Josephine Smith, cultural resources director for Shinnecock Reservation. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Riverhead Free Library hosted the first “Loving Day” celebration in Riverhead Wednesday evening.

The event was organized by Rasheima Alvarado, adult program coordinator at the library with the assistance of Riverhead educator Lawrence Street. It was well-attended by a multicultural audience.

“Loving Day” started in 2004 as a graduate thesis by a student at Parsons the New School for Design in New York City. The student, Ken Tanabe, says he wanted the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Loving v. Virginia to be “a recognizable part of the conversation about race and identity, like Brown v. Board of Education.” The son of immigrants from Japan and Belgium, Tanabe thought there should be some recognition for multiethnic families and their children.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton star as Mildred and Richard Loving in the 2016 Focus Features film “Loving.”

Richard and Mildred Loving grew up in a small town in Virginia. They fell in love. Richard was white, Mildred was black and interracial marriage was a crime in Virginia. In 1958, the couple eloped to Washington D.C. to marry but returned home to Virginia to live. They were arrested under Virginia’s miscegenation law, which made interracial marriage a crime. In a plea deal, they accepted a one-year suspended sentence and were banished from the state for 25 years. They couple moved their young family to Washington, but didn’t like living in the city. They returned to Virginia, hoping to elude notice of police. They were arrested again. Mildred wrote to the U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy and his office connected her with a lawyer provided by the American Civil Liberties Union. The rest is history.

The U.S. Supreme Court rejected Virginia’s argument that the miscegenation law didn’t violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution because it punished whites and blacks equally. It ruled that any law that makes an action a crime on account of the actor’s race is unconstitutional. Noting that the state law only prohibited interracial marriage involving white persons, the court said the law’s real aim was to maintain white supremacy.

The court also held that “marriage is one of the ‘basic civil rights of man,’ fundamental to our very existence and survival.” To deny that right on the basis of a racial classification violates the Due Process Clause of the 14th Amendment, the court ruled.

The June 12, 1967 ruling overturned miscegenation laws in Virginia and 15 other states. Twenty-six other states had already repealed miscegenation laws on their books prior to the Loving decision. New York never had such a law.

Wednesday’s event at the library included a screening of the 2016 film “Loving,” which tells the story of Richard and Mildred Loving and the landmark Supreme Court case. The movie is available on Amazon Prime and for rent on YouTube.

Following the screening were short lectures by Street and psychology researcher, writer and musician Tova Harris of South Setauket. There was a musical performance by Lauretta Street, an open mic time and a blessing by Bante Kottawe Nanda of the Long Island Buddhist Meditation Center in Riverhead.

Street spoke about how race and interracial unions are presented in mass media and pop culture. He noted how it is only fairly recently that interracial couples and multiracial families have been incorporated into pop culture.

Tova Harris

Harris, whose father is black and mother is white and Jewish, spoke about growing up as a biracial Jew on the north shore of Suffolk County. She also discussed persistent segregation in upper income suburban communities. Harris publishes a Medium blog called Racial Relativism.

After their talks was an open mic session that allowed members of the audience to speak of their experiences in multiracial or multiethnic families. Some speakers were members of the library’s Writer’s Cove program, who had written essays or poems for the event. Others were residents who wanted to share their own experiences.

Eva June Roberts-Vasquez

Eva June Roberts-Vasquez of Riverhead shared her experience as the child of an interracial couple who was born in Virginia the year after the Lovings married. Her parents were married in Vermont and moved to Virginia because her father, who was in the Navy, was stationed there.

“I don’t like to say this, but my father was abusive. My mother tried to divorce him in the state of Virginia. We all saw the white southern judges on that screen,” Roberts-Vasquez said, referring to the movie. “My mother scraped up $500 to pay a lawyer and that southern judge told her — using the ‘n-word’ — ‘N’s and white people cant get married here, you can’t get divorced here,’ he told her.”

Josephine Smith, cultural resuorces director of the Shinnecock Reservation, talked about being Native American on Long Island today — how people question one’s heritage, saying “But you don’t look Indian.”

Smith spoke of the importance of teaching Native culture to the next generation, facing historical traumas and healing from them through culture.

She said other people often say they love Indian culture. “You like us to come and sing and dance, but you dont want to hear some of our stories,” she said.

The comments people write on news stories are often so hurtful, Smith said.

“People forget that they came to this country — that they are the real immigrants,” she said. They created false borders that divided tribes and families, she said.

“We try to remind our children that they’re from this land. They are literally walking on the backs of their grandmothers and grandfathers, who have been walking this land for thousands of years,” Smith said. “They need to know that they have a history they can be proud of, a history that goes back thousands of years…We need to be able to celebrate that.”

Emily Eisemann

Emily Eisemann spoke about her experience as the granddaughter of immigrants from Cuba and China. She quoted Dr. Martin Luther King: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” She relayed stories about assumptions people make because of how other people look — how people feel free to make racist comments to her white mother, whose family is multiracial and how she was escorted by police off a bus in London on suspicion she might be a terrorist.

“It’s been 50-odd years since Loving, and we’ve come a thousand miles uphill, but we have another thousand to go,” she said.

She read excerpts of “See Through” a poem by Andrea Gibson:

I don’t believe we’re hateful
I think mostly we’re just asleep
but the math adds up the same.

There are voices deep as roots
thundering unquestionable truth
through the white noise
that pacifies our ears

This is where we come from
This is still where we are
Now where will we go from here.

Alvarado and Street both said they hope to organize a larger “Loving Day” event in 2020, possibly at Stotzky Park, with live music and food trucks.

RiverheadLOCAL photos by Denise Civiletti

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Denise is a veteran local reporter, editor, attorney and former Riverhead Town councilwoman. Her work has been recognized with numerous awards, including investigative reporting and writer of the year awards from the N.Y. Press Association. She is a founder, owner and co-publisher of this website.Email Denise.