is planning a Civil Rights Day observance on Feb. 16 and Barack Obama Presidential conference scheduled for April 2023.

Washington Rose Elementary School hosts its annual Black history "wax museum, with Jaycee Striggles, left, as astronaut Mae Jemison, Brianna Torres as Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Luis Aroche as Super Soaker inventor Lonnie Johnson, and Mikal Wright as abolitionist Frederick Douglass. Teacher Karen Massenburg, far right with students, helped organize the event, in which a dozen students participated as actors. | Newsday Photos / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

Roosevelt schoolchildren wax historic

Black history is honored early and often at Washington Rose Elementary School in Roosevelt. The celebration kicks off in late January with faculty dressing up for African Garb Day.

Students take center stage in February, portraying historical figures they’ve studied to create a "wax museum." This month a dozen students are representing such history makers as President Barack Obama; Mae Jemison, the first Black woman to travel into space; Lonnie Johnson, inventor of the Super Soaker; Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall; and American abolitionist Frederick Douglass.

"I like Black History Month because it celebrates all the African and American people out there," said fourth-grader Jaycee Striggles, who depicts Jemison.

First-grade teacher Karen Massenburg coordinates the school’s Black History Month events with three faculty members. Massenburg said she wants to ensure students know about their Black history forebears, those she learned little about growing up in Jamaica, Queens. "When I became a teacher," Massenburg said, "I wanted to make sure the generation I was teaching is not at a similar disadvantage."

With the wax museum project, "we’re not only introducing faces they [the students] see all the time. We want them to really dig deep and know their history," she said.

Speaking for Lonnie Johnson, who was also a NASA engineer, fourth-grader Luis Aroche said of the Super Soaker he holds, "Black History Month means to me a month where you celebrate … the past times."

Also enjoying immersion in his subject: Fifth-grader Mikal Wright. With public libraries closed to stem the spread of COVID-19, Mikal asked for a Black history book for Christmas. On wax museum day, Mikal went all out in his portrayal, wearing a gray-flecked wig, shirt and tie to represent Frederick Douglass. Said Mikal, "I want to learn about all the famous African Americans."

Brianna Torres, a fourth-grader, was just as committed to her embodiment of Thurgood Marshall, the Supreme Court’s first African American associate justice. "I want to be a judge when I grow up, and he’s a very big inspiration to me," she said.

Georgette L. Grier-Key, special projects coordinator of Southampton African American Museum, stands in front of a mural there. Grier-Key's grandfather, the Rev. Rev. Dodenhuff Green, was an influential pastor who founded and laid bricks for Christ Temple in Uniondale in the early 1970s.| Photos by Gordon M. Grant

East End is her historic sweet spot

Georgette L. Grier-Key, executive director and curator of Eastville Community Historical Society in Sag Harbor, is among Long Island’s Black history standard-bearers. The Bellport resident is especially active in preserving Black history landmarks on the East End.

She’s a special projects coordinator for Southampton African American Museum, which opened last year after a rehabilitation project. Grier-Key wrote a grant application for a $125,000 donation from the Robert David Lion Gardiner Foundation to fund a digital project based on a mural created by Shinnecock artist David Bunn Martine.

"It’s a digital tapestry in AR [augmented reality]," Grier-Key said about the exhibit, which opens Feb. 19. Visitors can use the museum's handheld devices or their cellphones to hear talking portraits of such historical figures as whaler Pyrrhus Concer. "We show all phases of African American life from East Hampton to Southampton, from the beginnings of Colonial contact until the current times," she said.

Delving into Black history can be personal for Grier-Key, whose own family is woven into Long Island’s diverse tapestry. She grew up in Uniondale, the granddaughter of the Rev. Dodenhuff Green, an influential pastor who founded and laid bricks for Christ Temple in Uniondale in the early 1970s. Green, who died at age 99 in 2014, was an underbishop with 145 churches under his jurisdiction from Bridgehampton to Brooklyn, Grier-Key said. The church still stands, and a Uniondale street was renamed for him in 2007.

"My grandfather instilled in me the tradition of the griots," or traveling storytellers of West Africa, Grier-Key said. She heard his sermons as a child in Uniondale and at summer tent revivals in Bridgehampton and Cutchogue, experiences she said "cemented my relationship with the East End."

Grier-Key also draws inspiration from her family’s roots in the African American Gullah culture of coastal South Carolina. "We have Nigerian ancestry," said Grier-Key, who bases her genealogy not on DNA tests but on the memories of a great aunt who came north during the Great Migration of the mid-19th century. Another aunt, who is in her 80s, tells stories of South Carolina’s legacy of segregation, "how she and her sisters would have to put the money in at the front of the bus and go around to the back of the bus to get on." Her family moved to Harlem in 1947, settling a decade later on Long Island.

Racism occasionally surfaces as Grier-Key pursues Black history projects. "People have called me the ‘N-word’ " and other racial epithets online, Grier-Key said of a 2015 posting about her efforts to preserve Concer's Southampton homestead. The home was demolished in 2014 over preservationists’ objections but is being rebuilt, said Grier-Key, an organizer of Pyrrhus Concer Action Committee.

"We were able to salvage the original hand-hewn timbers that will be used in the reconstruction of the homestead on its original footprint. Our goal is to break ground this year," she said. Grier-Key is also working with the Montauk Point Lighthouse Museum to create an exhibit opening this summer about the 1839 mutiny of enslaved people on the Amistad that occurred off Montauk. "We’re working to re-erect a historic sign about the Amistad at Culloden Point," she said.

Tracy Todd Hunter, in his apartment at ArtSpace Patchogue, is curating a Black History Month art show called “People Make the World Go Round," in the downstairs gallery space, where Brandy Antonio is among the artists represented. | Photos by Linda Rosier

Curating Black history — and honoring a rap star

Tracy Todd Hunter, a member of Brookhaven Town’s Black History Commission, is a man of many talents — a photographer, interior designer, writer and community organizer.

But leading up to Black History Month, Hunter, 59, of Patchogue, works mostly behind the scenes as curator for Of Colors — A Creative Collective, a volunteer group he founded a decade ago at Artspace Patchogue. The collective, he said, has "a mission to give all people, including people of color and people with special needs, a platform to showcase their art." For the past six years he has curated an annual art contest for high school students in the First Congressional District. "The winner’s artwork is hung in the Capitol Rotunda for a year," Hunter said.

Hunter’s latest curatorial effort, "People Make the World Go Round," Artspace Patchogue’s annual Black history and diversity celebration, opens with a reception Feb. 19. "It’s a vast array of art, very multidimensional," Hunter said, featuring 70 works: paintings, drawings, photography, sculpture, a quilt, even pastry art.

A display of peanut butter cookies baked by Gerald Alexander of Patchogue, known as The Occasional Baker, are an homage to African American agricultural scientist and peanut-product inventor George Washington Carver, the artist said. Among the 25 exhibitors are six members of the Long Island Black Artist Association.

Hunter is lauded by such artists as Brandy Antonio, 39, of Medford, who has exhibited her works in oil, acrylic and collage throughout the United States and in Berlin and Tokyo, from which she recently returned after a four-year teaching and artmaking stint.

"Tracy is the kind of curator that makes you feel like family and invests in your personal story and how that relates to your work," said Antonio, who has about a half dozen works in the Artspace Patchogue show. "He’s so animated and fun to be around."

Hunter also curated 12 works for Brookhaven Town’s Black History Month Celebration, held online this year.

Hunter was born and raised in Patchogue, graduating in 1980 from Patchogue-Medford High School, and has deep roots in the community on his grandmother’s side. Fay Dooley, "matriarch of the family," was born in 1910, orphaned in childhood and rose to prominence in Patchogue.

"My grandmother was one of the first African American downtown business owners in Patchogue. She owned her own antique shop, The Trash and Treasure House, down the street from where she lived," Hunter said. She eventually moved the business to a garage behind her home, retired in the early 1980s and died in 2000 at age 90. "We have a long history here that I plan on documenting at some point," Hunter said.

A member of the town’s Black History Commission, Hunter said he strives to "keep Black history current," including efforts to get recognition for such artists as Marcel Theo Hall, better known as the rapper Biz Markie and self-proclaimed "Clown Prince of Hip-Hop." He and Markie were friends who grew up on the same street.

"He [Markie] performed in Artspace, worked with Of Colors, and we had him honored by the Town of Brookhaven Black History Commission for his achievements in entertainment and music," Hunter said of Markie, who attended the commission’s 2015 ceremony.

After Markie died last year, Hunter said he brought the idea of renaming a street in honor of the rapper to the Village of Patchogue. South Street, two blocks off Main Street, was renamed Biz Markie Way in September. Hunter believes Markie is "the first African American to have a street named after him in Patchogue."

Brandy Antonio and Tracy Todd Hunter with Antonio's mosaic of...

Brandy Antonio and Tracy Todd Hunter with Antonio's mosaic of her mother at Artspace Patchogue. Credit: Linda Rosier

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