February marks another year of Black History Month, and it’s important for us to take note of how far America has come since black slaves were first brought to the country some 400 years ago. On a local level, it has been nearly 200 years since slavery ended in New York in 1827.
Long Island has seen more than its fair share of racial division. The first slaves were brought to Long Island in 1654, when Nathaniel Sylvester moved from Barbados to Shelter Island. By 1698, there were nearly 2,100 black people living in New York, the majority of whom were slaves. Almost half of them lived on Long Island.
In what became Nassau County, segregation took the form of free slave communities, which developed in Glen Cove, Manhasset and Amityville, where there were large Quaker populations. In Suffolk County, one freed slave, Rufus Perry Jr., became a lawyer and challenged laws that permitted segregation, while developing plans for a three-acre refuge for freed slaves near Riverhead. The proposal included a community center, fire department and hotels for black people.
Segregation continued to flourish for decades here, to well beyond the end of World War II, when the population was booming and covenants and exclusionary leases prevented blacks from moving into certain neighborhoods and communities like Levittown.
Racial inequality certainly spilled over into our school systems. The Malverne School District was a prime example of that, as racial tensions peaked during the early 1960s. Prejudice divided the small village, and it wasn’t until the concerted efforts of African-American families in the community that people began to see a real push for change. Those families, joined by local and national advocates, launched a campaign to integrate the village’s schools, which eventually caught the attention of James E. Allen Jr., then the state education commissioner. After a community-wide push and state intervention, Malverne was the first school district in New York to receive a desegregation order.
Today the district is a model of integration, and it speaks volumes about what is possible — that racial lines can disintegrate over time as people get to know one another.
While it’s great to see how the far the country — and our local communities — have come since slavery was abolished nationwide in 1865, we’re not yet where we need to be. Long Island remains among the nation’s most racially divided regions.
As noted in the Herald’s ongoing series “The Racism Around Us,” 92 percent of Long Island public school teachers are white. There are no black teachers in nearly two-thirds of Long Island schools. In more than two-fifths of the schools, there are no Latino teachers. And most children grow up in segregated communities that divide along school district lines. Structural racism is ever-present here in suburbia.
Those were the findings discussed at the Long Island Educator Diversity Convening conference at Hofstra University last spring. Having a diverse student body calls for a more concerted effort from educators to promote a diverse staff.
We cannot relent in pursuing the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream, expressed so eloquently 57 years ago, of seeing little black boys and girls holding hands with little white boys and girls. In September, a video of two toddlers in Manhattan — one black and the other white — running toward each other for a hug went viral. We should seek to create more moments like that. But they can’t happen if we’re not providing opportunities for children from different racial, ethnic and religious backgrounds to grow up together, learn from one another and celebrate their differences.