A look back at Rockville Centre’s black history


Editor’s note: This is the latest in a series of guest columns about the history of the village of Rockville Centre, which was incorporated 125 years ago. Marilyn Nunes Devlin is Rockville Centre’s village historian and helps run the Phillips House Museum on Hempstead Avenue. This column recognizes Black History Month.

An African American Vacation School, held in the community hall of St. Mark’s Church, came into being in 1926 after a stirring appeal by Elizabeth Adams Davis, the church’s director of religious education. The appeal was made before the Rockville Centre Exchange Club, completely sweeping the bankers and real estate men off their feet, and prompting them to open their wallets.

In the school’s first year, there were 57 students enrolled, ranging in age from four to 15. Davis became the school’s director, and Lottie and Jean Taylor, of Westbury, served as teachers. The children received instruction in Bible studies, music, storytelling, drama, carpentry, sewing and art. Classes met from 8 a.m. to 11:45 a.m., five days a week.

Although originally an experiment in education, the results exceeded the highest expectations of those behind the project. The parents promised to lend their support by looking for the means to make the school a permanent institution. At the time, it was the only such school on Long Island and one of a handful in New York.

The birth of Shiloh and the man behind it

The Shiloh Baptist Church was organized in June 1907. Mrs. Glendora Hawkins called a group together at that time and asked if they were interested in organizing a Baptist church in Rockville Centre. A favorable response was received, and the group held its first services in Hawkins’s home at 9 Nassau St. After spending some time at a building on Merrick Road, the congregation purchased property on Banks Avenue in 1909. They later acquired a small building, which they moved into to use as a church.

In 1937, the Rev. Morgan M. Days came to Rockville Centre to become pastor of the Shiloh Baptist Church, a wood structure with a congregation of 180. In 1945, a new church building was erected on North Centre Avenue. By that time, the congregation had grown to 1,500, with six chairmen, three usher boards, and seven auxiliary boards.

Days launched a campaign to finish and furnish the interior of the church. He received strong support from all sections of the village and other religious denominations, which contributed $30,000 and many hours of their time and talents.

He served for 12 years on the village’s Human Rights Commission. President Harry S. Truman honored Days for his contributions to race relations in Nassau County, Gov. Nelson D. Rockefeller recognized him for his years of outstanding service to Rockville Centre. In March 1980, he was invited to the White House by President Jimmy Carter to discuss community, state and national affairs. Like Mordecai Rock Smith, for whom Rockville Centre is named, Days became a popular citizen of his day.

The road to a Housing Authority

Work on the Urban Renewal Program began in the 1950s as a means of replacing sub-standard housing in the Banks Avenue section, where many African-American residents were living. Urban Renewal would provide the area with modern, sanitary apartments and provide profitable utilization of undeveloped land in that section.

Plans for the program was delayed for 10 years due to the involvement, of not only the village government, but also the state and federal governments. The contentiousness, miscommunication and disagreements between the village board and the residents also spurred a stall in progress.

On October 7, 1965, the final plans for the project were finally approved. Eventually, nine multiple-use dwellings were built, providing 164 apartments on North Centre Avenue. Today, the complex has been completely renovated and operates under the Rockville Centre Housing Authority. The Authority also operates a fifty-unit apartment building on Merrick Road, affectionately known as the Senior Building.

Dr. King’s historic visit

On March 26, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke before a standing-room-only audience at South Side Junior High School, now known as South Side Middle School. He spoke about his vision for the Civil Rights Movement and the Poor Peoples Campaign he had recently founded. Nine days later, King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tenn. One year later, the Rockville Centre Chapter of the Poor Peoples Campaign organized a musical tribute to honor King.