Fifty years ago, civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. was fatally shot in Memphis while supporting striking sanitation workers. The turbulent movement for civil and human rights marched on without him, and the assassin’s bullet did not end King’s dream of equality for all.
Progress toward that goal has come in fits and starts: The nation has elected its first African-American president to two terms, and there have been overall gains in housing, employment and education. But still, those at the grassroots see a different reality. Spurred by a rising tide of racially charged incidents, such as recent high-profile killings of unarmed black men by police, African-Americans continue to lend their voices — and bodies — in protests echoing the turbulent 60s.
On Long Island, the nation’s first suburb, diversity has increased drastically over the past five decades. The area boasts one of the fastest-growing populations of immigrants but Long Island remains one of the most racially segregated areas in the nation, retaining its identity as an exclusive community despite passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
So, as another Black History Month is celebrated and the 50th anniversary of King’s April 4 assassination nears, where are we now? We asked the subjects of our Black History Month coverage to describe their experiences on Long Island. Here’s what they had to say:
“It was a hit for us, coming out of a poor neighborhood going to a rich school. But some of the people embraced us and we got along.”– Ernestine Small, 81, recalls being bused to a well-off and white high school while growing up in Rockville Centre.
She said that some black students dropped out because of the pressure. Still, she remembers a largely happy childhood. “I came out of a working family. My father had a beautiful garden and all he raised, my mother canned and cooked so we had plenty. I had the love and support of my community and my church.” Small was interviewed as one of the audience member’s during Martin Luther King Jr.’s visit to Rockville Centre in March 1968, just about a week before he was assassinated. Read that story here.
“I can’t speculate why those incidents occurred but I can say I have met some really good people in my community and value those many friendships today.”– Errol Toulon Jr., the first African-American sheriff in Suffolk County.
Toulon described two incidents that cast a shadow on an otherwise positive experience on Long Island—having his mailbox blown up in 2007 after a racial epithet was yelled outside his house and having the police called on him while canvassing door-to-door during the legislature race in 2009. The incidents shook him but he said he never considered moving. Toulon was interviewed about his rise to sheriff and the personal battles he fought along the way. Read that story here.
“You get a tough coat of skin. You think that you’re in medicine — this noble field — and that it would be the last place where you would find racism. But people don’t change their outlook just because they’re sick.”– Dr. Pilar Stevens-Cohen, director of echocardiography at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside.
Stevens-Cohen, who grew up in Elmont, said she doesn’t experience it much now but she has encountered white patients in the past who did not want to be treated by a black physician. Stevens-Cohen knew early on that being a doctor was her destiny. She is on a growing list of Long Island women who are breaking barriers in the medical arena. She was interviewed for a story about black women in elite medical specialties on Long Island. Read that story here.
“People don’t realize sometimes that they are being offensive in the things that they say. It’s subtle. It’s not real overt.”– Sandy Thomas of Wyandanch, on a lack of cultural understanding.
Thomas, a longtime church activist who moved to Long Island in 1972, said the climate is improving, but she noted there’s still tremendous segregation. She said she was heartened, though, when she led a Black History Month activity at a Huntington school, and during a play they were putting together, a number of white and black students raised their hand to play the role of Martin Luther King Jr. “I thought it was the cutest thing,” Thomas said. “We’ve really made progress if little white boys want to be Martin Luther King.” Thomas was interviewed as part of a story about Long Island’s religous figures and their role in the civil rights movement of the 60s and today. Read that story here.
“Now it doesn’t happen much, but I used to notice the recoil. There was one woman who said: ‘You know dear, this is heart surgery we’re talking about.'”– Dr. Allison McLarty, co-director of the ventricular assist device program at Stony Brook University Hospital.
McLarty was discouraged when she first sought a career in surgery by a fellow medical student at Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons, but she persisted — and succeeded — in becoming one of a small number of women practicing cardiothoracic surgery in the United States. She is the first black woman to practice the specialty on Long Island and heads thoracic aortic surgery at the Stony Brook Heart Institute. McLarty described her experience as part of a story about black women doctors in elite fields on Long Island and the twin evils of racism and sexism they have had to overcome. Read that story here.
“In ways I made a difference. I think my role as a teacher had an impact. As far as making a dent in minority hiring practices, it is hard to say I made a big impact. I’d like to believe I made a small impact.”– Cheryl Durant, a former assistant principal in the Half Hollow Hills school district.
Durant, pictured with her mother Novella Shockley, recalls being the only black educator in her building when she retired about a decade ago. In the 1960s her parents, both educators, and other activists pushed for Long Island school districts to hire more blacks but the change has not materialized.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this project incorrectly attributed a quote to Cheryl Durant. It was a quote by her sister Novella Randolph (not pictured).