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Civil rights on Long Island: Local history includes slavery, a strong and active KKK, legal discrimination against minorities

Photo: FBI.gov

“Civil Rights on Long Island” is a new book by Christopher Verga. The author, who recently gave a talk at the Suffolk County Historical Society in Riverhead, said he chose the subject because it involves something that has “fallen through the cracks”— although a huge issue.

It goes back to the time of slavery when, shockingly, Suffolk and Queens counties (which then included what later became Nassau) had “the largest slave population in the North,” Verga said.

During the time period of the 17th Century to the late 18th Century, Suffolk’s population 18-percent enslaved and Queens was 27-percent enslaved, according to Verga, who teaches a course on Long Island history, at Suffolk County Community College.

In response to questions at the well-attended Jan. 21 presentation, he said the “average” slaveholder here had two to four slaves — although large wealthy families had far more. Terrible treatment of the island’s original Native American inhabitants ran in parallel, and some Native Americans were also enslaved, Verga said. Participation in elections by African-Americans, Native Americans and poor people generally was formally “prevented in 1821 by a New York State Constitution clause requiring a person [men] to own $100 to $250 worth of property to vote.”

In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan became a dominant force here — one out of seven Long Islanders were members of the KKK. “This was rampant on Long Island,” Verga said.

“People running for public office would say, ‘I’m a member of the Klan so vote for me,’ and there were signs aplenty posted declaring: ‘We Support Klan Members.’”

The big foe of the KKK was the Catholic church, said Verga, emphasizing that the fight against racism and bigotry is also a big part of civil rights history on Long Island.

The KKK “hated immigrants” and was hotly anti-Catholic, along with being virulently anti-black and anti-Jewish. Being “anti-immigrant to the fullest and anti-Catholic” ran “neck-and-neck” for the KKK, he related, because most newcomers to Suffolk and Queens were Catholic. The line of the KKK, he said, was that Catholics “prayed to someone in Rome and were not allegiant to America.”

Verga showed a photograph of an anti-KKK demonstration in Bay Shore in 1923 that drew, according to a report in the Brooklyn Eagle, an astonishing 40,000 people and was organized by the Holy Name Society of the Catholic Church to protest KKK members running for public office — including that year for Islip Town supervisor.

“The biggest issue on Long Island was immigration,” Verga said. And the “biggest donors” to the KKK were “real estate companies. They kept the Klan viable.” He displayed a piece of local KKK literature listing donors, with real estate companies topping the list. In response to a question from the audience, Verga said these companies believed that if there were diversity in housing it would somehow lower real estate values.

“Catholics were worried” about being targets of the bigots. What ended that was “changed demographics.” There were too many Catholics— they had gained strength in numbers.

In the post-World War II period, bias still raged with restrictions against blacks and Jews in “a lot of areas.” Levittown, with its 17,000 homes, formalized racism in deeds to those houses stipulating they were not to be owned by “any person other than members of the Caucasian race.”

But there were people “challenging boundaries… breaking racial barriers” on Long Island, and it became a “battleground” in the nation’s civil rights struggle. This included Thomas Romano, seeing “what Levittown was doing” and building a development called Ronek Park in North Amityville an ad for which declared: “Dedicated to the Proposition That All Men Are Created Equal.”

Verga spoke of how Dr. Martin Luther King addressed a rally here. He showed a photograph of King at that demonstration, as well as photos of Long Islanders involved in the civil rights battles here, including Dr. Eugene Reed who went on to become state NAACP president, and Irwin and Delores Quintyne, leaders of Suffolk CORE.

A key part of what happened after the war, said Verga, involved black soldiers coming home and finding “the same sort of discrimination prior to the war.” Their reaction was: “I came home and I thought we were done with this racism.”

Today “we still do have obstacles,” there are “still areas not integrated,” he said. “We still have work to do.” But there has been substantial change, he said, noting the presiding officer of the Suffolk County Legislature DuWayne Gregory is an African-American.

“We have made great strides, but we still have a long way to go.” Still, he said: “Once you have progress, you can’t stop it.”

Victoria Berger, executive director of the society, commented on the importance of Verga’s presentation.

“The timeliness of embracing all the diversity we have on Long Island right now is really critical,” Berger aid.

It sure is — and the history that Verga provided was highly illuminating.

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Karl Grossman is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Grossman and his wife Janet live in Sag Harbor.

Suffolk Closeup is a syndicated opinion column on issues of concern to Suffolk County residents.

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Karl Grossman
Karl is a veteran investigative reporter and columnist, the winner of numerous awards for his work and a member of the L.I. Journalism Hall of Fame. He is a professor of journalism at SUNY/College at Old Westbury and the author of six books. Karl lives in Sag Harbor. Email Karl