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N. Hempstead residents share experiences from civil rights era in oral histories 

Marge Rogatz, from left, Bernice Sims, the Rev.

Marge Rogatz, from left, Bernice Sims, the Rev. Edward Corley and Alan Reff all participated in an oral history project recounting North Hempstead Town residents' experience during the civil rights movement. Photo Credit: Howard Simmons

North Hempstead Town has released 10 videotaped interviews with African Americans and others who lived through the civil rights movement, finishing a project to preserve local history and add depth to the public’s understanding of that era by telling residents' personal stories.

The oral history series came eight months after the town premiered a 40-minute documentary, "Defining Moments — the Civil Rights Movement in North Hempstead,” which used extensive footage from the series’ raw interviews.

The individual accounts, town officials said, are valuable historical records that would otherwise have been lost to time.

“As we're all getting older, if we hadn't done this, all of these precious moments would just have gone into that big cloud,” Town Supervisor Judi Bosworth said in a recent interview. “Now we in fact have it recorded so that it's part of our history here in North Hempstead.”

One of the local events recounted was the Black-Jewish Dialogue started by Jerome Davidson, former rabbi of Great Neck's Temple Beth-El, and the Rev. Edward Corley of Manhasset's Mount Olive Baptist Church.

The dialogue began after Beth-El hosted its first shabbat honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the mid-1980s, an annual tradition that has continued today.

“I remember inviting Reverend Corley and members of his congregation to the service,” Davidson, 86, of Manhattan, recalled in a phone interview. “[Toward the end,] an African American woman said: ‘This has been grand. Now we will go home, and this will be the end of it until next year. What are you going to do about it?' ”

Prompted by the question, Davidson said the two congregations began monthly meetings at the church, the synagogue and members’ homes, discussing prejudice, identity and what can be done to improve the community.

An initiative that came out of the discussions was health days, where doctors who were members of Beth-El treated church members' ailments, according to Corley, who is in his early 80s.

“We did some actual, practical things,” Corley said in an interview that was part of the series. “Whenever there was a need . . . if somebody needed an attorney or whatever, again, Temple Beth-El rose up to the situation.”

In a separate interview, Bernice Sims, of Mineola, told her story of growing up in Mississippi during the Jim Crow era and drinking out of a whites-only water fountain when she was 6 years old.

Sims said the message she hopes the series gets across is that the fight continues, and it goes beyond each individual.

“I think each generation has a responsibility to fight for the things that are important to keep us alive and make us human,” Sims said. “Because you come through this world, it’s not really for you. If you have not helped somebody and encouraged somebody along the way, then your life is not worth living.”

Viewers can watch the videos, which ran from six minutes to more than an hour, on the town’s television channel or online at www.mynhtv.com/civilrights.

SPEAKING UP FOR HISTORY

  • The series and the documentary were funded with a $50,000 National Park Service grant the town received in 2017.
  • The series includes interviews with 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 Port Washington; Peter Kornblum of Great Neck; Rabbi Jerome Davidson of New York City; the Rev. Edward Corley of Hempstead village; and Saul Weinstein of Hicksville.

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