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Naming a county building after a Black trailblazer

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The building that houses the Nassau County Board of Elections and the County Clerk’s office doesn’t have a name. It has always been referred to as 240 Old Country Road, but Legislator Josh Lafazan would like to see that change.

“There have been passionate debates nationwide of taking names off of buildings and taking monuments down,” he said. “Here is a building that is in the heart of the county government that doesn’t have a name. I want to name the building after Shirley Chisholm, an American icon.”

Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, represented New York’s 12th Congressional District for seven terms from 1969 to 1983. She was a trailblazer for that reason but also for her involvement in the Women’s Movement, that she helped found. An attorney who lived in Brooklyn, she died in 2005.

Lafazan, 26, said he chose Chisholm because he admired her and could also relate to her philosophy. “She had a catch phrase — that she couldn’t be bossed,” Lafazan said. “As an independent working in a hyper-partisan environment in Nassau County I love that phrase. I hope to emulate that as a legislator and her equality for all.”

The independent from Woodbury, who caucuses with the Democrats said his political awakening occurred in high school when he loved utilizing quotes from different leaders. He learned then about how Chisholm build a coalition with people of different races and ages. Lafazan said he has long admired her ability to do so.

“Things only get done when you bring people of different opinions together to seek a compromise,” he said. It’s trendy now in politics not to compromise. Shirley was someone who used it to fight for change.”

Lafazan spoke to a former intern Travis Nelson in June, who is a community activist from Hempstead. Lafazan said Nelson guided him in his choice of naming the county building after Chisholm.

Nelson, 21, Hempstead High Schools Salutatorian in 2017, and  a rising senior at Columbia, said the conversation with Lafazan was more of a consultation. “I can’t take much credit for the outcome,” he said. “When we had our conversation, I said that the person should be relevant to the 20th century and to New York. That was my advice to him.”

Chisholm was an influential factor in New York politics, he added. And she was working in Congress right alongside Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

“Her work to break racial barriers and gender barriers makes her important,” Nelson said. “The renaming of a building is a positive act. For the name to be a person of color and a Black woman, well there is power in that.”

Rev. Roger Williams, the pastor of First Baptist Church of Glen Cove, had not heard about the building renaming but said, “It was a delightful thing to do.” He could not understand why anyone would oppose naming the county building after Chisholm.

“I would applaud it,” he said. “The Black struggle is part of American history, not just Black history.”

Lafazan submitted his resolution to rename 240 Old Country Road, Mineola, to the Shirley Chisholm Building on July 26. His Democratic colleagues, he said, all support it. Lafazan spoke to some Republican legislators, encouraging them to be a co-sponsor of his bill. No one would commit.

The Legislature’s Republican majority emailed a news release on July 30 saying that it has crafted a bill to rename County Police Headquarters after the first African American commissioner, the late William J. Willet, of Glen Cove. The bill will go before the Legislature in September.

When asked for a comment about Lafazan’s resolution, Chris Boyle, the spokesman for the Republican majority, said the following: “Congresswoman Chisholm was a groundbreaking official and certainly deserves recognition for her career. We will review the resolution. However, if we are going to be naming buildings we may first want to recognize the legacy of the many African-American leaders and trailblazers from Nassau who made a difference in our county and world, from the Tuskegee Airmen to leaders in Civil Rights, government and every other field.”

Lafazan said he plans to vote yes on the Republican’s bill. “In 125 years we have not named a building after an historic Black figure,” he said. “Come September, I hope there will be two buildings in Nassau County to honor historic Black figures.”