Twenty-first century Baldwin is widely seen as one of the most diverse communities in New York State. In 2006, Money Magazine named Baldwin one of the most desirable places to live, for a community of its size, in the entire country — pointing to its diversity as a key selling point. But not so long ago, Baldwin consisted mostly of white residents.
The hamlet’s racial history is far from unique. America’s cities, towns and neighborhoods have, for the most part, always been segregated, and largely remain so today.
Exactly how and why this pattern of racial separation — particularly in the 20th century — became such a constant feature of American life can be more clearly understood by zeroing in on the history of places like Baldwin, as it was so typical of thousands of other communities in the United States.
As Richard Rothstein so meticulously detailed in his highly acclaimed book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, for most of the 20th century, federal, state and local governments had, for all practical purposes, imposed residential segregation throughout the United States. This was mostly accomplished by the use of zoning laws, redlining and subsidies for builders to create “whites-only” suburbs.
Since Baldwin has long been an unincorporated hamlet within the Town of Hempstead, it has had to strictly adhere to the residential zoning laws passed by the Town. And ever since Hempstead Town enacted its first residential zoning regulations back in 1930, it has explicitly prohibited anything other than “single family detached dwellings.”
By excluding multi-family residences, as well as apartment buildings, this law made it extremely difficult for low-income minorities to even think about living in Baldwin. Note: According to the Town of Hempstead’s legal department, the apartment buildings near the library were built before 1930.
However, as the years went by, the once meager black middle class grew. As a result, many black people in the New York metropolitan area were able to afford to buy houses in Baldwin.
But when some black people called the real estate offices in Baldwin, houses that had been listed as “for sale” that very day suddenly became “unavailable.” This blatant form of discrimination was the result of an unwritten code among realtors in the Baldwin area.
The National Association of Real Estate Boards was instrumental in promoting both segregated housing and virulent racism. In 1939, the Association published a booklet that warned brokers not to sell any houses to “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.” This mentality, in one form or another, continued to exert an influence on the real estate industry many years thereafter.
To gain an even deeper understanding of why Baldwin remained so segregated for such a long time, it is worth taking a closer look at the overall racial climate in Baldwin that prevailed for most of the 20th century.
For about a decade, starting in the early 1920s, neighboring Freeport had one of the largest chapters of the Ku Klux Klan on Long Island. As hard as this may be to believe, according to an article in the New York Times, on Sept. 20, 1924, the Klan drew 30,000 spectators to a parade in which 2,000 robed members of the Klan marched through the streets of Freeport!
While an archival search didn’t find any specific references to Klan activity in Baldwin, there can be little doubt — given the close proximity of Baldwin to Freeport — that the ideological influence of the Freeport KKK had at least some influence on the racial climate in Baldwin. I have heard several anecdotes that attest to a significant presence of KKK activists in Baldwin. Exactly how much of an influence the Klan might have had on Baldwin as a whole, either in the ‘20s, or even subconsciously on later generations of Baldwinites, is impossible to know with any certainty.
Like in most small communities, Baldwin has always had a newspaper dedicated to covering local stories and daily life. A recent archival search of every issue of the weekly Baldwin Citizen from 1955 to 1967 revealed that, while it was by no means an openly racist publication, the editorials it published were often both patronizing and tinged with right-wing rhetoric. For example, in its editorial on May 16, 1963, it clearly implied that members of the Baldwin Human Rights Council were “extremists” seeking to achieve “their own ugly and un-American ends.”
And then there was the 1967 trial of Maurice McNeill, then the only black teacher at the local high school, who was a highly respected member of the school community. Despite this, he was never able to purchase a home in Baldwin because of the racist machinations of local realtors.
In the summer of that year, one of McNeill’s female students accused him of sexual molestation. The school board immediately suspended McNeill without pay and notified him that if he would quietly resign, they would write him a strong reference letter so that he could gain future employment.
McNeill completely denied the accusations leveled against him and insisted on holding an open hearing to expose the full truth. For seven intense days, in a packed school auditorium, the Baldwin Board of Education, acting as prosecutor, judge and jury, heard extensive testimony from both sides. Reports about the hearings appeared in newspapers all over the country.
In the end, the board found McNeill completely innocent of all charges. The way in which the entire case was handled, though, generated widespread outrage from civil rights organizations throughout the country, from the Baldwin Teachers Union, and from the great majority of the students at the high school who held McNeill in very high regard as both a teacher and a man.
Furthermore, it is important to note that throughout the 1960s, a number of Baldwin organizations and residents stood up and spoke out against racial discrimination of any kind in their community, including the congregation of the Baldwin Presbyterian Church, the Baldwin Christian Ministerial Association and the Baldwin Council for Human Rights.
Today, Baldwin is a fully integrated community with a highly touted school system, a number of beautiful parks and is generally seen as a very desirable place to live. However, according to many Baldwinites, the racial tensions of the past continue to simmer under the surface. How successfully the current residents of Baldwin can navigate these choppy waters will determine what life in Baldwin will both look and feel like for many decades to come.
Ken Brociner is a 1967 graduate of Baldwin High School. He currently lives in Somerville, Mass.