Effort in Setauket to protect church's history

(L-R) Rev. Marcus D Briddell, Dr. Clarence Taylor,

(L-R) Rev. Marcus D Briddell, Dr. Clarence Taylor, Simira Tobias and Vivian Nicholson-Mueller take part in a panel discussion about the Rise of the African Methodist Episcopal Church at the Bethel AME Church in Setauket. (June 22, 2013) (Credit: Ed Betz)

Simira Tobias said she never had a place to call home. Her father's Air Force career kept her family moving, from Florida to Japan to Germany.

In 1999, her father gave her heirlooms, and her efforts to document her family history led to a small African-American community in Setauket, where her sixth-great-grandfather co-founded the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1848.

"When I come here, I feel a sense of belonging," the Atlanta resident said at the church Saturday, where a conference on the AME church's local history was held. "Finally, here's a place I can call home."

While Tobias has only recently found her roots, many minority families in the community feel threatened by gentrification, as young people sell their homesteads to search for jobs and lower property taxes elsewhere. Only about 12 of the 40 families that lived in the immediate area in the 1960s remain, said Christopher Matthews, an archaeologist at Montclair State University in New Jersey.

"There's a lot of money encircling this small area," Tobias said. "Usually money wins out, but hopefully, this time will be different."

In recent years, residents have turned to their history to preserve their future, said Robert Lewis, director of the Higher Ground Inter-Cultural & Heritage Association, which researches local history and organized Saturday's conference. In 2005, residents succeeded in having the Town of Brookhaven declare a half-mile-long area a historical district.

Higher Ground is now working with Matthews to complete four weeks of archaeological digs to bolster the community's history, which can then be used to apply for funding for preservation or recognition for the community's minority population.

Tobias plans to write a book about her ancestors with Vivian Nicholson-Mueller, a Harlem resident with whom she shared a fourth-great-grandfather. "We refuse to let these people die," Nicholson-Mueller said.

Parishioners who attended the conference said they felt a connection to history in the presence of the founders' descendants. And they discussed how the church can grow.

"The church needs the community, and the community needs the church," the Rev. Gregory Leonard, the church's pastor, said. "Feel encouragement and hope."

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