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Hempstead, Levittown prominent in 'Black Suburbia' exhibit on African-American aspirations

Naomi Leapheart and Kentina Washington tour the exhibit

Naomi Leapheart and Kentina Washington tour the exhibit "Black Suburbia: From Levittown To Ferguson," a collaboration between Hofstra University and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2015. Credit: Steven Sunshine

Hempstead Village and Levittown are top features in a renowned Harlem research center's exhibit of the black suburban experience that chronicles African-Americans' inclusion in and exclusion from such locales nationally and their struggle to create their own communities.

The exhibit -- "Black Suburbia: From Levittown to Ferguson" -- is showing at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, a neighborhood that the center's director calls "the most urban and iconic black community in the world." It is the product of a first-ever collaboration between the center and Hofstra University's National Center for Suburban Studies.

Through photographs, mementos and videos, it shows the aspirations of African-Americans on Long Island and in Ohio and California and their determined efforts to build what exhibit curator James Levy called an "idealized community," while trying to broaden the narrative of blacks' lives in the post-World War II era.

"Historically, when white people planned the perfect community, it often involved the exclusion of many different people," said Levy, a historian and professor at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater who taught at Hofstra. "No group was more commonly excluded than African-Americans."

Blacks, too, were striving to foster their own "perfect communities," he noted. "The way that they succeeded or failed, the reason that obstacles got in the way, I would argue, is the story of race in America."

The genesis of the free exhibit, which runs through Dec. 31, developed from the Hofstra Diverse Suburbs Oral History Project. That undertaking so far has focused on the lives of African-Americans on Long Island as development boomed in the postwar years, compiling the stories of about 120 people. Levy, while a visiting assistant professor for African-American history at Hofstra, was the founding director of the oral history project and remains its director.

The exhibit's placement in Harlem is making a larger point, Schomburg Center director Khalil Gibran Muhammad said. "As an institution anchored in perhaps the most urban and iconic black community in the world, we wanted to expand the boundaries of how people think about the black experience," he said.

Both Muhammad and Levy pointed to this centennial year of the Great Migration as a convenient touchstone.

'Broadens people's view'

While that massive movement of African-Americans from the rural South to the urban North was the dominant story of the time, Muhammad said, the development of a black suburban population, though smaller, "illustrates the diversity" of the black experience.

"I think so much of our debate about race in this country turns on a very narrow view of what people's dreams are, what they're capable of," Muhammad said. "This is a show that broadens people's view and expands their minds."

The exhibit covers black suburban life in Hempstead and compares that with Levittown, which excluded blacks in the late 1940s and 1950s. Other featured communities are Shaker Heights, Ohio, where efforts to remain racially integrated prevailed, and Compton and Baldwin Hills in California, black suburban enclaves outside Los Angeles.

The presentation includes references to Ferguson, Missouri, a majority-black suburb of St. Louis that was the site of demonstrations and protests last year after Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, was killed by a white police officer. Brown's death was another tragic entry during a tumultuous period that saw shootings of unarmed black males around the nation, including Trayvon Martin in Florida, 12-year-old Tamir Rice in Ohio and Walter Scott in South Carolina.

A U.S. Justice Department report released earlier this year found that "Ferguson's police and municipal court practices both reflect and exacerbate racial bias, including racial stereotypes." It added, "The evidence shows that discriminatory intent is part of the reason for these disparities."

The Schomburg's Muhammad said, "Ferguson echoed that this should be a national conversation."

"It goes without saying, but I'll say it," the historian added. "The broader context of what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, or Sanford [Florida] in the killing of Trayvon Martin, raised the larger question in our minds of the changing realities of black suburban life. These are no longer simply idealized places for the upwardly mobile."

In addition to informational text, the exhibit displays pictures of community and family life of African-Americans: a photo of children gathered at a community center in 1950s Hempstead; audio recordings of black Long Islanders who participated in Hofstra's oral history project; scrapbooks and personal belongings that show how people lived and their accomplishments.

A smile widened across the face of Evelyn Willett-Fisher of Glen Cove, who was touring the exhibit Friday when she spotted her mother's "certificate of commendation" from Grumman Corp., noting "faithful and patriotic service" and dated Sept. 2, 1945. Her mother, Evelyn Cisco Willett, an African-American from Oyster Bay, had worked as a riveter on aircraft the company produced during World War II. The exhibit said Grumman was among the few employers on the Island in the 1940s that employed black men and women in jobs beyond domestic-service or laborer positions.

Willett-Fisher said her mother, who died in 2006 at age 85, safeguarded the certificate over many decades. Willett-Fisher loaned it to Hofstra for the exhibit and said it was "wonderful" to see it displayed at the Schomburg Center.

"I feel very thankful and blessed to see my mom's efforts, and her achievements, acknowledged," she said.

The oral histories of African-Americans on Long Island and blacks' lives in the suburbs deserved a wider audience, said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of Hofstra's suburban studies center, who is not related to James Levy.

"The idea is to get a discussion going about these places that tend to be ignored," he said. Many suburbs are "facing problems as profound as in the cities, and minority suburbs are facing even more of them."

"One of the goals of the oral history project was not just to collect interesting stories and let them gather dust on the shelf," Lawrence Levy said.

Entrepreneurs Richard and Jack Turan of the Turan Family Foundation, who funded the project, "wanted us to develop curriculum and exhibits, and there is no better, and better respected, center for the study of black history and culture than the Schomburg Center," he said. "When we had a chance to partner with them, I jumped at it."

James Levy had approached the Schomburg about a possible collaboration, Lawrence Levy said, and both institutions realized "that they had a subject and complementing research that would make an interesting exhibit."

While there has been some limited scholarship on black suburban life, James Levy said, "We haven't seen this scale in a museum."

For people living in today's Hempstead, the exhibit is an opportunity to look back on the village's history.

"By the middle of the 20th century, Hempstead was a vibrant suburb with a thriving economy, well-established neighborhoods, and one of the best school districts on Long Island," the exhibit panel said. "This increasingly black working-class community reflected the efforts and aspirations of migrants from Virginia, the Carolinas and Georgia who had fled the oppressive Jim Crow South."

The contrast today

A video takes viewers along a street that runs through present-day Hempstead, which is predominantly black and Hispanic, and into Garden City, its more affluent and predominantly white neighbor. The contrast between the homes and streetscape clearly delineates the starkly different economic fortunes of the two communities.

"One of the reasons Hempstead is Hempstead," James Levy said, is "the Garden Cities of the world were also exclusive in their own way."

In the early part of the 20th century, he said, affluent whites who settled in Garden City needed servants; many African-Americans, who had migrated North in the 1920s or earlier, filled some of those jobs. "They couldn't live in Garden City, but they could live in areas nearby," he said.

"Those became the seedbeds that, by the 1960s, became thriving black communities" of people from "all different classes, from domestics to doctors and lawyers."

The Schomburg exhibit has captured the attention of museum attendees in a way that Muhammad said he has not often seen. "I watch visitors to the gallery. People are sitting with the material in ways I haven't seen in years," he said. Many are "literally reading every word of the text, pausing to look closely at the photos and having conversations" about how the material relates to their own lives.

He recalled speaking with an elderly black woman from Long Island who said, "This is exactly what we faced."


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