African-Americans who sought equality for themselves and others in North Hempstead Town recount their experiences from decades ago in vivid detail in a civil rights documentary premiering next week.
The 40-minute documentary, "Defining Moments — the Civil Rights Movement in North Hempstead," reveals that African-Americans living in Westbury, Great Neck, Port Washington, Roslyn and Manhasset struggled to find adequate housing and quality education for their children. It chronicles one woman's lawsuit to gain an apartment in Roslyn Heights and a group of parents' push to employ more black teachers in local schools. The documentary also notes the times the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke in North Hempstead.
Alan Ginsberg, who directed the documentary, gave town officials a preview last week, and Councilwoman Viviana Russell called it an "incredible film."
In January 2017, the town landed a $50,000 grant from the National Park Service to create a film on the civil rights movement in North Hempstead.
"You hear about the civil rights stories, but when it's close to home, it is really shocking," Russell said. "It's a life lesson for everyone. I think all children need to see this video."
More than a dozen people were interviewed for the documentary, and each helped tell the story of how racial discrimination unfolded in North Hempstead.
"A lot of these people's stories are amazing without editing," said Ginsberg, 30, of Great Neck. "Each of them deserve their own one-hour show."
One story is about Hazel Dukes, a black woman who lived in Mineola in the 1950s. She applied for an apartment on Edward Street in Roslyn Heights, but the property owner told her there were no vacant units. Dukes, who would later become national president of the NAACP, phoned her friend Marge Rogatz, a white woman, and told her the situation. Rogatz then applied for an apartment at the same complex and was told there were three available units.
Rogatz told Dukes what happened. Dukes eventually sued the owners, won and became the first black resident of the apartment complex in 1955.
Also in the film, Mount Olive Baptist Church Pastor Edward Corley in Manhasset tells how the push for equal rights in North Hempstead found a strong ally in Great Neck's Jewish community. Bernice Sims, of Mineola, tells her story of growing up in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era and how, at age 6, she noticed a subpar water fountain for blacks next to a much nicer one for whites.
"Every chance I was told not to drink from it, I did," she said in the film's opening scene.
Ginsberg said the documentary tells two stories. The main story is that while southern states ruled with de jure segregation (or segregation created by government law), North Hempstead grappled with covert, de facto segregation. The second story is that the racial composition of certain neighborhoods in present-day New Cassel, Port Washington and Manhasset was created as a result of discrimination from decades ago.
"The African-American communities in those areas are still somewhat segregated," Russell said. "Although they were able to integrate the majority of the schools, there are still pockets of segregation that exist in North Hempstead."
The town will premiere the documentary in North Hempstead at 7 p.m. Jan. 31 at the Manhasset Bow Tie Cinemas. There will be a second showing at 5:45 p.m. Feb. 7 at the Yes We Can Community Center in New Cassel. Both viewings are free.
IN THEIR OWN WORDS
Some of those interviewed who will appear in North Hempstead's documentary, "Defining Moments — the Civil Rights Movement in North Hempstead":
Alan Reff, of East Williston
Bernice Sims, of Mineola
Bernice Roberts, of New Cassel
Hazel Dukes, of New York City
Lee Seeman, of Great Neck
Marge Rogatz, of Manhasset
Rabbi Jerome Davidson, of Great Neck's Temple Beth-El
The Rev. Edward Corley, of Manhasset's Mount Olive Baptist Church