It was billed as a celebration of the historic progress made by women in New York and the United States in gaining voting rights. But by the time the two-hour series of short presentations at the Oyster Bay Historical Society on Aug. 18 was over, it was clear that many issues of social justice were in the sights of the program’s organizers, some of whom unquestionably resonate with contemporary politics in America.
The show, a production of Dr. Georgette Grier-Kay and entitled “Freedom Sisters & Suffragists,” featured readings about nearly two dozen women’s rights leaders from the past century, from those who fought for the right to vote in the early part of the 20th century, to those who fought in the 1960s Civil Rights era and even more recently.
Grier-Kay, executive director and curator of the Eastville Community Historical Society of Sag Harbor, and president of the Association of Suffolk County Historical Societies, was in part responsible for the evening. “Yes, we’re celebrating this exhibit, Votes for Women,” she said. “But we also wanted to find a way to bring us all together to celebrate local women.”
The short passages, many simple third-person expositions of the accomplishments of the individual being described, focused on such figures as Mary McLeod Bethune, Shirley Chisholm, Coretta Scott King, Barbara Jordan, Betty Shabazz and Sojourner Truth. Those who read came from all over the island to take part, including Fran Leone Johnson, a 42-year resident of Oyster Bay; Denice Sheppard, a direct descendant of Oyster Bay Civil War veteran David Carll; and 11th generation Long Islander Cate Ludlam, whose father’s family hails from Oyster Bay.
“Civil Rights is Civil Rights,” declared Carmen Lloyd, who read a letter from Civil Rights activist Dorothy Irene Height, who was described by The Washington Post as “the Godmother of the Civil Rights Movement, who fought for women’s rights and African-American rights as the president of the National Council of Negro Women.”
Each of the 17 readers made plain the timeliness of the stories they were retelling, and their resonance today.
Cate Ludlam’s task was to read about Rosalie Jones, the fiery and eccentric suffragist from Cold Spring Harbor and Oyster Bay. Jones, also known as General Jones, made national headlines with marches to Albany and to Washington, D.C. during the height of the suffragist movement in the early 20th century.
Anita Hill detailed the life and accomplishments of Shirley Chisholm, whose tomb reads, “Unbought and unbossed.” Brenda Simmons spoke about Myrlie Evans-Williams, wife of Medgar Evers, whose home was firebombed by Klansmen and white supremacists.
Rachel Krinksy introduced Elizabeth Cady Staton. Brenda Cherry, a volunteer at Sagamore Hill, told the story of Ida B. Wells-Barnett.
And Dagmar Fors Karppi, an Oyster Bay journalist, hammered home the relevance of the evening with a quip from poet Nikki Giovanni: “Note to the South: You Lost!”
The evening also included a special musical performance by Cherokee Bunn.