African-American man drinking at "colored" water cooler in a streetcar terminal in Oklahoma City, 1939. Photo: Library of Congress/Russell Lee

I am just going to move right into these stories, no prelude; it is worth reading. These stories are true events of personal accounts of blatant racism and hatred. Sam and Lorna Muldrow volunteered to share their stories. The Muldrows are not lifetime residents of Riverhead but migrated to Riverhead from the South. They have been residents of the town for over 40 years. They are proud parents and grandparents. Sam is currently retired after putting in 40 years of service as an administrator at Little Flower Children’s Services. Lorna is retiring this month from PMBC working in the billing department.

I will begin with Lorna’s story first. Her story began in Belle Haven, North Carolina as a child before she migrated to New York. Her family lived plantation-style as sharecroppers, with the huge plantation-style big white house with the pillars etc. Her family and extended family all lived in one house. She recalls how each member of her family worked the fields from sun-up to sundown and she actually picked cotton.

Growing up, her mother sat her and her siblings down to tell them about white people and the fear they instilled in black people in the south. She was told never to walk alone in the streets after one of her cousins, a bus driver, was murdered while walking home from work. He was accosted by a group of white boys on the back of a truck. They tied him up, laid him down and proceeded to run over his body back and forth until he was dead.

She was told about the KKK, called the three sixes and the five bugs due to their dress. She recalls how one day she and her brother wandered through the woods and came across a skeleton hanging from a tree — a lynching. She claimed that she didn’t know what it was; she was about 10 or 11 years old. She recalls one night around 9 p.m. or so she was looking out the window and in the near distance saw lights. She called her aunt to ask her about the lights. Her aunt abruptly grabbed her from the window and put all the lights out and told her, “Shhhh! be very quiet.” Can you imagine that for those of us living in the North? Wow!

She stated that they didn’t have the appropriate books to learn by and that she learned by reading the Bible. In their schools they had hand-me-down books from the white schools. I asked her about the white people there. She said as long as they “stayed in line” everything was fine. However, if they got “out of line” they would suffer the consequences. She even stated how her family got their family name from the plantation owner.

There were two incidents Lorna said she will never forget. The first incident was when her family went to town to shop. Back then black people had to wait outside the store until all the white people came out. Well one of her little cousins happened to get in the store and her aunt went to get him and they hit her in the head with a hammer and she came out of the store all bloody. The next incident which stays fresh in her mind was when they were in town again and they had to stay on one side of the street for the colored and the other side for whites. She stated that a good family friend happened to go on the wrong side of the street; they beat her down right in front of them until she was bloody all over.

When asked about Martin Luther King Jr. she said she remembers being in school and a teacher began ringing this big cow bell used for emergencies. The teacher was yelling they just killed Martin Luther King Jr. All the kids were sent outside around the flag pole and they all began to pray. She said that Dr. King had come through there making speeches. School integration was beginning just before her family left for New York, school integration was beginning. They were all called niggers and her cousin was in an altercation on the first day of the integration.

Being in Riverhead was so much better than the South, she said. However, she’s always felt as though she’s being profiled when out shopping. She states that people are always watching her thinking she might steal something. She feels that it’s not only her but all Black people; it’s the subtly of racism in the North.

I found Lorna’s stories so intriguing. We all hear and know about these stories in the South. But I never really spoke to person in my age group who could give such a vivid detailed account of their experiences living in the South. I sat in awe and in shock during the whole interview; it was almost unbelievable— sad but so true.

Sam Muldrow’s story is a little different than his wife’s. Sam grew up in Maryland before migrating to New York. He had no interaction with white people with some exceptions — insurance people or furniture sales people. Everything was black in his community including stores, with one exception: a general store owned by a white man. He lived in the suburbs of Salisbury, a city in Maryland. His primarily black ghetto was riddled with a great deal of crime.

Sam said that it wasn’t until he came to Riverhead that he experienced different forms of racism. His father migrated to New York because he wanted to move his family out of a southern ghetto to find a better life, to escape the crime. His father came to Calverton and began working on the farms for the white man.

In Maryland, his father worked as a mason and his mother was employed by the Campbell Soup company. In New York, his parents had to start all over to salvage their family, giving up their employment to escape the southern ghetto and working for potato farmers in the North; the family had to take a cut.

In Riverhead, he said, everything was white except the people working in the fields. His older brother refused to work the farms because it remotely seemed like slavery. Here his family experienced extreme poverty; they struggled to survive. He said that the farms stripped his father of his dignity.

Sam said didn’t personally experience overt racism until he entered the school system in Riverhead. He remembers a teacher took away his self-esteem by telling him in so many words that he wasn’t good enough. When he entered school here in the fifth grade he noted how much better white kids had it. He jokingly stated that at one point he wanted to be white, so he, too, could enjoy white privilege.

Sam has many memories of racism in Riverhead: riding his bike and being stopped by a state trooper who told him he could be locked up for riding a black bike because he was a black boy. He remembers a Riverhead cop slapping a boy for laughing while the the officer addressed a group of black youth behind the old Woolworth’s store. Later on, he had a cop put a gun to his head during a routine traffic stop. He recalls the indignity of not being able to get a salesman to serve him at a local car dealership — and then being questioned about where he got the money to be able to buy the vehicle without a loan.

It’s important to remember how things used to be in order to best understand how things are today. To paraphrase the Spanish philosopher George Santayana, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it. While racism is not always so blatant today, our struggle continues. These stories are reminders that we have to stand up to the evils of oppression. These stories keep racism fresh in our minds and remind us we are dealing with an endless battle for freedom.

“These hands are symbolic of our Higher Power and our faith therein. They represent the intrinsic value and the significance of our struggles in all forms of injustices through racism. Through these hands we were able to perservere and stand steadfast in the midst of the storm. Without these hands we would be rendered helpless. We will continue to pray with these hands to guide us in the right direction for solutions, for strength, power, and the courage to overcome racism in America.”

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Lawrence Street is an educator and an advocate for education reform focusing on children with special needs. He has taught in Riverhead and New York City and held education administration positions in the U.S. Virgin Islands. A native of Riverhead, he has always been a proponent for social justice and community awareness.