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South Setauket awaits decision on push for historic designation

Robert Lewis, above right, president of Higher Ground

Robert Lewis, above right, president of Higher Ground Inter-Cultural & Heritage Association, is shown in this Nov. 19, 2015, photo. Credit: Newsday / John Paraskevas

Preservationists will learn in September whether they succeeded in a two-year effort to have a South Setauket community rooted in African-American and Native-American history designated as a state and national historic site.

“I’m hopeful they will be put on the national registry,” said Robert Lewis, president of the nonprofit Higher Ground Inter-Cultural & Heritage Association. “The proof is not in my hands, but it would be something monumental for a community like this. It’s truly remarkable.”

In 2015, he led the effort to have the New York State Office of Parks and Historic Preservation and also the National Park Service place the community on its historic designation list.

Later that year, Lewis’ organization was awarded a $7,000 grant from the Preservation League of New York State to conduct a survey to determine whether the designations are warranted.

The survey consisted of researching the hamlet’s history, looking at census data, genealogy, archival records and property titles.

Archaeologists from Hofstra University in Hempstead have done digs at the site to help authenticate its past. They found a range of artifacts, from fragments of dishes to buttons and pieces of Indian pipes.

Jennifer Betsworth, a historic preservation specialist with the state office, said a review board is scheduled to make a determination in September.

The historic district under consideration covers about a half-mile section of East Christian Avenue bounded by Lake Street and Mud Road, Lewis said.

If the state designation is granted, the nomination would then go before the National Park Service, based in Washington, D.C.

“Sometimes they agree with us, sometimes they don’t. Usually, they do,” Betsworth said, adding that New York has a good reputation for picking worthy designation sites.

The South Setauket community has its roots in the 18th century, when American Indians, dispossessed of other lands on Long Island, settled there. They were followed by free African-Americans, who lived around Bethel AME Church — which celebrated its 170th anniversary earlier this month — and its cemetery. Houses were built and community gardens started to provide food for families.

Descendants of some of the first African-American families stayed in the area well into the 20th century. Current residents are excited about the prospect of recognition.

“It would be nice to be on the national registry,” said Carlton Edwards, 87, of Setauket. “We have old graveyards with people buried from the Civil War.”

Gregory Leonard, pastor of Bethel AME for the past 22 years, said the area deserves the landmark status and added that African-Americans and Native-Americans worked and lived in unison, farming potatoes, cabbage and other crops.

“It’s important to black people and white people to know that this has been a place where people worked together,” Leonard said. “It’s a place where people celebrated together and shared each other’s burden. Bethel has been an important part of that.”

But it’s not just that short section of Christian Avenue that has a long, prestigious history.

About 3 miles up the road was Chicken Hill, now considered East Setauket. At its height in the 1930s and ’40s, the locals were joined in Chicken Hill by Polish-Americans and Jewish-Americans who worked at rubber and piano factories. Others were day laborers employed as gardeners, stablemen, caretakers, laundresses and housekeepers in the homes north of the area.

Small farms and home gardens were mixed into the community’s fabric, and residents participated in school programs, socials and on baseball teams, Brookhaven officials have said.

The area was designated a Brookhaven Town historical preservation site in June 2015. Town officials are cautiously optimistic that the area will receive at least one of the historical designations.

“Everything looks positive and the response we’ve gotten from the community has been favorable,” said Town Councilwoman Valerie Cartright, who represents the district.

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