The complexities of African American history make it difficult to unearth and nearly impossible to condense into one small exhibit space during one month of the year.
African people torn from their homeland, sold into slavery and transported as chattel across a wide ocean to a foreign world, were isolated from not only their families and tribes, but also from their languages, traditions, spiritual practices, music, art and literature. The slave trade stole more than a people’s freedom — it stole their culture, their history, their very identity.
“We know that our history didn’t start with slavery,” said Dr. James Banks, professor at Suffolk County Community College and the college’s coordinator of multicultural affairs.
“We want to make sure we acknowledge that when we make any presentation,” he said. Banks, a board member of the Riverhead-based African American Educational and Cultural Festival, helped organize a Black History Month exhibit currently on display at Riverhead Free Library.
“We want people, especially our young people, to understand our history didn’t start with slavery — it started way before that, and although they were separated from that information it still exists,” Banks said. “It’s an important part of things for them to look back to and look up to.”
“Yes, our history goes back thousands and thousands of years,” agreed Marylin Winter, president of the nonprofit African American Educational and Cultural Festival, and curator of the exhibit at the Riverhead library (where she also serves on the board of trustees.)
“That’s why we want to teach the other side to make sure kids are aware of where they came from, that they are a proud people,” Winter said.
The exhibit at the library, which occupies the display cases opposite the circulation desk and continues in the large meeting room on the lower level, includes exhibits of traditional African clothing, art and geography — alongside exhibits about iconic figures in American history such as Frederick Douglass, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and lesser-known trailblazers in science, industry, finance and politics.
The exhibit also includes Afro-Latin culture and history, recognizing that the transatlantic slave trade, which spanned three centuries, dispersed millions of African people throughout the Americas.
“We are melting pot of different nationalities and we embrace everything to educate people about African American history and culture,” Winter said.
The exhibit not only attempts to survey and celebrate African American history and culture a broader scale, it also focuses on the very local. It includes photographs and information about local residents, past and present, gleaned from Census data and newspaper clippings.
Among the photos are a selection of black and white portraits of Riverhead residents made in the mid-1980s by documentary portrait photographer Toba Tucker for her Black History and Folklife Portrait Project.
The subjects of these portraits hint at the roots so many local African American families have in Powhatan and Cumberland counties in Virginia. Many of those families settled in this area after coming north in what is known as the Great Migration, Winter said. That term refers to the northward migration of an estimated 6 million African Americans out of the rural South from 1916 to 1970.
Slavery was not fully abolished in New York until 1827, though a “gradual” emancipation began with a state law passed in 1799.
“People don’t realize it, but slavery was a big deal right here on Long Island,” Banks said.
People probably don’t realize it because the history of slavery on Long Island — like the history of African Americans on Long Island from the earliest days of slavery in the mid-17th Century to the present — is not well-documented.
Books about Long Island African American history are few and far between. Information is sparse. Local history, recorded by white men and women, generally pay little attention to the African American population in Riverhead and the surrounding area. Their presence is often mentioned only in passing. Their contributions to the local community and its economy and culture are largely ignored.
“The culture of African Americans on the East End, indeed in New York in general, holds a special place,” Banks said. “They were here and very well developed, though a lot of people don’t realize it, he said.
Banks points to Seneca Village as an example. Seneca Village was a predominantly African American Village on the upper west side of Manhattan during the first half of the 19th Century — in an area that is now part of Central Park.
Seneca Village (population about 225) was a thriving community, of 50 homes, most of them owner-occupied, three churches, a school and burial grounds. The village, established in 1827, was taken by the City of New York by eminent domain in the mid-1850s to make way for the first major landscaped park in the country, Central Park. Seneca Village was located in the area of the what is now the western edge of the park, between W. 83rd and W. 89th streets. The village was razed, its residents disbursed and its history — like so much of local African American history – forever lost.
“I relish the opportunities to talk to people about black history,” the professor said. Even what is documented is not widely known today. A good example of this phenomenon, Banks said, is the history of African American inventors — the subject of “a wonderful exhibit at the college” earlier this month, he said. “People are surprised when they learn about some of the things invented by black people.” Information about African American inventions is also part of the library exhibit.
The exhibit at the Riverhead library is a potpourri that spans continents, centuries and cultures — just like the African American experience.
Besides all the informative displays and artifacts, lining the walls of the lower-level meeting room are about 20 paintings by artists Frenal Mezilas and Calvin Bisserup of the Long Island Black Artists Association. The works are vibrant portrayals of African American people at work, at play and in worship.
“We’re learning as we go along,” Winter said. “It is such a lot of work to find these things and pull them together.”
Her organization is hoping to find a permanent home in Riverhead, where it can mount exhibits and host talks and classes year-round. The African American Educational and Cultural Festival is tax-exempt nonprofit, established in 2002 but relatively dormant until a few years ago.
The group hosted its first African American history exhibit and celebration last year at the library.
The exhibit is on on view through Feb. 29. On Friday (the 28th) it will host a celebration of African American culture with music, spoken word, food and dance at the library from 6 to 10 p.m.
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