Riverhead Town is designating its first-ever heritage area, a designation intended to encourage an appreciation of the history of an area.
The town board on Tuesday will designate the Bell Town Heritage Area in Aquebogue, an area located north of Hubbard Avenue settled in the 1930s by four brothers from Powhatan County, Virginia.
The designation comes at the suggestion of the Riverhead Landmarks Preservation Commission.
Mansfield, Condry, Ezekiel and Melkiah Bell, inherited a farm in Powhatan, said Mansfield Bell’s granddaughter Marylin Banks Winter of Riverhead. They sold the land and used the money to move to Aquebogue, where they bought land first near the end of Edgar Avenue.
The Bell brothers later purchased 16 acres near the southern end of a Downs family farm in Aquebogue, where they laid out Bell Avenue, Hobson Drive and Zion Street, which stretch north from Hubbard Avenue, and created 32 residential lots that they sold to family and friends who had also moved north from Virginia, Wines said.
Wines has researched the history of the area using census records and newspapers in both Aquebogue and Powhatan. Many African-American Riverhead families trace their roots to Powhatan, Virginia, Wines said.
The Bell brothers moved to Aquebogue at a time of what’s known as the Great Migration, sometimes known as the Great Northward Migration or the Black Migration, Wines said. It was a time during which some 6 million African-Americans moved out of the rural southern United States to the northeast, midwest and west between 1916 and 1970.
“Preserving and documenting ‘Bell Town’ history is vital to the complete history of Riverhead,” Wines said.
The Bell brothers were farmers, baymen and entrepreneurs, Banks-Winter said. They were also singers and sang together in their own gospel band, as well as in other gospel bands. They grew up in church and learned to read because their father James, who taught himself how to read, was a deacon of his church and taught his sons how to read the Bible, she said.
Her grandfather Mansfield would go on to work as an accountant. He was also the youngest Sunday school superintendent in Long Island, Banks-Winter said. He was the first superintendent of Sunday school at First Baptist Church.
His daughter, Mary Alice Bell — Banks-Winter’s mother — was born in 1938. She became an ordained minister and is the longtime pastor of House of Praise Christian Revival Center in Riverhead.
The Rev. Mary Cooper lives in the house she grew up in on Hubbard Avenue. Standing on Hubbard Avenue this afternoon, under a street sign that bears her father’s surname, she points to houses where her uncles and other family members once lived. She recalled walking to the Aquebogue school as a child, before there was school bus service to her house.
Hubbard Avenue was very different back then, she said with a laugh. “There was a lot less traffic.”
Her mother’s maiden name was also Bell. Mansfield met Pattie Bell in New York. Pattie’s family was Native American.
“She was a Corchaug, part of the Montaukett tribe,” Banks-Winter said. Her grandfather’s family also had ties to Native American tribes in Virginia, she said.
“Pattie was a double Bell,” Banks-Winter quipped.
“Being one of the youngest grandchildren of Pattie and Mansfield, there’s a lot that I didn’t even know about my own family,” she said. She said she has taken up genealogical research in an effort to fill in the missing pieces of family history. She enjoys it and has learned a lot, Banks-Winter said.
She never knew her grandfather, who died at age 49 in 1959, years before she was born. But her grandmother Pattie, born in 1918, lived until 1994.
“It’s important not to let our history slip away,” she said. “So much is unwritten and we have to capture it while we can, by talking with people, probing their memories and sharing it with others.”
Councilman Frank Beyrodt, liaison to the landmarks committee, brought the resolution to the town board at its work session yesterday.
“A heritage designation is used by the state and neighboring towns. It’s an honorary title bestowed in recognition of special character to cherish the rich historic heritage of the area and the community,” Beyrodt said.
“So I was fascinated by the history but not surprised. You know we
have such a rich African-American community here,” Beyrodt said.
Councilman Tim Hubbard, who lives on Hubbard Avenue, said he grew up with and went to school with the Bell family. “I think it’s a wonderful idea,” he said.
The town plans to have a sign made to commemorate the heritage area.
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