The Bay Shore Historical Society is spotlighting artists for Black History...

The Bay Shore Historical Society is spotlighting artists for Black History Month with online biographies written by community leader Deanna Watts, left, and program chair Marilyn Domagala. Credit: Rick Kopstein

The Bay Shore Historical Society is celebrating local artists "hidden in plain sight," as Black History Month closes out.

Deanna Watts, a volunteer for the group, researched and wrote profiles celebrating Black luminaries from Bay Shore, such as singer Patti Austin and jazz musician Ed Cornelius. Their biographies are featured in a virtual exhibit on the historical society's website, along with Black veterans and other notable members of the community. 

The exhibit was marked by a presentation in mid-February called “A Glimpse of Art and Culture: Talent Within Our Black Community." Organized by Watts, the event was augmented with performances from local singers and an appearance by Reynard Burns, a music teacher and composer who is among the highlighted individuals.

“I was very honored to be recognized,” said Burns, 77, who taught music in Bay Shore from 1968 to 2002. “Deanna used the term, ‘hidden in plain sight,’ that I’ve been around. I was there 34 years.”

Burns, who lives in Bayport, has composed music that’s been performed for several Islip Arts Council programs, as well as across the country and abroad. He presents workshops and lectures about composers of color, and has also served as public relations officer of the Islip branch of the NAACP and the Claude B. Govan Tri-State Chapter of Tuskegee Airmen Inc.

The Black History Month program has “been very successful,” said Marilynn Domagala, program chair for the Bay Shore Historical Society since 2022. “We've gotten immense, positive feedback from both our members and the visitors that we've had.”

Part of the exhibit’s intent is to highlight local people making history, she added.

Reynard Burns, a music teacher and composer, was among those...

Reynard Burns, a music teacher and composer, was among those highlighted by the Bay Shore Historical Society. Credit: Rick Kopstein

“The people that we choose are not necessarily known by the community,” Domagala said.

“For example, this year, one of the people that we spoke of was Patti Austin," she said. "When we played her recording ‘Baby Come to Me,’ everyone was like, ‘I know that song!’ But they didn’t realize she was from Bay Shore.”

Watts, similarly, said the programs have been well received by the community.

“I could tell from the faces in the audience when I just hit the right note, when they were taking in the information that I was giving,” she said.

The Bay Shore Historical Society is celebrating Black visionaries from...

The Bay Shore Historical Society is celebrating Black visionaries from Bay Shore. Credit: Rick Kopstein

At one point, while describing jingles sung by Patti Austin early in her career, “two ladies in the audience mimicked the cry of the cats in the commercial,” Watts added. “So when you hear that, you know you’re on the right track.”

First Baptist Church of Bay Shore Shore Choir singer Valerie Brown sang a medley of spirituals to a standing ovation from the audience, she said, and Burns spoke about his work with Bay Shore students.

Zebulon Vance Miletsky, associate professor of Africana Studies at Stony Brook University, said he found the focus on Bay Shore artists appealing, especially since this year's theme for Black History Month is African Americans and the Arts.

"It's a chance for everyone to shine; it's not just about the names you know," he said. "Getting the texture of lived lives at a granular level is not only just as interesting as the history we already know about, but can be a lot more interesting because there's a heart behind it."

"Especially this year, because of everything that's happening in the world, a quieter, more gentler approach in terms of one that requires us to lean in and listen from a place of compassion is nice," he added.

Watts, 83, who has lived in Bay Shore for much of her life, has taken charge of Black History Month presentations at the historical society for three years now, with past programs encompassing the beginnings of the Black community in Bay Shore and “unsung heroes” from the community.

Watts said the decision to focus on people from Bay Shore for Black History Month was inspired by the hard work and mentorship she’s seen from quiet heroes in the community who, she feels, “need to be known.”

“We in the Black community, we’ve had heroes; heroes in the sense that they have, in their own quiet way, been involved in the growth of Bay Shore,” she said.

Three Bay Shore graduates who went to have successful careers attended college thanks to fundraising efforts from members of the community, she recalled.

“That’s why I like to profile people in the Bay Shore community," Watts said. "They were there for us. They kept us safe. They saw us doing something that they knew we shouldn’t have been doing, believe me, it was, ‘I’m going to tell your mother."

“So that’s why I profiled our heroes and our heroines. That’s what they are.”

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The Bay Shore Historical Society is celebrating local artists "hidden in plain sight" for Black History Month with profiles featured in a virtual exhibit on the historical society's website.

  • The exhibit was marked by a presentation in mid-February called “A Glimpse of Art and Culture: Talent Within Our Black Community," augmented with performances from local singers and an appearance by Reynard Burns, a music teacher and composer who is among the highlighted individuals.

  • The decision to focus on community members was inspired by the hard work and mentorship seen from quiet heroes who “need to be known," said Deanna Watts, 83, a volunteer who organized the exhibit. 

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