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Voices of Gordon Heights on a big birthday

The Gordon Heights community had its beginning in the 1920s when Louis Fife went to black communities in New York City to attract homesteaders and businesses to the area. Fife offered 100-by-100-foot blocks of land for as low as $10 a month, enticing African-Americans to migrate eastward to Long Island to Gordon Heights. (Credit: Heather Walsh)

Years ago, E. James Freeman took it upon himself to uphold the legacy of Gordon Heights, birthdays included.

Freeman, president of the Greater Gordon Heights Civic Association, said he remembers being told about the hamlet’s humble beginnings and its rich history. As he and the association plan a pair of celebrations this year to commemorate the community’s 90th birthday, he hopes the results will make both longtime residents and newcomers proud.

“Many communities on Long Island have isolated themselves, but Gordon Heights has always welcomed people with diverse ethnicities,” said Freeman, 51. “We have people of color, Native Americans and members of the Hispanic community.”

The African-American pilgrimage to Gordon Heights began in 1927. Pop Gordon — for whom Gordon Heights is named — owned most of the land the community is on. To attract homesteaders and businesses to the area, he enlisted the help of developer Louis Fife, who knocked on the doors of residents and entertainment venues throughout New York City and the other boroughs to solicit buyers.

Fife offered blocks of Gordon’s land for as low as $10 a month, enticing African-Americans to migrate eastward to Long Island, a place where they had previously been welcome to pass through, work or entertain, but not live. The new property owners used the land for weekend and summer getaways.

Longtime residents of the hamlet in Brookhaven Town, which now has just over 4,000 people, recall the homemade-candy store, one grocery store and two delis. Sometimes trucks came around selling fish and meat. Running water and paved roads were yet to come.

To honor the community’s past and present, Children’s Park will be rededicated in April or May to coincide with the scheduled completion of $200,000 in renovations begun in the summer of 2015. The park will have new fencing, a bathroom, a canopy and a basketball court, playground equipment and a sprinkler system for children to run through.

“It gives them [children] a safe haven in the community to express themselves and gives them a sense of identity,” Freeman said of the park. “We work hard as a community and family to make it possible for them to have a bright future.”

The second celebration will be in the first week of August, when community leaders plan to hold the annual Gordon Heights Day, which recognizes the achievements of those in the hamlet and pays homage to the first community on Long Island where African-Americans could live and build homes.

“I grew up in Gordon Heights, and some of the history I didn’t even know about,” said resident Davina Ford, 31. “I’ve always been proud to say that I live in Gordon Heights.”

Freeman said the park dedication, particularly, will represent progress from years past.

“To see the elderly’s faces is going to be outstanding,” he said. “You want to build on what they had and make it better. That’s going to be the big payoff for us.”

The stories that follow represent elements of the history of Gordon Heights -- which has its own song and once had its own poet -- as told by residents ranging in age from 39 to 85.

Melanie Cardone-Leathers, 39

History librarian, Longwood Public Library in Middle Island

“My grandfather, he moved into Gordon Heights in the late ’50s, early ’60s. He built a funeral home there. His name is Nathaniel Colson. He followed some of his family up from North Carolina. My Aunt Karen, she married into the Wilson family. She married Russell Wilson and their family were founders of the Gordon Heights Fire Department. He was also on the board of trustees for the Longwood School District, then [known as] the Middle Island School District.

“By the time I lived there, a lot of the history was gone. The old-timers were still there, and the old establishment was still there, but it was changing. This was in the late ’80s to early ’90s. Some of the history was lost between the people who had established Gordon Heights, the people who came in after it was established and then latecomers and the people who came in much later. Gordon Heights was an amazing place when it was founded because in the 1920s these were second homes for a lot of these people, the original founders. They were living in the city [Manhattan] or close to the city, and they had the time and the money to buy a second home and to come out here in the summer and have their families live out here. They took the time and the courage to come out here.

“The roads weren’t paved, there was no electricity, they still had to bring their groceries out here with them. But instead of living in the city, they were able to have a farm in their backyard and raise chickens, have gardens. During World War II they had a Victory Garden campaign. It was about being self-sufficient, and it was pretty amazing that on these little plots of land people had their lives established for them. It was living in the backwoods, literally.

“For me, growing up in Gordon Heights was a normal, everyday place to live in. I didn’t realize that there was something special or unusual about it until I got a little bit older. Special in the fact that there was so much history there but unusual to where people in other areas kind of looked down on it, and I didn’t understand why until I got older. But for us, it was great. We had lots of friends. I kind of wish we had that feeling for my daughter now. At the same time, there were also some issues in the fact that we would have friends over or invite people over for our birthday parties growing up and their parents didn’t want to send their kids to Gordon Heights. And it wasn’t until stuff like that started happening that I realized something was unusual with where I was growing up. I became more aware of my surroundings.”

E. James Freeman, 51

President, Greater Gordon Heights Civic Association

“Gordon Heights Day is the first Saturday of every August. Gordon Heights Day was really set up in 1927 as a children’s festival by the community members. Out here they didn’t have running water, they didn’t have gas. There was one pole out here that brought electricity into the community with one traffic light, so there wasn’t a lot for children to do in the community, and there weren’t a lot of things to bring the community together.

“So members of the [Gordon Heights Progressive Association] board and community members decided that they would do something for the kids since they were coming from all different parts of Harlem and the state.

“So all of the kids came together and they had different festival events. They did hurdles, they had relay races, they had arts and craft shows.

“Mrs. Alberta Beach was one of the very famous musicians and singers in the city [Manhattan] that worked on a lot of plays, along with Mrs. [Thelma] Hall.

“One of the things that they wanted to do was have different activities for the kids. So with them having more of a theater/professional background, they got a lot of the kids that started to accumulate in the community into acting and putting on plays during the event.

“Over the course of the last six years, we’ve actually moved [the location] from Children’s Park to Granny Road Park. That allotted a lot of additional space. Over the last four years the park has been full of all different people, different diplomats, different individuals who have come in from out of state, different countries. It’s really expanding into a children’s festival but also being able to show different communities just exactly what this community is all about. And we’ve been very successful with that in the last 90 years to make sure that has taken place.

“We start at Homestead Drive and assemble everyone together that wants to participate in the parade. What the civic association is doing now mimics exactly what’s been going throughout the years with the progressive association. Everyone that does anything in the community, we want people to know who they are.”

Shirley C. Saunders, 78

Retired pastor

“I thought it was great when I first moved up here. I met Charlie Carpenter and Billy Carpenter. They owned a barbershop. They were already established. They told me about this group they had called the Sepia Country Squires. And I said, ‘Whoa, that sounds good. What are you about?’ They were business-oriented. These were young men. I joined up with them because I was working in the church heavily. I wasn’t pastoring, but I was a deacon in the church. And I started working with them. We were prominent. Everybody knew who we were. And they found me a job with the Suffolk County Water Authority. I started out there in 1964 and I retired in 1993. They hired their first black in 1964. I was the fifth black hired. When I got hired I was a laborer, but I retired a foreman.

“But they [the Squires] were great. We had meetings with young men. We met and talked with young men. We met in the community. And we did some great things, and a lot of young men came up through us. We supported the community in a big way.

“We gave dances for the community, sponsored teams, helped the elderly and raised money for the community. It was about seven of us that really worked at it. People could come to us and say, ‘Be like them.’

“They were founded to build up the young men in the community, give the young men something to look at, something to model after.

“I was with them for about 20 years, and we gradually faded out. The older guys got older, a couple of them died and one moved away. We were well-known.

“I came into a community of black Americans. We had our own fire department. We had our own credit union. We had our own community center, and churches were built right here.”

Tracy Gibbs, 52

Longtime Gordon Heights resident (wife of Leonard Gibbs)

“My father [Jessie Cunningham] and uncles opened the Black Pearl hotel and bar in 1972 or 1974. It was a [central] place to come to for people from Gordon Heights and the city [New York City] to entertain and relax. It was right across the street from Children’s Park. They entertained on the weekends and holidays.

“You had people who were doctors or nurses, or just people with professions would come out and enjoy the country. It was a fun time to have.

“I don’t know how they came up with the name. I’m assuming, as a black community, that a pearl is a jewel and you had black people coming out here trying to find that. Whether that is true or not I don’t know. That is something I never really spoke to my father or uncles about.

“At the time, I was 7 or 8 years old. I remember running around seeing busloads of people from the city. There were big pig roasts and barbecue cookouts. I was excited to see kids come out that I had never seen before. We had games and different events. The kids had places to go. Adults were there, there were DJ battles. It was a sense of family. You got to mingle with people.

“It [having relatives owning the Black Pearl] made me the person that I am. I got to know a lot of the people who lived in the community at that time. It made it more of a community for me, and that’s why I never left and am never going to leave.

“It’s kind of sad, but we don’t have that sense of community here anymore. I’m very proud, I do talk about it, but a lot of people didn’t know [Black Pearl] existed. I’m just sad that we don’t have the history to keep it going so that we know what we had in our neighborhoods, what was existing in our neighborhoods. There’s a lot of history that’s been lost from our neighbors who have passed on to just people holding on to things.

“Once my uncle Sonny [Cunningham] passed, I do believe it [Black Pearl] held on for another two or three years. He was the driving force that kept it going for as long as it did go. After that, it just closed up. Like everything else, it just fades away sooner or later.”

Leonard Gibbs, 85

Former firefighter, longtime resident of Gordon Heights (husband of Tracy Gibbs)

“Back in the 1970s I joined the [Gordon Heights] Civic [Association], and I joined because it was a need for men to come out because the women were out working hard by themselves in the civic. Then we turned around and started having different programs brought in — we got government approval for loans, and we had children working for us to give them jobs after school. We had football teams, basketball teams. It was this time where people were about five or six years older than me who gave us the strength to do what we did because they were getting tired.

“We [Gibbs and Mrs. Harris] ran it [the civic board] for quite a long time, and at that time a lot of drugs and stuff were around. People were right out there selling it and using it. We marched with candles, flashlights, anything that would give us light to be seen. This went on for quite a while. We had a drug problem and we stopped it by coming out, letting them [drug dealers] know we were policing our own community. Because at the time the police didn’t have as many police as they have now in Suffolk County. We didn’t have police like we do today; the police were needed in a lot of other places for different things.

“The drug dealers left. We ran them out. We threatened them with having them locked up or beat them up if it was necessary. People don’t realize what we went through as a community. We went to hell and back. The civic was one of the best things that ever happened in Gordon Heights.

“I was very proud to have grown up in Gordon Heights. Still proud. I found peace and raised three families in Gordon Heights.”

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