The Rev. Bernadette Watkins, a Huntington community activist, with some...

The Rev. Bernadette Watkins, a Huntington community activist, with some of her collection of African American memorabilia, Tuesday at the Tri CYA community center in Huntington. Credit: Danielle Silverman

Every year in February for Black History Month the Rev. Bernadette Watkins pulls out her collection of African American memorabilia to create an exhibit for a school, community center or place of worship in the Huntington community.

She lovingly unwraps — and then rewraps — a selection of the hundreds of artifacts that range from dolls and figurines, records and musical instruments, books, pamphlets and pins that make up an educational hands-on tribute highlighting the contributions of people from across the African diaspora.

“It’s not easy to set it up and take it down although it’s a labor of love,” Watkins, a Huntington resident, said. “But I do it for the children.”

Watkins, 76, said, as she gets on in years, the cultural and historical items in the dozens of plastic bins that fill her garage need to find a permanent space so they can be enjoyed and experienced year-round.

    Greg DeRosa, president of G2D Development, the lead developer on the Gateway Plaza project at 1000-1026 New York Ave. in Huntington Station, said he is working to find a permanent exhibit space by this summer.

    “I’m blown away by her grace and the way she has served the community without any expectation of anything in return,” DeRosa said. “I felt like it was time for us to help her in any way we could.”

    Watkins is a longtime community and children’s advocate who established Huntington Outreach Ministries church in 2009 and remains its pastor. Over the past 50 years, not including her four biological children, she said at least 200 children have passed through her home either by way of the foster care system or because they were community kids at risk. She said a harsh childhood planted in her a need to help children in need.

    “When you come through hardships in your life instead of running away from it as many do, it drew me to want to see different for other young people,” Watkins said. “It’s my desire to see children enjoy life and have a good time.”

    Besides taking children into her home, the former nurse’s aide and nanny, led community food drives, children's reading groups and took dozens of kids on educational field trips.

    Her concern about instilling a sense of pride in children compelled her to start collecting and exhibiting her artifacts. About 20 years ago, she went into a local school during Black History Month and was dismayed to find there was nothing on display honoring the achievements and contributions of Black people.

    She said the school agreed to allow her to put on a display each February.

    “The young people would come and talk about it and ask questions,” she said. “So I continued to add new things and my collection grew and grew.”

    Her advocacy work has not gone unnoticed. The Huntington Town Board recently voted to have East Fourth Street in Huntington Station, where she once lived, renamed in her honor.

    Town board member Dave Bennardo, who sponsored the resolution for the street renaming, said Watkins' commitment to the community is legendary.

    “She is our town’s mother,” he said. “She is a special person who just goes above and beyond to help.”

    The Rev. Bernadette Watkins has been advocating for children and her community of Huntington for more than 50 years. Some of her accomplishments include:

    • Establishing the Huntington Outreach Ministries church on Spring Road on March 8, 2009. She remains the pastor there. 
    • Becoming a foster parent in 1970, caring for at least 200 kids in her home. 
    • Creating a Black history collection in 2003 that she shares with schools, churches and community centers.
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